Orphan Train Summary and Study Guide

Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train

  • 38-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features an extended summary and 6 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by an experienced high school teacher with a PhD in English Literature
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Orphan Train Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature.  This 38-page guide for “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 7 parts, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Portaging and Ghosts Haunt the Present.

Plot Summary

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline recounts the stories of two extraordinary women: Vivian, a 91 year-old wealthy retiree, and 17 year-old Molly, a troubled orphan living in foster-care. On the surface, these women would seem to have nothing in common; however, as they get to know each other’s stories, they come to understand the many ways in which they share life experiences and emotional truths. They become unlikely, but true, friends.

Operatingprimarily as a historical novel, Orphan Train is grounded in the record of the trains that carried over 200,000 orphans from Eastern cities to new lives in the Midwestduring the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Vivian’s life experience as an Irish immigrant and orphan train rider forms one track of the novel. Molly’s modern-day experience as a Penobscot Indian teenager stuck in the foster-care system forms the other, while the history and culture of the Penobscot Indians also figures prominently in the novel.

The chapters move between the two storylines: Molly’s modern-day life and her developing relationship with Vivian, and Vivian’s past. Molly arrives to help Vivian reorganize and clean out her attic as part of community service hours she must perform to stay out of juvenile detention. While they work, Vivian reminisces over the items that they find.

Vivian, born Niamh Power in County Galway, Ireland, immigrates to the United States with her family when she is 7 years old. Two years later, in 1929, a tragic fire kills her father and siblings and renders her mother incapable of caring for her. She is sent to the Children’s Aid Society and she is subsequently put on an orphan train. Niamh Power ends up in a small town in Minnesota. Her early childhood is defined by poverty, hardship, and loss.

Molly’s life is marked by similarly tragic events—her father’s death and her mother’s drug addiction—which results in Molly being placed in foster care at age 8. By the time Molly arrives on Vivian’s doorstep, she seems to be on the wrong track in life. In turn, Vivian has locked herself into a very small world; her beautiful house is both a refuge and a prison, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, frozen in time.

Through sharing their pasts, both women grow and change. Molly helps Vivian heal from her traumatic past and reconnect with her still-living relatives. In turn, Vivian helps Molly both practically, with her community service hours and a school history project, and emotionally, by supporting her growing sense of identity. Molly, without a traditional family, must forge her adult self from her personal heritage as a Penobscot Indian and her growing sense of her own strength as a survivor. By letting each other in and sharing past hurts and traumas, each woman heals the past, and offers the other vitalemotional support in the present, moving forward into a future, however long it may be, together.

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