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 scope.
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 go.
RR: What sort of research did you do for the book, and did you interview people who were connected to the Train? What was that like?
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 Irish background.
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 lives.
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?
The 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 revelation (which I won’t 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.