Often enough, what you read in reviews of Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, is that readers, totally taken by the two narratives so perfectly twined in this wonderful novel, say they simply don't want the book to end. Well, I did, not because I didn't like the novel--I did; not because I thought the novel sometimes stepped over the edge--I did; but because I wanted, so badly, for the two young women at the tender heart of this novel to find, well, sigh, happiness.
Both are orphans, both have suffered immensely, both show immense intensity that make them really compelling. Molly, a high school senior whose been tossed carelessly between foster homes, is saddled with a public-service rap for stealing Jane Eyre (yes, you read that right) from the local library (she took the oldest copy, a worn-out paperback, and the dumb library had three anyway--how can anyone foist punishment on that crime, pray tell?).
Her public-service hours will be spent helping an old lady clean out an attic full of life's memories she hasn't aired out for years. This old woman is not shrewish or bitchy or in the least demented, but a perfect sweetheart who, decades ago, was one of thousands of street urchins from New York City and/or somewhere out east, to be taken, by train, out to the Jeffersonian Midwest, where all the close-to-the soil farmers are saints, and sunsets glow in skies that never end.
Well, sure. Many of the children's very strange placements ("come to the Grange Hall on Saturday morning and pick up a free kid!") didn't, as they say, "work out." Some did, I'm sure. Christina Baker Kline, in one of her historical asides, generalizes that many of the kids ended up working in the same fashion as biblical Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, only to become Secretary of State. Okay, that's an exaggeration. But late in the book, Kline asserts that many orphan train stories have similar trajectories--lots of initial, pitiable, horrible suffering, but eventually a good,good life.
Such is the story if Vivian, the child of Irish immigrant parents, a father who found it difficult to leave a tavern and a mother as brow-beaten as any one might find in D. H. Lawrence. Vivian's first Minnesota placement should have been outlawed by even the most lenient child-labor laws; her second thrusts her back into a family as sordid (no Minnesota-nice here, btw) as her own, the mother a despairing monster, the father a backwoods bloody hunter who terrorizes Vivian sexually.
The sweet, sweet irony of the story is that Vivian, the old lady, tells Molly, the second orphan in the novel exactly the medicine young Molly the goth (with a Native American heritage), needed to hear. Solomon couldn't have devised a better punishment for Molly's unthinkable crime of stealing Jane Eyre. It's perfect. Maybe a little too. More than a few things are perfect in this novel.
Somewhere in the John Gardner scripture of good writing he says that the finest fiction around always comes something like a fingernail away from gushing, overwrought sentimentality. It flirts with syrupyness so seductively that we can taste it, but it refuses finally to dip itself in because sentimentality, in literature, can be a killer. Sentimentality does our emotional work for us, bulldozing us into emotional reactions when the very best writing prompts us to do the emoting for ourselves.
There were times in this novel when I heard the diesel engine of some piece of heavy equipment telling me what to feel. More often than not, it seemed, characters were altogether too evil or too good; I couldn't be one of the faithful. I couldn't suspend my disbelief.
That having been said, the book holds us, stem to stern, in part because of Christina Baker Kline's ability to create lively characters. Molly is really fun, a joy, despite her own clear desire to be more wretched than she is. She's Huck Finn with a nose ring, a heart of gold beneath all the trappings of her well-earned anger. And Vivian is what Anne of Green Gables would have been at 91, still just about perfect.
Sometimes too much. Sometimes too over the top. Sometimes I couldn't help rolling my eyes.
But there's no accounting for taste. When this novel shifts gears and becomes "inspirational," it makes me wince a little.
But it's worth reading. It's mightily worth reading. Let me just say this, I don't have to type in "spoiler alert" to suggest that, in Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, all's well that ends well. It's a terrific read, but not a great book.