Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Book Review: Orphan Train

I enjoyed reading Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

The book intertwines the stories of two unwanted teenagers- one in the 1920s and 1930s and the other now.  (Reminded me of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.)  When the modern-day teenager started sleuthing, I knew I had to tell blog readers about this great genealogical novel.

The teenager of the 1920s and 1930s, Niamh, immigrated in 1927 to New York City from Kinvara, County Galway, Ireland with her parents and siblings.  In 1929 a fire in their squalid tenement killed her father and brothers.  With no one to care for her, Niamh was placed on a train by the Children's Aid Society and sent West in search of a family to take her in.

Such a system really existed.  Children did not have to be orphans to be sent away.  Their parents could be in prison or an asylum; homeless; or poor.  The program lasted from 1853 until 1930, when the Great Depression made placement unlikely.

Rules were lax about taking in such children.  Most children became indentured servants on farms.  Niamh's experiences were terrible and caused her to feel no attachment to anyone or thing.  She ended up in Minnesota.  Her name was changed to Dorothy, easier to pronounce than the Irish Niamh, and later to Vivian, to replace a couple's deceased daughter of the same name.

By chance, Vivian reunited with a fellow train rider, Hans "Dutchy," renamed Luke, and married him.  I thought the book would have a fairy tale ending, but Vivian's misfortunes continued.  Luke was drafted in 1943 to fight in World War II.  Shortly after his departure, Vivian discovered she was pregnant.  Luke was killed and Vivian gave her baby girl up for adoption.

"I sob uncontrollably for all that I've lost- the love of my life, my family, a future I'd dared to envision.  And in that moment I make a decision.  I can't go through this again.  I can't give myself to someone so completely only to lose them. . .  Then I do it.  I give her away."

The modern-day teenager, Molly, performed the genealogy research that I was silently screaming for.  Molly found the ship record of Niamh and her family arriving at Ellis Island.  Molly located a newspaper article about the fire that killed Niamh's father and brothers.  Niamh's sister, Maisie, survived the fire.  She was adopted by neighbors, who had lied to young Niamh that Maisie had perished in the fire.  Maisie, renamed Margaret, married and had a family of her own- but died five months before Molly searched.  Molly presented Niamh/Vivian with a picture of Maisie- a face she had not seen for over eighty years.

"[Molly] feels a vertiginous thrill, as if fictional characters have suddenly sprung to life."

This is how I feel when I find documentation of a family story.

Molly discovered that over 200,000 children rode on trains similar to Niamh's journey and that there are databases of names and possibilities to reconnect with lost family.

Molly also sought out an online adoption registry.  Vivian's daughter had submitted her information years earlier.  Vivian submitted her own information to confirm the match.  The book ends with the daughter, now in her 60s, arriving to meet Vivian.

As you research a family, if a child goes missing when the family came upon hard times, you may wish to consider researching orphan train records.  The same is true on the other side.  If a child appears with a family as a farm hand or domestic, you may want to consider that the child arrived on an orphan train.

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