When 17-year-old Molly enters a rather magnificent home overlooking the Maine coast, she has no idea what to expect. She’s there because she’s doing community service for trying to steal a library book.
Molly is a foster child and has been for much of her young life; she’s come to expect the worse. In this case, it will be helping a 90-year-old Vivian clean out the many boxes of memorabilia in the attic.
Vivian does not expect much either — in fact, she’s not all that certain she’s ready to give up the flotsam and jetsam in her attic that represents the totality of her life. And what a life it has been. Vivian, a new Irish immigrant, was orphaned at age 9 shortly after her family arrived in New York. As a consequence, she was put into the hands of the Children’s Aid Society, who then put her on the orphan train to the Midwest.
A little known chapter in America’s history, orphan trains brought young children from East Coast cities to families in the Midwest from 1854 to 1929. In some cases these orphans did indeed find loving homes, but just as often they were “adopted” by families who put the orphans to work as unpaid labor.
As their stories unfold, Vivian and Molly find common ground. It is through their trips to the attic to unpack boxes that we learn about Vivian’s past and see how — for both women — the present can help define it and redeem it.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2014.