Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Beneficial Tear Jerker

I promised myself I wouldn't cry. As I neared the last pages of Christina Baker Kline's novel, ORPHAN TRAIN, I could guess what had to happen. Any student of orphan train stories would bet that a popular author like Kline would craft a happy ending. I didn't know who or exactly what was coming round the bend, but I knew it had to be an upper. Sure enough, when I read the last pages, despite my firm resolve, I couldn't keep tears from rising.

Of course, I'm a sucker for orphan train books, having written one myself: MAIL-ORDER KID: AN ORPHAN TRAIN RIDER'S STORY. I know the kind of research and perhaps even the amount of work Kline had to do to pull off the orphan train elements in her book. She created excellent believable tales of Niamh, a main character, and the strange families who took her in. 

But Kline steps out of her time period now and then. Little stuff. For instance, she has Niamh, wearing a pigtail in 1929 but pigtails weren't invented until 1951. She has a minor character, Mr. Post, saying, "See you in a jiff" in 1930. "Jiff" wasn't coined until 1943. It came out of the war.

A more overt breech was a statement made by Mrs. Scatcherd, agent for the Children's Aid Society. She said to the children,"They call this an orphan train." But they did not, not in 1929. That phrase was invented by two writers, Dorothea G. Petrie and James Magnuson, in their 1978 novel, ORPHAN TRAIN. The book became a highly successful TV show, and after that, the phrase, "orphan train," entered our language.

Mrs. Scatcherd shocked me even more when she prayed to "Mary, Mother of God," asking for benevolence regarding the children. Mrs. Scatcherd, working for the Protestant Children's Aid Society, had to be a Protestant herself, and Protestants never pray to the Virgin Mary. Only Catholics.   

Picky, picky, picky. I know.

If I were to review format, I'd be picky there, too. William Morrow put together a good-looking book. The paper, in particular, is delicious. A generous weight and the ragged edges make the pages a delight to handle, but the margins are much too narrow. Cutting costs, probably.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this novel. Kline caught me and drew me through her story, although I sometimes had to backtrack to remember who some of her many minor characters were. At other times, I had to flip pages to determine which of her two main characters I was reading about. You'd think it would be easy to distinguish between a ninety-one year old and a seventeen-year-old. And it is--when they're together in the same chapter. But Kline's chapters move back and forth in time, so sometimes the older woman is a teenager, too. 

I subscribe to Google Alerts, and receive orphan train items, usually daily. When Kline's book came out, the number of orphan train alerts I received skyrocketed. Most featured Kline's novel. 

This makes me extremely happy. For years, those of us clustered around the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas, have said to one another, "If only there were some way to publicize the Orphan Train movement so it would be received as an established part of American history." Looks as though Kline is doing just that as reader after reader encounters the orphan train as they race through her novel and perhaps, if they're like me, cry a bit at the end.

Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train: A Novel 

Marilyn June Coffey, Mail-Order Kid 

National Orphan Train Complex at

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