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Happy New Year! Barrie Summy, fearless leader of the Book Review Club, reports that as a group we published NINETY reviews last year. If you're looking for a good book to while away the winter nights, click the icon above and all will be well.
By Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow, 2013
The past leaves its taint, but it can offer redemption.
Also, move over David Copperfield.
Tough call, which of my Christmas books to read first. I ended up going with ORPHAN TRAIN simply because I’d been seeing it around for a full year and it had been nagging at me. It was the right choice for post-holiday recovery—absorbing, harrowing in its quiet way, not GAME OF THRONES but not—praise heaven—“It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Molly Ayer, 17, a prickly goth, has gotten used to being abandoned on the rock-hard face of the world. A serial foster child, her father dead and her mother a drug addict, she’s now in the Spruce Harbor, Maine, home of Ralph and Dina, who argue loudly about whether to keep her.
Vivian Daly, 91, also knows the world’s rocky face. An Irish immigrant, she lost her impoverished family to a New York tenement fire in 1929, and was sent west on a train full of orphans to be handed over to anyone who wanted them. Her future, like that of her fellow travelers, was a craps shoot: Maybe she’d find a nice family who treated her like a child, or maybe she’d be a nine-year-old hired hand, over-worked, unloved, barely kept alive. She lost the bet at first, facing first a sweat shop, then a desperately poor, abusive household before finally finding a safe (if constrictive) home.
Having attempted to steal the local library’s third and most ragged copy of Jane Eyre, Molly has been assigned to fifty hours of community service. Her boyfriend gets her a gig with Vivian, his mother’s employer. After school and on weekends, Molly will help Vivian sort through the eighty years’ worth of memorabilia in her attic.
The story alternates between third person for Molly’s story and first person for Vivian’s recollections, which dominate and horrify. For all the sadness and mistreatment Molly has experienced, her troubles pale before the often Dickensian fate of an orphan in the 1930s. Like David Copperfield, Vivian sees humanity in all its cruelty and degradation before finally landing in a caring home, where a change of name signals a new destiny.
Vivian’s troubles are not over, however. Scarred and numbed by her past, she can’t embrace life. Like Molly, she’s built walls that protect but also isolate.
We benefit from her tale, and so does Molly. The book’s ending is a bit tidy for my taste: Loose ends tied up, everyone is content. But there’s a great deal of satisfaction in seeing two damaged women find solace. Kline gave us the ending we wanted, despite our better judgment.
Dear FCC: Ho ho ho.