Mid-nineteenth century Lower Manhattan was rife with societal ills: immigrant over-crowding in tenements, fires, grinding poverty, prejudice, economic depression, and alcoholism. Into this world came babies, either killed or abandoned, runaways living on the streets, abused, all of them malnourished and diseased. Many landed in jails with adult offenders.

Upon this scene came Charles Loring Brace (1826-1890), a philanthropist and ordained minister, who preferred working on those Manhattan streets than the predictable confines of a church. In 1853, he founded the Children’s Aid Society, and with the help of social workers began rounding up orphans and housing them in their well-appointed home. When ready for placement with families among Midwest farmers, chaperones accompanied them on trains and oversaw their transfers. The Orphan Train Movement, as it was called, continued until 1929, with placement of an estimated 300,000 children.

This history touched the novelist, Christina Baker Kline. After years of research that included interviews with some of the train riders, now white haired, she composed Orphan Train (2013). Through her expertise, we meet ninety-one year old Vivian Daly, a piteous orphan originally from a small village in County Galway, Ireland, and seventeen year old Molly Ayers, a dissident orphan of Penobscot Indian origins. Their shared stories of profound loss and survival evoke even deeper disclosures from which fresh life springs.

Central to this novel is the archetype of the orphan that speaks to our own abandonment and survival issues. Facing and accepting our rough edges, as did Vivian and Molly, brings release and makes us more approachable to others.

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