Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Reviewed by Ellen


Content Ratings based on a 0-5 scale where
0 = no objectionable content and
5 = an excessive or disturbing level of content

Guide to Rating System






Ratings Explanation

Language:  Every common swear word used at least once; the f-word used several times; profanity and crudity.

Violence:  A man shakes his young baby to make it stop crying. A farmer slaps an orphan boy around; another orphan boy talks about being abused by foster families. A young girl is molested by her foster father–see “Adult Themes”.  (Other violence in this book is minimal, but because rape and child molestation are classified as violent crimes, I’ve given it a ‘3’ rating.)

Sexual Content:  Jack’s father got his mother pregnant. Molly got a tattoo when she was 16 for “free” in exchange for her virginity. Jack and Molly engage in heavy petting in his car (he feels under her shirt; she is on top of him). Molly jokes about having to delete naked photos on facebook. Lillian and her boyfriend, explaining why they were late, say they were “waylaid” and laugh (sexual innuendo implied).

Adult Themes:  Molly steals a library book and is sent to juvenile detention. When her father died, her mother went into an emotional tailspin resulting in Molly entering foster care. Niamh’s father is an alcoholic. Her family dies in a fire. Other drug references are mentioned, including someone joking about shutting down a meth lab. Molly’s foster mother frequently makes racist comments, and says Jack’s mother got “knocked up by a Mexican scrub”. She denigrates Molly’s Native American status. Mild alcohol usage is mentioned (a girl’s prom date gets drunk; a young woman’s friends go into town to visit the clubs/bars). The physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of foster children is detailed in certain incidents. A 12-year-old girl is groped and then molested by her foster father, the details of which are disturbing and crude. She runs away from home.


Between the years 1854 and 1929, approximately 200,000 orphaned children were transported from the East Coast to the Midwest on trains known as “orphan trains”. The hope was that these children, often orphaned when their immigrant parents did not survive the journey to America or after their arrival, would find lasting and loving homes in good Christian families living in cities or on farms in the Midwest. Many times this would prove true, but all too frequently these children wound up as free child labor for farmers or factory owners. They were often abused, both physically and emotionally; when they ran away, they were left to fend for themselves on the streets all over again.

This book takes place in the present and in the past: two stories of seemingly very different women, woven together by the common thread they share of being bounced around the foster care program until adulthood. First we have Molly, a Goth teenager whose outward appearance betrays her sensitive soul, and who lives with a resentful foster parent couple. Stealing a library book and getting caught forces Molly into community service where she meets Vivian, a wealthy 90-year-old widow living in a Victorian mansion. Obviously, thinks Molly, they will have nothing in common. But as it turns out, Vivian was also an orphan and has her own story to tell, a fascinating one that unfolds as Molly helps her sort through boxes of memories stored in her attic. Reliving Vivian’s past helps Molly with her present, and the two of them benefit from their friendship in unexpected but beautiful ways.

Orphan Train is an unforgettable story, at times disturbing and painful, at other times hopeful and redemptive. Although this particular story of Molly and Vivian is fictional, the orphan trains were real, and a piece of history I had never heard of. Did this chapter of history just get swept under the rug? It is hard to believe that so many children’s futures were left up to fate: they could step off the train and be chosen by a loving, nurturing family, or taken home by a cruel farmer and made to sleep in a drafty barn, or be completely picked over like bruised fruit left at the bottom of the crate. For an older girl like Vivian, especially with red hair, her fate was even more uncertain. Who would want a 10-year-old red-headed Irish girl? What good would she be? (This sheds a whole new light on Anne Shirley’s plight.) I do recommend this book, however, due to the disturbing, mature content in certain scenes, only for upper high school students and adults. (Read Anne of Green Gables if you are looking for a happier, lighter story about orphans.) 


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