Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013) is a woven story of two protagonists, 17-year-old Molly who is a Penobscot Indian in foster care, and Vivian, a 91-year-old widow who was orphaned at age 9 and sent to the Midwest through the Children’s Aid Society via an “orphan train.” It’s also a story about the things we take with us, the things we leave behind and the ghosts that walk along beside us—the way the memories of people who’ve gone from our lives remain etched in who we are.
Young readers of Orphan Train learn to understand these unlikely friends through their stories. Vivian grew up Irish during a time period when Irish-Americans were despised. She survived negligence and abuse, lived through the Great Depression and every war since World War II. She’s seen people come and go, and learned early on to be wary of others—a part of her background that allows her to empathize with young Molly, whose experiences in the foster care system echo her own.
In the classroom, this book can be used to illustrate discrimination against the Irish in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, and to reveal the complexity of a period of midcentury history that is often overlooked. The book can also be used to teach about why understanding the past is relevant—and necessary—to understanding the present.
This engaging book can be used in several different ways in either language arts or social studies classrooms. Students could be asked to:
- Analyze the dynamics of the relationship that develops between Molly and Vivian, and determine if this is a relationship of tolerance, a grandmother-granddaughter relationship, a mentorship or something else. Ask students to focus on the way understanding develops between Vivian and Molly and the role of story telling in their relationship.
- Identify parallels between the story Vivian tells and other historical American events, such as the effects of the Great Depression or World War II on the lives of average Americans.
- Research the ways in which the Irish, or other minorities, were or are discriminated against, and identify tropes in this discrimination. Ask students to consider ongoing discriminatory practices against American Indians or to consider the narratives about “welfare queens” that are commonly used to discredit poor people.
- Conduct their own oral history projects similar to the one Molly is asked to do (for example, her assignment included the questions: What did you choose to bring with you to the next place? What did you leave behind? What insights did you gain about what’s important?).
- Research the “orphan trains,” and use this research to build an understanding of how the definition of “childhood” has evolved through laws and regulations meant to protect children. Ask students to consider whether the concept of childhood applies equally to all children and to point to examples of instances where it does not.
Orphan Train is appropriate for high school students (although they should be warned it contains a sexual assault scene). It can be used to illuminate not only an underdocumented portion of history but also offer insight into Irish immigration in the early part of the 20th century. Additionally, it offers two strong female protagonists who forge their own ways despite the odds stacked against them. Orphan Train is ripe with opportunities for discussion, further research and developing the complex thinking necessary to draw historical parallels.
Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.