Since its publication last year, Christina Baker Kline’s fifth novel, Orphan Train, which illuminated a little-discussed moment in American history, has fascinated readers. Between 1854 and 1929, trains carried thousands of abandoned children from the East Coast to farmlands in the Midwest. Many were adopted by new families, while others found themselves entering into indentured servitude. Orphan Train intertwines the story of one of these children—Vivian Daly—with that of Molly, a contemporary young woman who has spent her youth in and out of foster care. As a friendship between the two women forms, history is revealed and healing can begin.
The orphan trains ran for many years, but not much has been written about them (at least, not for adults). Why do you think that is?
I think the story has taken a long time to come out, and for people to wrap their heads around what exactly happened and how many people were on these trains, how they got there. The train riders themselves, many of them kept quiet about what happened to them and never told anyone. A lot of people died before relatives even could find out.
Most history is not the history of dispossessed children or the poor. The truth is, this was happening and no one was really writing about it, partly because that wasn’t what was really being written about. It’s only in the 20th century really that the concept of childhood—even of teenage-hood—came into being. Journalists and reporters started uncovering what was happening to poor people in all different kinds of ways. All of this ferment around immigration—and also about Native Americans—was not happening then in the same way. This is a time that people are trying to excavate and figure out what constitutes American history. Even the concept of Columbus Day . . . it feels like a vestige, an evolutionary webbed foot.
Frankly, this story is shocking to us with our 21st-century brains, but it was not shocking in 1920, the idea of sending children to better homes to work, because they were working already.
“The story has been hidden in plain sight in American history. . . . It’s obviously hit a nerve.”
The modern-day storyline shows how things haven’t changed all that much for orphans since the time of trains.
I did a presentation to a room full of social workers, 60 social workers, and one of them said, “We don’t send children on trains anymore, but we do send them all over the state without their knowledge of where they’re going, into homes where they have no idea where it is, to communities they’ve never been in, and the transition is not that different.” The feelings that children have today in the foster care system, even though there are checks and balances in place now, are the same feelings.
This book became a huge word-of-mouth hit since it was published last year. In fact, in reverse of the usual order, it went from paperback original to hardcover. Why do you think that is?
I think that the story has been hidden in plain sight in American history. I think that a lot of people are intrigued by that, that we don’t know about this. I think that the juxtaposition of the contemporary story of a troubled girl . . . to the orphan train-rider a hundred years ago gives it immediacy. You’re not just looking at some sepia-tinted story of a girl from long ago. Immediately you’re faced with what it feels like today to be a child who’s displaced. That creates a lot of room for conversation.
I didn’t do it in a calculated way, thinking that would happen. My publisher had no idea. My agent had no idea. Nobody expected this, for there to be 1.5 million copies in print in 25 countries. It’s obviously hit a nerve.
What are you working on next? Is there another moment in history you’d like to illuminate in this way?
I’m not really a historical novelist. My next novel is inspired by a painting, “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth, and it’s about the girl, the woman in the painting. If you consider the mid-20th century historical, I suppose it is historical fiction, but it’s really a whole different kind of narrative and story.
After seeing how many readers showed up for your session, do you have a fun fan story to share?
What’s most fun for me is when people have gone on adventures with their own families after reading my book. This old guy came up to me at one event—I mean, I’ve had a number of these—but this particular guy, his daughter made him read it. . . . His brother was taken onto the train, and he was adopted. It all came back when he was reading the book. He’d never done anything to try to find out what happened, but he found his brother in California! Not only that, but they’re both members of the Lions Club, and they were a featured story on the cover of the Lions Club magazine a couple of months ago! . . . It was so inspiring and interesting to hear about how the book propelled him to find out about his past. I love hearing those stories.