Orphan Train is a gripping story of friendship and second chances from Christina Baker Kline, author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be.
Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse...
As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.
Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.
Author Roxana Robinson (Sparta, Cost) sat down to talk to Christina about Orphan Train, which goes on sale.
RR: Could you talk about how this book started –
what gave you the idea for it?
CBK: About a decade ago,
visiting my in-laws in North Dakota, I came across a nonfiction book printed by
the Fort Seward Historical Society called Century
of Stories, 1883-1983: Jamestown and Stutsman County. In it was an article titled “They called it
‘Orphan Train’ – and it proved there was a home for many children on
prairie.” My husband’s grandfather,
Frank Robertson, and his siblings featured prominently in the story. This was news to me – I’d never heard of the
orphan trains. In the course of
researching this family lore I found out that though orphan trains did, in
fact, stop in Jamestown, N.D., and orphans from those trains were adopted
there, the Robertson clan came from Missouri.
But my interest was piqued, and I knew I wanted to learn more about this
little-known period in American history.
RR: What was it that was most compelling to you
about the idea of an orphan train?
CBK: I think I was drawn to the
orphan train story in part because two of my own grandparents were orphans who
spoke little about their early lives. As a novelist I’ve always been fascinated
with how people tell the stories of their lives and what those stories reveal –
intentionally or not – about who they are.
I’m intrigued by the spaces between words, the silences that conceal
long-kept secrets, the elisions that belie surface appearance.
My own background is partly
Irish, and so I decided that I wanted to write about an Irish girl who has kept
silent about the circumstances that led her to the orphan train. I wanted to write about how traumatic events
beyond our control can shape and define our lives. “People who cross the threshold between the
known world and that place where the impossible does happen discover the
problem of how to convey that experience,” Kathryn Harrison writes. Over the course of this novel my central
character, Vivian, moves from shame about her past to acceptance, eventually
coming to terms with what she’s been through.
In the process she learns about the regenerative power of claiming – and
telling – her own life story.
Like my four previous novels, Orphan
Train wrestles with questions of cultural identity and family history. But I knew right away that this was a bigger
story and would require extensive research. The vast canvas appealed to me
immensely. I was eager to broaden my
RR: Did you go to the Midwest to see any
of the sites you describe here?
CBK: I’ve been going to
Minnesota and North Dakota for decades.
I know Minneapolis fairly well and feel a great affinity for the
region. My husband’s family has a lake
home near Park Rapids, MN, and I’ve spent a lot of time there. Several of the small towns I describe in this
novel are invented, as is Spruce Harbor, Maine, the setting for the present-day
story. (Spruce Harbor is also the
setting for another of my novels, The Way
Life Should Be.) Planting an
imaginary town in a real landscape gives me freedom as a writer to invent as I
RR: What sort of research did you do for the
book, and did you interview people who were connected to the Train? What was
CBK: After finding articles
online from the New York Times and other newspapers, I read hundreds of
first-person testimonials from train riders, orphan-train reunion groups, and
historical archives. That research led
me to The New York Public Library, where I found a trove of original contemporaneous
materials. I devoured nonfiction
histories, children’s novels and picture books, and conducted research at the
New York Tenement Museum and Ellis Island.
I also traveled to Galway County in Ireland to research my character’s
In the course of writing this book I attended train riders’ reunions
in New York and Minnesota and interviewed train riders and their
descendants. There aren’t many train
riders left; those who remain are all over 90 years old. I was stuck by how eager
they were to tell their stories, to each other and to me. In talking to them and reading their oral
histories, I found that they tended not to dwell on the considerable hardships
they’d faced; instead, they focused on how grateful they were for their children
and grandchildren and communities – for lives that wouldn’t have been possible
if they hadn’t been on those trains. I
realized that in fiction I could do something that is difficult to do in real
life: I could dwell on the stark details
of the experience without needing to create a narrative of redemption.
RR: What was the most surprising thing that came
out of the research – what was it that you hadn’t expected?
For decades, many train riders believed that the train they rode on
was the only one. They didn’t know that
they were part of a massive 75-year social experiment. It wasn’t until their own children and
grandchildren got involved and started asking questions –there are more than
two million descendants, according to some estimates – that they met other
train riders and began sharing their stories.
RR: You use two teenage girls as characters, and
though they are widely separated by time and circumstances, they share some
things. Could you talk about that?
When you write novels you go on instinct much of the
time. As I began writing about Molly, a
17-year-old Penobscot Indian foster child, believe it or not I didn’t
immediately notice parallels to Vivian, a wealthy 91-year-old widow. But as I
wrote my way into the narrative I could see that in addition to some biographical
parallels – both characters have dead fathers and institutionalized mothers;
both were passed from home to home and encountered prejudice because of
cultural stereotypes; both held onto talismanic keepsakes from family members –
they are psychologically similar. For
both of them, change has been a defining principle; from a young age, they had
to learn to adapt, to inhabit new identities.
They’ve spent much of their lives minimizing risk, avoiding complicated
entanglements, and keeping silent about the past. It’s not until Vivian – in
answer to Molly’s pointed questions – begins to face the truth about what
happened long ago that both of them have the courage to make changes in their
RR: Can you talk about your own feelings of
connection to Maine, a place you use often in your work?
Though both of my parents are Southern, we moved to Maine when I was
six years old and never looked back. I’m
not naïve enough to consider myself a Mainer – though two of my younger sisters
might be able to, having been born in state (Mainers tend to be inconsistent on
this subject) – but I did spend my formative years in Bangor, a mid-Maine town
of 35,000 on the Penobscot River. About
a decade ago my parents retired to Bass Harbor, a tiny coastal village on Mount
Desert Island. My three sisters have
houses within two miles of my parents’, and one lives there with her family
year-round. I am lucky enough to spend
summers and other vacations on MDI; my three boys consider it their
homeland. For me, it’s as simple as
this: Maine is part of who I am.
RR: Can you talk about the presence of time in
this book, the way you use it to define and expand?
present-day story in Orphan Train
unfolds over several months and the historical section spans 23 years, from 1929
to 1943. It took some time to figure out how to balance the sections so that
they complemented and enhanced each other.
when I’m reading novels with separate storylines, I find that I prefer one over
the other and am impatient to return to the one I like. I tried to avoid this with Orphan Train by weaving the stories
together so that they contained echoes of and references to each other – that,
for example, Vivian’s grandmother would give her a Claddagh necklace in one
section, and Molly would comment on the necklace in the present-day story pages
later. But I didn’t want the references
to be too literal or
overt. It was
complicated! I also wanted the
historical section to end abruptly with a surprising
give away here), and for the present-day story to pick up where it left off,
laying bare the mechanics of the storytelling:
that Vivian is telling Molly her story in the present day. Sometimes I gave myself a headache trying to
figure out how it all fit together. More
than once, my editor, thank goodness, came in and saved the day.