Orphan Train Summary

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline


This book is the story of two women. One is a seventeen years old living in foster care; the other is a ninety-one year old widow, who in her childhood rode the Orphan Train.

Molly Ayer is living with Ralph and Dina in their home in Spruce Harbor, Maine. The year is 2011 and Molly is in trouble with the law. She tried to steal a book from the Spruce Harbor Public Library, an act which came with a punishment of fifty hours of community service. Her boyfriend, Jack, talked his mother into asking the woman she worked for, ninety-one year old Vivian, if Molly could help clean out her attic. Vivian is told Molly needs to receive the community service hours because of a school project she has to complete. After meeting Vivian, Molly is allowed to complete her hours working in the attic.

Molly has been in foster care since she was nine. Her father had been killed in a car crash soon after her eighth birthday causing her mother to go into a downward spiral which included drugs and alcohol. Molly was taken from her and placed into foster care. She has had twelve different homes in the years she has been in the foster care system. She has learned not to trust anyone besides herself and takes on a Goth persona to keep people away from her. Her experience with Dina and Ralph has not done anything to change her attitude. Ralph wants to help Molly, while Dina is too self-centered to care and only sees Molly as a burden she must endure. So when she meets Jack, it takes her some time to realize he likes her for who she is.

Molly is part Penobscot Indian and was raised on Indian Island. Her father was Penobscot Indian and believed in the traditions of his culture. She enjoys learning more about her culture in her history class. She also enjoys learning about Vivian's past as they spend hours going through the boxes in her attic.

After a fight with Dina, Molly is told to leave. She goes to the only person she feels will truly understand her situation, Vivian. She tells Vivian the whole truth about who she is and the real reason she has to complete the fifty hours. Vivian is taken aback by this news, but accepts Molly into her home.

As part of a school project, Molly asks Vivian to share her life's story. Vivian's story begins in New York City in 1929. Her family, which consisted of her parents, brothers and baby sister, had emigrated from Ireland in search of a better life. This was not to be, instead they lived in a small tenement apartment, while her father washed dishes in a bar. Her birth name was Niamh Power. One night the apartment caught fire; Niamh was told her father and brothers were dead and her mother and sister were in the hospital. She was taken in by the German couple who lived across the hall from their apartment. After a few days she was told her baby sister was dead and the couple had decided the best thing for Niamh would be to take her to the Children's Aid Society.

A few weeks later she and some of the other children were put on a train to take them to Minnesota in search of new homes. The train was called the Orphan Train. It was the last chance for these children to find a family to live with. On the train Niamh met Dutchy, a teenage boy who was living on the streets until he was taken to the Children's Aid Society. He and Niamh made a pact to always stay in touch.

Dutchy was taken by a farm family, and Niamh was taken by the Byrnes, who owned a sewing business. They renamed her Dorothy and treated her like a servant. After the stock market crash of 1929, they could no longer afford to keep her and she was returned to the Children's Aid Society.

The next family she was put with was the Grote family. They were very poor and the mother would not lift a hand to help with her five children. Instead, nine year old Dorothy was expected to care for the house and children. One night, the father attempted to rape Dorothy, but instead of his wife being angry at him, she threw Dorothy out into the cold winter night. Dorothy's teacher Miss Larsen took her in until another family could be found for her.

The Nielsen family took her in and names her Vivian, after their daughter who had died. She worked in their store and was eventually adopted by them. She lived a good life with them.

One night she by chance saw Dutchy in Minneapolis. They were surprised to see each other and eventually marry. Dutchy was killed during World War II and Vivian gave up their daughter after he was killed. She was visited by Dutchy's friend from the war, Jim Daly, and they eventually married. They ran the store together and made it a success. On a vacation to Maine they see and purchase the house she is currently living in.

Jim has died and now after meeting Molly and telling her the story of her life, Vivian is finally ready to try and find her daughter. Together Molly and Vivian find her daughter and arrange for her to come to Maine.

These two women, though of two different eras, come together though a common understanding of what it is like to be alone in the world. Molly begins to see how life's trials can often lead to triumphs, whether they are big or small. Vivian, with Molly's help is able to find the courage to connect with the child she gave up.



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