“The people who matter in our lives stay with us, haunting our most ordinary moments.”
The novel opens a few months shy of the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and Niamh becomes the ward of the Children’s Aid Society, her voyage beginning on an orphan train bound for the Midwest, destined for a fresh start, foster families, and new identities. She wore a pewter Claddagh Celtic cross, given by her grandmother, a design of two hands holding a crowned heart symbolizing friendship, love, and loyalty on a chain of interlaced strands representing a “never-ending path leading away from home and circling back – you’ll never be far from the place you started.” The children, stripped of their identities and “sold” into servitude, envisioned a home filled with a caring family, but found they were like merchandise, returnable after a ninety-day trial. Thrown “friendless onto the world” Niamh learned how to survive.
Seventeen-year old Molly Ayer, a descendant of the Penobscot Indians, is also wandering through the maze of obscurity. Her biological father, killed in a car wreck when she was eight, left a grieving and alcoholic mother either incarcerated or institutionalized. Molly too wore a remembrance of a happier time, a present from her father drenched in symbolism – a necklace with three charms. The blue-green cloisonné fish gave her power to resist other’s magic or the greed or insecurity that leads a person to the other side; a pewter raven represented magic to guard against bad spells; and a tiny brown bear signified a fearless spirit and bravery necessary to protect her from others, and her own internal demons. Molly, close to aging out of the foster care system, needs to serve fifty hours of community service or land in “juvie” for stealing a copy of her favorite book, Jane Eyre, from the library. She sees herself in the character of Jane, kind of an “outlaw, passionate, determined, and says exactly what she thinks.”
The story waves back and forth from a young Niamh to ninety-one year old widowed, Vivian Daly, 2011, Spruce Harbor, Maine who “hires” Molly to help her clean out the attic, fulfilling her community service requirement. As each trunk or box is unwrapped, Vivian’s life unfolds and the two improbable characters discover an unbiased connection, as they both understood how it felt to be at the mercy of others. Their personalities, shaped by forced smiles, faked emotion, displays of empathy when none existed, and jaded views of society, directed them to act like everyone else even though they were “broken inside.” They realized that no matter what lands in your path, life goes on – you will grow taller, you will still breathe, and sleep.
The book, written in parallel storylines, kept the similarities between the two main characters dissecting at every interval. Both technically not orphaned, but certainly stood alone against the world, both carried their cultural flags of heritage, the plight of the American Indians much like the Irish under British rule wasn’t a fair fight – their land stolen, their religion forbidden, their people forced to bend to foreign domination. They both wore a necklace of remembrance telling where they started and where they ended up. Neither were unconditionally accepted for what they stood for or how they looked, except by each other, both relying on inner strength and lessons learned to keep standing in their individual fight to see the light of the next day. The author mixed in some wonderful moments within the dual tragic stories.
The story is wrapped up in a nice package, a truly happily ever after tale for characters deserving of a fairy tale ending. A few thought the ending was rushed; some wanted to know how Molly fared on the portage interview with Vivian; some asking because the ending was the beginning for another generation of Vivian’s family, is there a sequel planned?
Our discussion followed the theme as tales from the Bookers’ train spilled onto the tracks. We’re reminded of our own Vicca, who has since moved, but remains on our email – her story of the “lucky one” raised in an orphanage – we’d love to hear from Vicca on her experience! Many were unaware of the history of the orphan train; a few remembered its mention, others, researched to find out more about it. There are “tenement tours” in New York, author questions and answers segments on YouTube among other articles and information available. We talked of the challenges foster families face, how some are not ideal, but how the good ones make a life-long impact on their kids; how important it is when we offer to purchase items for the CASA kids, to keep in mind the importance of what we buy versus what they ask for. We talked about Vivian giving up her baby, why she made that decision, and how difficult it is to relate to being that “broken” where you can’t face losing one more thing in your life. We spoke of the expectation of perfection and the disappointment when situations are less than that, and how we take for granted some of the basics of livelihood in our Country because we’ve not learned what it takes to be without these essentials. MN recommended Sarah’s Key and Flowers In the Attic by V.C. Andrews for two more excellent books in the same vein as this one. We asked, would Orphan Train fall into your top ten Bookers’ books? Attached is a list of all eleven years of Bookers’ choices. Bring your choice to the May meeting.
On the business side
We spoke some about recommendations of children’s books and after discussing this many members are interested in compiling a list of favorites. Local author, Sharon Ellsberry, has written several books, featured recently in the magazine, Fly Your Flag, and might be available to speak to our group at some time. I’ll gladly keep a list of “Grandchildren Bookers’ books” if you’ll email your suggestions to me.
The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah has received over 3,000 five star reviews and was recommended by Mary Jacobs. Set in France in 1939, it’s the story of two sisters living in a small village who find themselves estranged as they disagree about the imminent danger of occupation. We welcome your feedback.
Beverly Dossett recommends The Martian by Andy Weir, about an astronaut left on Mars – touted as a sci-fi book for all the non-sci-fi-book lovers.
COLOR CODING SYSTEM
WHITE: LIGHT READ
PINK: MODERATELY CHALLENGING
May 19th: The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Home of Beverly Dossett
Reviewer: Beverly Dossett
Summer Break: June, July & August
The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
September 8th: Bookers 12th year
Ask yourself about your own portage – or the moment in your life when you’ve had to take a journey – literally or metaphorically. What did you choose to bring along and what did you choose to leave behind. Personally, I left fear of failure behind and put determination in the canoe.