Americans prefer stories about our most vulnerable youngsters to have a happy ending, like the comic book character "Little Orphan Annie," so popular that she returned as a musical and was recently remade into the move "Annie" It allows us to indulge in the fantasy that plucky orphans and foster children benefit less from governmental investment (one that might require increasing taxes and more infrastructure) and more from wealthy larger-than-life private citizen rescuers like "Daddy Warbucks" (the comic strip) or "Will Stacks" (the 2014 movie).
Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train—the 2015 selection of the One Book, One Philadelphia citywide reading project—is fiction, but no fantasy.
Its title comes from the real-life attempts, a century and a half ago, to solve the problem of "orphaned" children with a feel-good idea to populate the west. Although little remembered today, the Protestant minister Charles Loring Brace was celebrated throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries for his vision for "saving" children. Brace, who hailed from a prominent Connecticut family, founded the "Children's Aid Society" in the mid-19th century. As a result of his determination, more than 100,000 children were sent west between the 1850s and the 1920s on what became known as "orphan trains."
Brace was especially concerned about the large numbers of impoverished children from what he called the "Dangerous Classes." Some of these youngsters had no parents, but many of them had at least one living mother or father who was too poor or too ill to care for them. Brace wanted to improve on the options available to these "at-risk" children, then poorhouses and institutions.He argued that not only could children be exploited in such settings, they also learned criminal behavior from the adults who lived there. That perpetuated the cycle of poverty and social pathology of their parents because they did not have access to the correct moral guidance. Brace also disliked the other option, indenture in city factories or homes because he believed it kept youngsters exposed to the evils of city life. But he came upon a solution that he felt "saved" children morally and economically, while also shaping them into good American citizens and populating the western states with more help on farms and private homes—the orphan train.
Kline's book engages with the intended and unintended consequences of Brace and the system of caring for vulnerable children today that he helped shape. It is a fascinating, made-up account of the experiences of young girls at different junctures in the 20th that is nested in very real historical events—and a contemporary context—that are accurately and poignantly described.
The book centers on the relationship between two women, Vivian and Molly. Vivian, now in her 90s, was an Irish immigrant orphan whose parents died in a fire. Kline describes the dislocation Vivian felt leaving her native Ireland for a New York City tenement, feelings that are quickly compounded by her confusion and terror as she is quickly placed on an orphan train headed west in the 1920s.
The other character in Kline's book is Molly, a 17-year-old girl in the 21st century foster care system. Molly's father, now deceased, was Dominican; her troubled mother, who could not care for her, is Native American. Molly has many similarities to the more than 400,000 youngsters in American foster care today. She is resilient but has been repeatedly traumatized by the experience. Among the many challenges that have negatively impacted her well-being is the sense of not always feeling "wanted" by the families with whom she has resided.
Despite their age difference, Molly and Vivian find that they have much in common.
Kline's narrative goes back and forth between Vivian's experiences, many of which are similar to those recounted by real life orphan train riders, and Molly's encounters with the foster care system, which resembles to the accounts of many actual youngsters.
Both girls are in search of a better life and struggle against those who resent them and have preconceived notions about their social class, ethnicity, and motives behind their behavior. It is in these ways that both Molly and Vivian are similar to the tens of thousands of children arriving in the U.S from Central America today. These youngsters have risked death to escape the violence and economic chaos they face in their home countries. Like the fictional Vivian and Molly, what to do about them has created political controversy as well as fears that they will strain already tight resources and change American culture for the worse. As a result, they face a very unwelcome response once they arrive.
How the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, should help "at-risk" children has always been a contentious issue. What kind, if any, help should they and their families receive? Should assistance be paid for by the government, private groups, or some combination of the two? The answer to these questions depends on whom you ask, the moment in time, and which children are being considered (undocumented vs. citizens, African-American or Native American vs. middle class Caucasian).
Kline's Orphan Train and "One Book, One Philadelphia" provides an opportunity for us not just to read a compelling story but also a forum to discuss a sometimes troubled past, often worrisome present, and, as yet, uncharted future with regard to our most vulnerable children, an issue about which all Americans should care.
Want to learn more about the issues discussed in "Orphan Train"? Join Dr. Connolly and others for an early-morning discussion on Monday, Feb. 9, at at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. This free event is part of One Book, One Philadelphia.
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