Free Library wants Philadelphians to climb aboard ‘Orphan Train’ for one-book program

“Orphan Train,” the 2013 best-selling novel by Christina Baker Kline, has been selected by the Free Library of Philadelphia for its One Book, One Philadelphia program.


After encouraging city residents to read the book, distributing about 2,500 copies through schools and branch libraries, the Free Library will schedule an array of programs and events in 2015 based on the themes in the story.

“Orphan Train” tells the story of a girl — an immigrant from Ireland — who was orphaned by a New York City tenement fire in 1927, then put on a train to the Midwest to find a foster family. She had no idea where she would end up or who her new parents would be.

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The novel is based on a real movement in America started by Charles Loring Brace in 1854. For 75 years, his Children’s Aid Society and other copycat organizations sent about 250,000 children abandoned or orphaned in large Eastern cities to farming communities in the Midwest.

What began with good — perhaps evangelical — intentions often amounted to indentured servitude and abuse.

“Children were property, poor children were labor, and there were no laws protecting children and poor people,” said Kline. “There was no welfare, there was no foster care, there were no child labor laws when this started.”

Kline researched accounts and interviewed a handful of the few orphans train riders still living, but her characters are wholly fictional. Kline structured her novel around a contemporary teenager struggling to adjust to her foster parents, who meets an elderly woman remembering riding the orphan train as a girl.

“I didn’t want it to be didactic. That was the most important thing to me,” said Kline. “At the same time, of these 250,000 train riders, there are now probably maybe 3 million descendants, and I knew it was important to get the facts right.”

A panel assembled by the Free Library chose “Orphan Train” for the wide range of topics it opens up, including artificially constructed families, immigration, and a search for permanence.

“The idea of family speaks to everyone. The idea of coming to this country, especially as a child,” said Kalela Williams, coordinator of One Book, One Philadelphia. “The idea of kids in the foster-care system who don’t have a sense of permanence — the foster-care system itself is impermanent placement.”

The Free Library has selected additional books with similar themes for younger readers: the young adult novel “Rodzina” by Karen Cushman, about a Chicago orphan sent to the country, and the Caldecott Medal-winning picture book “Locomotive” by Brian Floca.

The central character of “Orphan Train” is Vivian, who readers first encounter as a 91-year-old matronly figure. She had never before talked about her experiences as a 9-year-old orphan on the train until she confides in Molly, a troubled 17- year-old in foster care, with whom she senses a kinship.

In her research for the book, Kline discovered that, like Vivian, many orphan train riders were reluctant to tell their stories. Those who did tended to gloss over the traumatic details, with stoic Midwestern resolve.

“Many of these train riders created a narrative that was — in many ways — true,” said Kline. “They went through something terrible and eventually found their footing and ended up better off than they would have been.”

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