Facilitator Kay DeRousse noted that, for the second time in two months, The Villages Bookworm Club read a novel, “Orphan Train,” in which the author chose to tell the story using two narrators. Previously, the club had read “The Kitchen House,” a story about life in an antebellum Virginia plantation, which utilized the same technique.
Telling the tale in “Orphan Train” are Molly and Vivian. Molly is a 17-year-old Penobscot Indian in foster care. Vivian is a 91-year-old woman with many secrets. Molly is assigned to do community service by helping Vivian clean out her attic. As they sort through her possessions, Vivian’s memories begin to flood back and she divulges those secrets to Molly.
We travel between Maine in 2011 and Minnesota in the 1930s. Vivian, only 9 years old in 1929 and orphaned in New York City, is placed on a train with dozens of other orphans destined to be placed in foster homes somewhere in the Midwest. As we learn about this little-known period of American history, our hearts ache for Vivian’s struggle to survive. Molly discovers she has the ability to help Vivian find the answers to questions that have haunted her life.
For 75 years, more than 200,000 children, most of whom were Irish immigrants, were transported on orphan trains to be placed in foster homes around the Midwest to endure what amounted to indentured servitude for a majority of children. Club members were quick to draw a parallel between the tens of thousands of unescorted minors now entering the U.S. illegally.
It was surprising to learn that a number of the club members had family or friends with direct experience with the orphan trains. Some family members were placed in good homes with loving families; others were subjected to terrible hardships, much like co-narrator Vivian.
The group was heartened by members’ stories of their own experiences in foster care or coping after the loss of a parent at an early age.
Members said they just couldn’t put the book down and were unanimous in their praise. In fact, the book prompted some to do more research about orphan trains. A discussion of the ending was not as favorable. A number of members were disappointed in the conclusion. They said they wanted more, but noted that perhaps this was intentional, paving the way for a second book. However, the group considered this novel a gem and would highly recommend it.