This Week’s Favorite: Orphan Train

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This week’s favorite is one I just had to read in one sitting. You won’t be able to put it down, either.

In a shocking twist, I have a new favorite book. Maybe not a favorite favorite. But certainly one I’ll be reading again–and I don’t say that about many books these days.

In Orphan Train, Niamh (pronounced “Neeve”) is just nine years old when a tenement fire kills the other members of her family, all recent immigrants from Ireland. Though Niamh is no romantic–she’s well aware of her father’s drinking problem, and of her mother’s lazy, entitled temperament–even the warmth of her dysfunctional family is preferable to what happens to her next. Packed up with a group of New York City orphans, she rides the train to the Midwest, where “good Christian families” will surely save their souls from destitution, and the horrors of early 20th-century Manhattan.

The reality, of course, is much grimmer, especially for a girl like Niamh. With her red hair, she’s unmistakeably Irish–a problem during this prejudiced era. Worse, she’s “nearly grown”–and let’s just say that the “good Christian ladies” of the Midwest aren’t keen to invite a young lady of questionable origin into their homes.

Niamh, however, is a survivor. I won’t give away what happens to her once she reaches the Midwest, as the cruelties–and small comforts–of her odyssey are what make this book so compelling. Life in the far, cold reaches of Minnesota isn’t easy for anyone in the 1930s. But it’s especially difficult for Niamh, who fights for her rights, her dignity, even her life, before she finally finds a place to call home.

Some reviewers of Orphan Train have complained that what makes this book a great book instead of a really great book is the way Niamh’s story is interwoven with that of a present-day adolescent: 17-year-old Molly, who has been shunted between more foster homes than she can count. And I agree: At least during the first half of this book, I struggled with being ripped away from Niamh’s story, which was both the more compelling, and the better realized, of the two.

But if this book has one fault, it’s not so much Molly’s story as it is the lack of care I felt was lavished on her story. While the characters in Niamh’s portion of the book are well-drawn and nuanced, many of the characters in Molly’s felt like caricatures.

As things started to come together in the second half, however–as Molly’s story merged with Niamh’s–I began to forgive the author her shortcuts in the telling of Molly’s tale. Truthfully, Molly was not so much a second protagonist as she was a supporting player in Niamh’s story. And the payoff–the interwoven tale that emerges in the end–enabled me to forgive the faults in Molly’s segments, and to revel in a poignant, pitch-perfect ending.

Not a flawless book to be sure. But like I said: A new favorite, at least for now, nevertheless.

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