The lives of two orphans run parallel in Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline’s new novel.
How long did this book take to research and write?
I stumbled on to the story of the orphan trains a decade ago. 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 1854 and 1929. The idea of writing about this little-known part of American history percolated for years. About three years ago, I found the key: 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. 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 [New York City’s] Lower East Side.
Why did you choose to write in the present tense?
The train rider’s story needed to be fresh and immediate and direct—almost cinematic. I was determined that it not seem romanticized or sepia-toned. The conceit is that the train rider is telling her story to the central character of the third-person narrative; in telling her story, she relives it. Eventually it becomes clear that the train rider’s story is unfolding in “real time,” and the present-day story both influences and is influenced by its telling.
How did the idea come about to have the two characters’ necklaces echo each other?
In my research I learned that, though children weren’t allowed to bring anything with them on the trains, some did smuggle small keepsakes. These became increasingly important to them as the years went by. In Galway, Ireland, I went into the small corner shop where the Claddagh [a traditional Irish ring] was invented and realized that I’d found my Irish-immigrant character’s keepsake. Later, researching Penobscot Indian legends, I discovered that [they believed that] certain animals have specific powers and talismanic significance. These, I knew, would be important to my Indian character, Molly.
How did the Orphan Train Riders of New York reunion inspire you?
As the train riders and their descendants stood up and told their stories, it was clear that even the ones that ended happily were poignant, filled with loss. One rider said that you didn’t end up on a train unless you had a major trauma in your past. I realized that I had a responsibility in writing this book to be as emotionally and factually accurate as possible. I needed to get the tone and texture right. The most surprising thing, honestly, is that so few Americans know about the orphan trains. I was also surprised at the resilience and fortitude of the riders I met, their pragmatism and grace. I don’t know whether this is a Midwestern trait or simply a human one.