The historical part of the story of Orphan Train is actually inspired by true events. There really was a train in the 1920's that took orphaned children from the Children's Aid Society in New York City out to the Midwest in a quest to find families to place them in. Some of these children are still alive today. However, I don't think that the characters of Molly and Vivian are based on any real life people.
Molly Ayer has spent the last nine years bouncing among over a dozen different foster homes. She's developed a tough shell and a hard edge to protect herself from the many ways both the adults in her life and the system has let her down. She's learned that it's just easier to expect the worst rather than be bitterly disappointed or heartbroken. And when people, both adults and teenagers, first meet Molly they judge her on appearances and the fact that she's a foster child--and they expect the worst from her.
Vivian Daly, a nonagenarian, agrees to let Molly work off her community service hours by organizing the contents of Vivian's attic. A woman who is no stranger to heartache, Vivian has more in common with Molly than either woman initially realizes. As Molly works on the attic with Vivian, Vivian and Molly open up to each other about the experiences they've had to survive during their respective childhoods and a bond is forged between them over the many hours spent organizing the attic.
In alternating chapters of lyrical writing that flip between present day Maine and Vivian's formative years ranging form 1929 to 1943, we learn about Vivian's childhood. Born into poverty to parents ill suited to care for her and her siblings and raised in a family in which dysfunction becomes the norm, Vivian's childhood is one string of harrowing heartbreaks and tragedies. After Vivian's family emigrates from Ireland to New York City, an apartment fire kills her father and siblings and her mother, unable to cope with the grief, is institutionalized. Vivian, for all intents and purposes an orphan, is sent to the local Children's Aid Society where social workers care for orphaned children. Soon the social workers take a group of orphaned children ranging in age from infant to nine years old on a train bound for the Midwest. Commonly called an orphan train, it's often the children's last chance at being adopted into a family. But for orphans as old as Vivian, finding a family is rare and a difficult and sometimes treacherous endeavor. In her first few years in the Midwest, Vivian is transferred through a series of three different homes--each successively worse than the one before. Finally she is matched with a family who will provide her a safe place to live--although she will never view them as 'her people.'
While I was reading this book, I felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop for Molly, but it never did. The drama in that part of the story stayed on a low simmer throughout the book and Molly's story in that respect wasn't very well developed. Then I got to the end of the book, and I thought, that's it? In some respects I think it was a bit of a non-ending, and I was left with the feeling that this is a book in which nothing really happens. I've read and reviewed books on this blog that have given me a similar feeling of well, what was the point because nothing happened. In the end I think the historical element of the orphan train was interesting and the writing of the chapters told from Vivian's perspective is lyrical, matter of fact and at times heartbreaking. If you enjoy reading historical fiction, you will enjoy this book.
--Reviewed by Ms. Angie