Between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by luck or chance. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?This is a two-character narrative, though. It shuttles between a foster teen living in present day and a young Irish girl (8 yrs old) who rode the Orphan train in the late eighteen/early nineteen hundreds.
Now, when I read this brief background, I think, "Wow, I think this book will be interesting! I will pick it up for sure." But after actually reading the book, I don't feel as enthusiastic somehow. I did enjoy exploring a part of US history which I hadn't known about before. I'm guessing that the subject matter was the reason the author was given a fellowship to write the book in the first place - it's a fascinating backstory of immigrants when immigrants were still considered "cool" (i.e.: the Irish, Italians, scrappy street children of indeterminate origin). As a ten-or-so-times removed Irish American, it was fun to read about a little girl whose family had come over similarly to my own ancestors (I'm guessing but not sure, of course). I liked this little girl and continued to root for her character throughout the book.
The problem is, and I say this in all humility as a woman who has not published a NYT listed (or any) novel and published it, the writing is just. not. good. It's not terrible, of course. It's just loaded with the author's politics (which I HATE regardless of what the politics are). It's also simplistic, stereotypical to a fault: Multiple Spoiler Alert - the Irish main character's father is an …wait for it…Alcoholic; The Evangelical Christian foster mom is judgmental, hates everyone, is a bigot and won't let her foster daughter be a vegetarian; The boyfriend's mom never married his father and he was from the Dominican Republic (insert any quasi-Hispanic man here), so obviously he's never been in the picture. Honestly, I could make a stereotype drinking game out of this book.
But, because I am bourgeois to a fault, I still cried at the ending. I still found myself rooting for everyone. I still wanted to adopt that stupid foster teenager and let her eat tofu and soy forever. I still want to research the other Orphan train kids.
Sadly, there is an entire awkward "semi-rape" scene in the book that would keep me from recommending it for anyone younger than 12. I mean, it's just yucky (the perfect word) and bad writing plus aggressive sexual encounters is just a train wreck as far as I'm concerned. So, homeschooling friends, don't use this for a history/lit unit.
That's it - read it if you have one or two nights. But, I'd read The Giver or Farewell to Manzanaar first. There are so many lovely early-young-adult novels for a bit more compare/contrast.