“Orphan Train – a novel” by Christina Baker Kline

I read this because it was selected by the college where I work as the “common reading” for 2014. A copy will be given to each incoming Freshman. Some of these students will read it for their Freshman seminar. The entire college will be invited to hear the author speak. Some students may hear nothing more about it. (No one is willing to tell the faculty what they must include in a course, and there will never be a common reading that is universally popular.)

About half of the common readings are novels. There has been at least one anthology, one autobiography, a popular, semi-scientific approach to the supernatural, and a genuinely scientific book about the Mississippi River (Bayou Farewell). I think the common reading program is nine years old.

The plot? A girl who has spent much of her life in (low quality) foster care meets an old woman whose early years were also disrupted by suffering and grief. Each gains important insight.

So what are the good and bad points of this book for college Freshmen? Let me evaluate it against the four “pillars” of the college – global outlook, engagement, sustainability and learning. (How it pains me to see “learning” so marginalized!) Let’s see, on a scale of 1 to 5…

  • Globalization – 3 points. Immigration (Ireland to USA) is a major feature, as well as migration (involuntary) within the US.
  • Engagement – 1 point. There’s a social worker. Aren’t they automatically “engaged”? One of the protagonists is doing community service in order to avoid a criminal charge for theft.
  • Sustainability – 0. It’s not there. (I didn’t miss it.)
  • Learning – 4 points. Both protagonists love books and reading. The young woman “finds” herself academically as she is finishing high school. The old woman professes to be indifferent to the “information superhighway”, then plunges in with cheerful enthusiasm – starts shopping on line and using Facebook. Maybe 5 points for learning!

All that said, I give the book a B-. I like more development of character. I found the structure, skipping back and forth between two plot lines, distracting. I think college students should be offered something more challenging. This is too close to being a standard “feel good” book. But (by way of redemption) there’s one plot twist that surprised me. A child (I won’t tell you whose) is given up for adoption. I wonder how students will react to that?

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2 thoughts on ““Orphan Train – a novel” by Christina Baker Kline

  1. Interesting analysis, I’m not sure what sustainability refers to in the context of literature (intrigued to know), but I am sure this will generate interesting thoughts and discussion.

    I agree that there was some weakness in character development, to the point that I had difficulty believing that character would have made that decision you refer to, only because that aspect of her character hadn’t been developed sufficiently for me to believe it, had it been developed more, there would likely be more empathy for her character and decision. As it sits, it is likely to be controversial, because the reader isn’t necessarily convinced. At least this reader anyway.

    But an interesting piece of history and relation between the the two characters, I didn’t mind the twin timelines. there was sufficient connection between them to keep the pace moving and without making me wish to get back to one or other of the stories.

  2. Hello, Claire – AMG here, replying to your comment. I’m a new blogger, and happy for feedback!

    I don’t think “sustainability” means ANYTHING in a literary context. It is in my personal “rating system” since the college where I work lists “sustainability” as one of its four pillars or organizing principles. The others are global awareness, engagement and “learning”.

    So I started rating books on these parameters, applying this system only to books nominated for the Freshman Year Common Reading. That program is about eight years old, and with five books nominated each year, I’ve had a great time reading books I might not have uncovered on my own.

    When the college says “sustainability”, they are using a trendy term for environmentalism – you know the list – energy efficiency, pollution control, land preservation… The term “sustainability” has links in several, not always compatible, frameworks. One is ecology. Agriculture or forest management may be categorized as sustainable, or not. Another is economic development. The UN started discussing “sustainable” economic development more than a decade ago. The issue is equity, which is social and political.

    Is there a literary context? Not really. Books with “sustainability” themes can be found. One of the first Common Reading selections at the college was the non-fiction “Bayou Farewell: the rich life and tragic death of Louisiana’s Cajun coast” by Mike Tidwell. I liked it, but heard that it was not popular with students.

    If you have any favorite books with environmental or sustainability themes, I’d like to hear about them.

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