Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was a book where the spirit of the protagonist kept me glued to the pages. I had no idea that actual orphan trains existed, and was stunned to learn how harrowing their objectives were. Between 1854 and 1929, 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 pure luck. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude? As a young Irish immigrant, Vivian Daly was one such child, sent by rail from New York City to an uncertain future a world away. Returning east later in life, Vivian leads a quiet, peaceful existence on the coast of Maine, the memories of her upbringing rendered a hazy blur. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. Moving between contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, Orphan Train is a powerful tale of upheaval and resilience, second chances, and unexpected friendship.
What inspired you to write Orphan Train?
I stumbled on the story of the orphan trains about a decade ago, visiting my mother-in-law in North Dakota. Her father, whom I never met, was featured in an article about train riders who ended up in Jamestown, ND. I was stunned to learn that more than 200,000 abandoned, neglected, or orphaned children had been sent from the East Coast to the Midwest on trains between 1954 and 1929. The idea of writing about this little-known part of American history percolated in my brain for years, as these things do. Then, about three years ago, I found the key I needed to unlock the narrative: an appealingly irascible 17-year-old with nothing to lose who pries the story out of a 91-year-old with a hidden past as a train rider. In the course of my research I read more than 300 first-person accounts and dozens of books, attended train-rider reunions and talked with half a dozen train riders (all between the ages of 90 and 100), and conducted research in Ireland, Minnesota, Maine, and the Lower East Side. The greatest challenge was finding a way to weave together the first-person historical story and the third-person-limited present-day story. I knew I wanted the first-person story to end abruptly at a certain point and get swallowed up by the larger narrative. Making it all fit together in a way that linked the story arcs of the two main characters was complicated and thrilling.
What character trait did you most identify with in Vivian?
Perseverance —a pretty good trait for any writer (or orphan train rider) to have.
Of the situations Vivian faced, which was the hardest to write about, and why?
The ending was the hardest scene to write. (Spoiler alert!) I was living in London for the summer and I set aside an entire weekend, thinking, “I’m just not going to leave my apartment – I’m going to stay here until this scene is done.” I had a vision of a young woman – Vivian’s daughter – walking up a path, but I didn’t know if she would end up in the house or if I would write more. As I wrote the scene, Vivian was standing on the porch and her daughter, who was a little ambivalent, was by the car — and her granddaughter came running up. There were multiple generations, there was hope; I felt it was clear that the daughter and Vivian were going to need a little bit of time to figure out how their relationship would unfold. I also felt that it was clear that this granddaughter and Vivian would connect in a way that was unfiltered, clear, and clean. That felt like the perfect way to end.
Did you know where Vivian’s journey would take her when you began the book?
I had a plan for the novel, but as we all know, the best-laid plans … While I was researching the orphan trains I jotteddown ideas that particularly interested me, and when I started writing I had a good sense of the arc of the story. The part that changed the most was the final third of the book. I knew there would be a reunion of some kind, but I wasn’t sure whether it would be with Maisie or May/Sarah. And I didn’t know whether Molly would be present. I had to write my way toward the major scenes of conflict before I understood the characters’ motivations enough to decide how they would react in a given situation. For example, I originally thought that Molly — despondent over coming to the end of her time with Vivian and wanting some kind of memento — would steal Vivian’s necklace, and that Dina would find it, (rightfully) accuse her of stealing, and throw her out of the house. By the time I got to that point in the novel, I knew that Molly would never do that to Vivian; they had become too close. It made more sense for Vivian to give Molly the book and for Dina to wrongly accuse her of stealing it.
What’s the best book you read lately?
I loved My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning so much that I asked Kate (whom I didn’t know before I read her novel) to go on tour with me. My Notorious Life begins in the mid-1800s, in the early years of the orphan trains. Axie Muldoon, the young central character, is feisty, opinionated, and headed for a spectacular – and notorious – adulthood.
Who is your favorite author?
I love many writers, but perhaps my favorite is Flaubert. “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we strum out tunes to make a bear dance, when we would move the stars to pity,” Flaubert writes in Madame Bovary. In this novel, he moves the stars to pity.
Christina Baker Kline is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train and four other novels: Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines and Sweet Water. She lives outside of New York City. Her website is www.christinabakerkline.com.