DWN Book Club: ‘Orphan Train’ Explores Identity and the Things We Carry

By Kris Gallagher


Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, explores the parallel stories of Molly, a present-day teenager ricocheting through the foster home system, and Vivian, who was put aboard an orphan train bound for Minnesota in 1929.  Members of the DePaul Women’s Network discussed the spring book selection at the Loop and Lincoln Park campuses May 18 and 19.

Only two of the 12 women in the Loop, both history majors, had ever heard of orphan trains before reading the book. Between 1854 and 1929, about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children on the East Coast were put on trains heading west. People in rural areas would wait at the train depots and choose children, sometimes to adopt, but most often for labor.

One of those children was Vivian, now 91. She meets Molly when the teen agrees to help Vivian clean her attic to fulfill Molly’s community service hours. As the boxes are opened, their stories unfold.

The participants explored the many parallels in the book. Both Molly and Vivian struggle to shape their own identities as they are shuttled from household to household. Both avoided intimate relationships, sure that those they cared for would soon be torn away from them. Both were adept at letting go of their pasts to survive. At the same time, both carried talismans with them—a Claddagh necklace, cheap pewter charms, an old mustard coat–even though the memories they evoked were painful.

“They didn’t have people who were witnesses to their lives, so they used things,” one participant said. “The things were proofs that they survived.”

Both girls were born into dysfunctional families. They were put into the system of the time to get to more stable circumstances. They found themselves placed, again and again, in households that saw them as labor, not as children. Many of the adult women saw the teenage girls as competition for their husbands’ affection. Many of the men were a little too friendly, and one was a predator.

Vivian finally found a champion who helped her establish a quiet, stable life.  Would Vivian become that champion for Molly? Everyone in the Loop wanted to know what would happen next.  (We won’t find out, but read about a 99-year-old woman who just met the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1933.)

“I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is—a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.” – Vivian

Kris Gallagher is a member of DWN’s Marketing and Communication team and an internal consultant in University Marketing Communications.