"One Book, One Philadelphia" 2015 in Review

Maria Johansson, for GPA -- “I believe in ghosts.”

That is the first line of Orphan Train, an opening that instantly peaks my interest while simultaneously filling me with worry. Is this going to be just another book about loss? As I continue reading, Orphan Train grabs a hold of my thoughts and manipulates my emotions in such an effective way that I can only come to one conclusion: this book is unlike any other I have read.

“One Book, One Philadelphia” is an initiative from the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Mayor’s Office. This year’s book, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, marks the 13th year of the project, which promotes literacy and unifies Philadelphia through reading and discussions.

The book chosen by the selection committee for 2015 sheds light on the international past of this country and offers a personal account of the oftentimes miserable beginnings of early American immigrant life.

As the title suggests, this book deals with the historical “orphan trains.” Between 1854 and 1929, thousands of children were transported via trains from congregated American cities to the Midwest. In Orphan Train, Vivian, born Niamh in Ireland, is one of them. While describing Vivian’s unfortunate beginnings in the New World, the book also tells the story of Molly.

Molly is an orphan who jumps from foster home to foster home with the constant feeling of being on the outside of happiness and a normal life. The book focuses on the relationship that these two women build through their similar backgrounds, a relationship that saves them both and helps them come to terms with their pasts and move on.

Kline’s writing is detailed and descriptive but in addition to being an excellent story-teller, she also has a phenomenal talent for getting the reader involved. In one part of the book she writes, “I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.” At that moment, I had to put the book down on the over-crowded commuter train to keep from tearing up. Kline tells it like it is, or was, and describes the feelings of her characters in such a matter-of-fact way that I can’t help but stay hooked.

It is also clear that Kline has done her research for this book and there are parts that are so vivid that she could quite easily have convinced me that she went through this exact experience herself.

At the very end of the book, Kline reveals how she conducted interviews with a large number of the grown children of the orphan trains and that she attended orphan train reunions. Through her authentic characters and settings as well as her descriptive and honest writing she is able to create a powerful story.

Reading this book is like getting an uncomfortably close view of what it is like to grow up too fast, to see too much sadness and horror, to be unwanted. Kline makes the reader empathize with the characters, feeling as abandoned, scared and accepting of a downward spiral as them. But she also shares the faith of some of the real life orphans.

“I’ve had a happy life, a life that could only have been possible because I was orphaned or abandoned and sent to Kansas or Minnesota or Oklahoma on a train,” she writes. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Image courtesy of WHYY.