When it comes to books I don’t care for, I generally live by “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. I generally just prefer to tell you about books I do like, and skip over the rest. However, I recently read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, and I decided to share my very mixed feelings about it.
Heads up: this book has a low to moderate amount of language in it. I actually began listening to it on audio with my kids in the car. I got lulled into the security of Niamh’s rated G story line, but quickly shut it off when it became apparent that Molly’s vocabulary was not fit for the under 12 crowd. Also, about half way through the book there is a violent occurrence that will be upsetting to some readers. It’s an important part of the story, and not overly graphic, but if you’re sensitive, do some research about the plot before reading the book.
Orphan Train follows two story lines. In 2011, Molly Ayer is a teen who has been in the foster care system most of her life. Irish-born Niamh (pronounced Neeve), comes to America with her family via Ellis Island in the early 1900’s. Niamh’s family is killed in a fire, and she is put on an orphan train headed west, in search of people who will take her in.
It’s sobering how alone Niamh is in her new life. She’s completely at the mercy of the adults who take her in, and has to fend for herself entirely. She has some real obstacles, but through it all, she tries to keep a positive outlook on life.
Molly’s story isn’t the main focus of the book, but it’s made clear that she has had a difficult and troubled life. She presents a tough exterior to the world, dying her hair black with white streaks, and sporting multiple piercings and a tattoo. However, her tough facade hides her intelligence and sensitivity. She gets in trouble, and is faced with community service in the form of helping an elderly lady clean out her attic, which ends up being a life changing experience.
At this point, I was three-fourths of the way through the book, and thoroughly enjoying it. However, the last fourth of the book was a huge disappointment for me. The reviews for this book are largely positive, and as it’s also a New York Times Best Seller, I seem to be in the minority with my opinion. No worries, there are no spoilers ahead.
Niamh gets to be a teen/young adult, and finally finds happiness and security. However, when faced with yet another tragedy, she consciously decides to put up a wall around herself. To avoid further pain and hurt, she chooses to avoid close relationships and love. She instead focuses on work. Niamh goes on to have an okay life, but it pales in comparison to the life she was capable of having at one point in the book. (Some of this is in her control, and some isn’t).
The end of the book brings resolution for all the characters. A major theme is that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes one goes through hardship in order to get to a positive place. I understand that theme in Molly’s life. She’s about to turn 18, and is at the crossroads of major life decisions. None of the tragedy in her life (besides some of her rebellious teenage antics) is a result of her actions. As a young child, she is the victim of circumstances beyond her control. She finally realizes that she can rise above the misfortune, and go on to achieve her dreams.
However, this theme doesn’t match up with Niamh’s life. Niamh makes a decision that changes her life, and has a ripple effect to many other people as well. She blocks out positive aspects of her life. She even takes joy from someone close to her, because she is afraid of being hurt.
Although I did enjoy most of this book, I was very frustrated by the ending. I hate to be so vague, but I also don’t want to give away too many details. If you’ve read Orphan Train, let me know what you thought of it in the comments!