Between 1854 and 1929, "orphan trains" transported more than two hundred thousand orphaned, abandoned and homeless children from the coastal cities of the eastern United States to the Midwest for "adoption". Many of these children were first generation Irish Catholic immigrants. Author Christina Baker Kline's fourth novel follows one of the children who travelled on one of these trains and reveals a part of American history that is really still relatively unknown. Like all of her novels the main themes of Orphan Train are cultural identity and family history, and how the two intertwine.
The founder of the orphan train program, Charles Loring Brace, had no idea where the trains were going. The train would pull into a station and the townspeople would scrutinize each child, usually hoping to find either a sturdy field worker or a calm potential cleaner. Boys and babies were chosen first. Children who were not chosen hopped back on the train hoping for better luck at the next station. If he or she was fortunate their new family would welcome them with open arms but the sad reality was that many were mistreated, and sibling groups were deliberately separated. Many were first-generation immigrants from Poland and Italy and spoke no English. Many children felt displaced and ran away. The main character in this novel, Vivian Daly, traveled from Ireland to America, ending up on an orphan train and settling in the Midwest. Her story is told from her adult perspective.
Christina Baker Kline's Inspiration for the novel came from her husband's grandfather, Frank Robertson, who was believed to have travelled on an orphan train. As she researched his history she came across original lists of orphans from foundling hospitals and notes from desperate mothers explaining why they were giving up their children, all in a collection at New York Public Library. As her own heritage is partly Irish, Baker Kline decided on an Irish protagonist for her novel.
Orphan Train was on the New York best seller list and is one of the most studied books in Book Clubs in the northeast. As this is where the author and her family make their home, she often attends informal book club meetings and joins in the discussion of her books.