Friday, April 11, 2014

Orphan Train Book Discussion Guide

Book:       Orphan Train
Author:    Christina Baker Kline
Edition:    HarperCollins softcover, 2013

You can purchase Orphan Train online at Huge Bookstores.

Online Resources

I recommend reading Orphan Train Myths and Legal Reality for an in-depth look at the facts of the orphan trains.  Find the pieces that may be most relevant for your group.  Perhaps your group is in one of the east coast cities and may want to discuss the economic pressures that left children neglected in Boston or New York.  Or you may want to focus on the towns where the placements were made or even focus on the railroad as a placement tool for orphaned children.

The Washington Post also has a comprehensive article on the orphan trains.
The National Orphan Train Complex has compiled a number of stories of the children who rode the trains to be placed in foster care.  They also have a museum and research center.

Twenty-one photos of orphan train riders have been compiled on the CBS News Website of orphan train riders.  One or more of them may trigger a discussion for your group. 

Major Characters

Characters in Niamh’s childhood

Vivian Daly, known as Niamh (pronoucned ‘Neev’) as a child, an orphan train rider in 1929; in 2011, a 91-year old woman in Spruce Harbor Maine 
Maisie, Vivian’s younger sister 
Mrs. Scatcherd and Mr. Curran, chaperones for Niamh’s train ride
Carmine, baby Niamh cares for on her orphan train ride
Hans, nickname Dutchy, fellow orphan on Niamh’s train and later her husband
Mr. and Mrs. Byrne, women’s clothiers and first foster family for Niamh, whom they rename Dorothy
Fanny, senior employee of the Byrnes
Mr. Sorenson, local agent of Children’s Aid Society
Mr. and Mrs. Grote, foster parents in Niamh’s second home in Minnesota
Miss Larsen, Niamh’s school teacher in Minnesota
Mrs. Murphy, Landlady at Miss Larsen’s boarding house
Mr. and Mrs. Nielsen, general store owners and Niamh’s third and final foster family where she takes the name Vivian

Characters in Spruce Harbor Maine

Molly, 17-year old Penobscot Indian girl in foster care
Dina, Molly’s foster mother
Ralph, Molly’s foster father
Jack, Molly’s boyfriend
Terry, Jack’s mother and caretaker for Vivian
Lori, Molly’s social worker
Mr. Reed, Molly’s American History teacher

Discussion Topics

The following topics are just a beginning to form a conversation around Orphan Train.  Your group may want to focus more on the story in the novel or more on the historical context or ties to the lives of your group members.  Let your group channel the discussion in ways meaningful to your members.  

Writing Style

The book alternates between Vivian’s childhood as an orphan and Molly and Vivian’s relationship 80-plus years later in Spruce Harbor, Maine.  Vivian’s childhood chapters are all written in the first person, while the Spruce Harbor chapters are written in the third person.  

Often a first person narrative is more intimate and works well for a particularly unconventional or well-defined character.  A first person narrative also relies exclusively on the narrator’s perspective.  Third person can be more immediate and allows the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters to be expressed.   However, the Spruce Harbor chapters focus on Molly’s thoughts.

Why do you think the author made this narrative change?  Does one narrative form draw you into the story more completely?  How does memory and the gaps or perspective of memory parallel a first person narrative and even make a first person narrative more believable than a third person account?  Did you find the first person helped to create a more intimate feeling about an event that occurred long ago or that the third person kept the novel rooted in the present?  Did the change in narrative help you keep the two time periods distinct or detract from your reading as you moved from past to present?


Vivian’s boxes in her attic, her claddagh cross necklace from her grandmother, Molly’s nose ring and hair dye are just a few of the symbols the author uses to weave together the development of the characters and the past and the present.   

As Vivian and Molly begin unpacking boxes, they are also unpacking Vivian’s memory of her childhood.  In the end, Molly says they are 
“organizing things.  So they’ll be easier to find.” page 173.
As they organize the boxes, so they are organizing Vivian’s memories, memories she hasn’t shared with anyone before.  Molly tells Jack,
“But I think what she really wanted was to see what was in those boxes one last time.  And remember those parts of her life.” Page 256
The cross serves as a symbol for Niamh’s connection to her birth family.  Mrs. Murphy notices her ‘guarding’ it when they are first introduced, page 163.  While living with the Neilsen’s Niamh realizes that all she has left from her family is the Irish cross from her grandmother. 
"And though I rarely take the claddagh off, as I get older I can’t escape the realization that the only remaining part of my blood family comes from a woman who pushed her only son and his family out to sea in a boat, knowing full well she’d probably never see them again,” page 199. 
Where do you see her necklace as a symbol for connection to family?

Molly’s character uses the nose ring and her hair dye as two of the symbols to represent Molly’s separation from a family life.  As Molly becomes more connected with Vivian and willing to share her own story, her social worker, Lori, notices that 
“First the nose ring disappears.  Now you’ve lost the skunk stripe.” page 261.
Books are another repeated symbol.  What do books symbolize in both Molly’s and Niamh’s lives?  Which symbols were most memorable to you?  What symbols have been touch points in your own life? 

Hidden Commonalities

Despite Molly’s and Vivian’s significant differences as children in a foster care system of their time period, their common bond as orphans draws them closer.  Both Molly’s and Vivian’s fathers died while they were children and both of their mothers were institutionalized. Near the close of the novel, 
“When Vivian describes how it felt to be at the mercy of strangers, Molly nods.  She knows full well what it’s like to tamp down your natural inclinations, to force a smile when you feel numb.  After a while you don’t know what your own need are anymore.” page 170.  
Yet before Molly and Vivian share Vivian’s past with Terry and Jack, Jack and his mother find it exceedingly difficult to believe that two such different people could have anything in common.  
Similarly, Dutchy and Niamh are bound 
“laughing— at the absurdity of our shared experience,” page 229.
Where else in the novel do common experiences create a bond?

Where have bonds been formed in your life with individuals who appear so different on the outside, but with whom you share a similar experience?


The epigraph is from Women of the Dawn by Bunny McBride:
“In portaging from one river to another, Wabanakis had to carry their canoes and all other possessions.  Everyone knew the value of traveling light and understood that it required leaving some things behind.  Nothing encumbered movement more than fear, which was often the most difficult burden to surrender.”
The theme of portaging is in the school project Molly is assigned in her history class.   The students need to conduct an interview with a relative or friend.
“...about their own portages, the moments in their lives when they’ve had to take a journey, literal or metaphorical… The questions on the assignment sheet are: 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?” page 131
Where do you see each of these characters portaging?  What does each choose to leave behind and what does each chose to bring along with her both literally and figuratively?  When portaging as a group, the group shares the movement of the belongings from one waterway to the next.  Who is part of Molly’s and Niamh’s groups as they portage?  When are they on their own?  In what instances does each leave behind her fear?

Have you ever portaged a canoe?  How did it feel to reach shore and pack up for the portage?  How did it feel to reach the next body of water?  Where and when have you figuratively portaged in your life?  What did you bring with you and why?  What did you leave behind and when did it feel liberating to leave something behind?  When have you regretted what you left behind?


The names of the two main characters play a central role in the novel.  

Niamh’s name is changed several times, first with the Byrnes, 
“For goodness sake Raymond, it doesn’t matter what she thinks… Dorothy is our choice and Dorothy she will be.” page 72.  
Then when Niamh starts school in Minnesota, Niamh responds to her teacher’s roll call saying, 
“I used to be Niamh.  Sometimes I forget what my name is.” page 123.  
She goes back to using Niamh and is returned to being called Dorothy before the Nielsens ask her to take the name of their daughter, Vivian, who died of diphtheria. 

Molly herself was named for Molly Molasses, page 133, a famous Penobscot Indian.  

When Vivian searches on the web for Carmine, and finds out a record of his life Molly comments, 
“They didn’t change his name?”
How does changing names affect who Niamh is and who she becomes?  How does her name change affect how others know her?  How is Molly’s name significant in her journey?

How do names influence who we are?  Have you changed your name or had your name changed for you?  What were the positive and negative aspects of changing your name?

Orphan Trains in Historical Context

The Washington Post article  summarizes the explosion of orphans in larges east coast cities in the 19th century.   Orphaned and abandoned children were living and working on the streets.  “In 1850, when New York City’s population was 500,000, an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 homeless children lived in the streets or were warehoused in more than two dozen orphanages.”

In her article Orphan Train Myths and Legal Reality, Rebecca Trammell posits that “orphan trains were a detriment to the children the movement sought to protect. The forced relocation of 200,000 children, primarily from vulnerable immigrant families, worked against proper recognition of the rights of a child by substituting a “quick fix” for increased immigration and broader economic troubles.”

Acording to Trammell, Orphan trains declined as the need for farm labor decreased, midwest states decried being a dumping ground for dependents from other states and new laws and new support structures were put in place for families and orphaned children,   In her article, Trammell states that the orphan trains stopped running in 1929, the year Niamh boards her train for Minnesota.

What did you know about the orphan trains before reading this book?   How well do you think the novel portrays the historical reality of orphan trains?


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and wept when it ended something that hasn't happened to me I a long time. I loved the switching back and forth between narratives. I'm not sure why because usually I find myself yelling at the author why can't you just tell the story in the order it took place?
    I think the parallel's between Vivian and Molly are fascinating as is the idea that these two should have come together so serendipitously. Both stories are so rich and full of strife and heart break, good times and bad that I couldn't put the book down.
    I feel our students could relate to either story given the breadth of the two characters experiences. the topics of race, abandonment, alcoholism, sexual abuse, physical abuse, the feeling of not belonging or fitting in,-wanting to fit in.. are all feeling our kids can relate to.( feel free to grammatically correct that last sentence)
    To me this book is such a rich description of life and it's many ups and downs, as well as a history lesson , that it should be a must read. I don't think I've ever said that before. Clearly, I LOVED THE BOOK.

  2. It took me one month to read this book, from all the interruptions. When I sat down and read the book, I felt heartbroken for Molly, but more for Vivian. She lost her childhood from one of her foster parents. A kind person helped her and this led her to land with good people. I liked the part where she didn't want to go out with her friends and was convinced to go out. Not knowing that she would meet up with Dutchy, who once said he would look for her if they were split up as kids. They saw each other and stayed together, got married. Soon after that he was drafted, he left not knowing Vivian was pregnant. When she got the news that Dutchy had passed, I think she snapped. She didn't care for the baby and gave it up. She was so distraught that she didn't care about anything. She lost someone who was so dear to her, she was incoherent. Even though she married someone else, she never forgot Dutchy. When Molly came into her life, Vivian was a widow. Who just sat in front of the window just staring at the trees. Molly was there because she needed to do some community time for stealing a book. She was there to help Vivian sort out her boxes and organize things. Molly helped Vivian go down through memory lane opening all the boxes. She not only kept them, she transferred her things to newer boxes with labels in alphabetical order and dated year. They seemed to make a connection, and so Molly had suggested that she invest in a laptop so she can find family. Molly had inquired about Vivian's sister, but she thought she was dead. Molly took it upon herself to look for Vivian's sister Maisie who apparently did not pass away when they were younger. But, she had passed away a few years before. She also found the little boy named Carmine, whom she had to take care of while on the Orphan Train. She found out that they kept his name, and he was married with a family. He too past away. But, just the thought of knowing he was alive mad Vivian really happy. Molly had asked Vivian about her daughter. She thought it would be good to get in contact with her, and explain to her why she did what she did so she could be a part of her. Vivian thought she might not want to meet her, for giving her up. And, so Molly contacts Vivian's daughter and sets up an appointment so they could meet. The story ends when Vivian's daughter comes to her house and they meet. I was so happy for her, for Vivian had suffered so much in her life. Meeting Molly was the gift that was sent from GOD to bring joy to Vivian's life. It was the best book I had ever read, very heart moving.


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