Skip to Main Content

Book Club Kits: Orphan Train

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

Cover Image

Check Availability

To request this kit, click link above.

Alamance County Public Libraries

Alamance County Public Libraries provide free and open access to lifelong learning, resources for everyday living, and reading for pleasure in a welcoming environment.  Our collections, services and programs enhance the quality of life for individuals, families, and communities. Contact the Library webmaster.

Alamance County Public Libraries operates as a Department of Alamance County Government.  Visit the Alamance County Website at

Book Summary

The author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date: a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.

Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from "aging out" of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life - answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

Discussion Questions

1. On the surface, Vivian's and Molly's lives couldn't be more different. In what ways are their stories similar?


2. In the prologue Vivian mentions that her "true love" died when she was 23, but she doesn't mention the other big secret in the book. Why not?


3. Why hasn't Vivian ever shared her story with anyone? Why does she tell it now?


4. What role does Vivian's grandmother play in her life? How does the reader's perception of her shift as the story unfolds?


5. Why does Vivian seem unable to get rid of the boxes in her attic?


6. In Women of the Dawn, a nonfiction book about the lives of four Wabanaki Indians excerpted in the epigraph, Bunny McBride writes:


In portaging from one river to another, Wabanakis had to carry their canoes and all other possessions. Everyone knew the value of traveling light and understood that it required leaving some things behind. Nothing encumbered movement more than fear, which was often the most difficult burden to surrender.


How does the concept of portaging reverberate throughout this novel? What fears hamper Vivian's progress? Molly's?


7. Vivian's name changes several times over the course of the novel: from Niamh Power to Dorothy Nielsen to Vivian Daly. How are these changes significant for her? How does each name represent a different phase of her life?


8. What significance, if any, does Molly Ayer's name have?


9. How did Vivian's first-person account of her youth and the present-day story from Molly's third-person-limited perspective work together? Did you prefer one story to the other? Did the juxtaposition reveal things that might not have emerged in a traditional narrative?


10. In what ways, large and small, does Molly have an impact on Vivian's life? How does Vivian have an impact on Molly's?


11. What does Vivian mean when she says, "I believe in ghosts"?


12. When Vivian finally shares the truth about the birth of her daughter and her decision to put May up for adoption she tells Molly that she was "selfish" and "afraid." Molly defends her and affirms Vivian's choice. How did you perceive Vivian's decision? Were you surprised she sent her child to be adopted after her own experiences with the Children's Aid Society?


13. When the children are presented to audiences of potential caretakers, the Children's Aid Society explains adoptive families are responsible for the child's religious upbringing. What role does religion play in this novel? How do Molly and Vivian each view God?


14. When Vivian and Dutchy are reunited she remarks, "However hard I try, I will always feel alien and strange. And now I've stumbled on a fellow outsider, one who speaks my language without saying a word." How is this also true for her friendship with Molly?


15. When Vivian goes to live with the Byrnes Fanny offers her food and advises, "You got to learn to take what people are willing to give." In what ways is this good advice for Vivian and Molly? What are some instances when their independence helped them?


16. Molly is enthusiastic about Vivian's reunion with her daughter, but makes no further efforts to see her own mother. Why is she unwilling or unable to effect a reunion in her own family? Do you think she will someday?


17. Vivian's Claddagh cross is mentioned often throughout the story. What is its significance? How does its meaning change or deepen over the course of Vivian's life?

Q and A with Christina Baker Kline

How close are the events you describe in the novel to real life?  Did you exaggerate/make things up?  How important was it for you to stick to the facts?

Almost everything that happened in ORPHAN TRAIN actually happened to someone in real life (including, for example, the story of the boy who was traded by a farmer for a pig).  Many train riders ended up with their names changed more than once, and many went into multiple homes.  I didn't have to exaggerate; each real-life train rider story I heard or read was filled with drama, heartache, coincidence, and surprise.  Some stories I heard were much more dramatic, in fact, than the one I told, but I didn't want to stretch credibility.  It was important to me that a train rider or a descendant could read this novel and know that I told an accurate story.  I fact-checked every aspect of the book, from the Children's Aid Society to the draft in World War II.  So far, the only factual error anyone has pointed out is that apparently there is no such thing as a pink crocus.  A botanist in the audience one evening raised her hand and announced it!

Did you know everything that would happen in the novel when you started, or did you change things as you went along?

I had a plan for the novel, but as we all know, the best-laid plans … While I was researching the orphan trains I jotted down ideas that particularly interested me, and when I started writing I had a good sense of the arc of the story.  The part that changed the most was the final third of the book. I knew there would be a reunion of some kind, but I wasn't sure whether it would be with Maisie or May/Sarah.  And I didn't know whether Molly would be present. I had to write my way toward the major scenes of conflict before I understood the characters' motivations enough to decide how they would react in a given situation.  For example, I originally thought that Molly -- despondent over coming to the end of her time with Vivian and wanting some kind of memento -- would steal Vivian's necklace, and that Dina would find it, (rightfully) accuse her of stealing, and throw her out of the house.  By the time I got to that point in the novel, I knew that Molly would never do that to Vivian; they had become too close. It made more sense for Vivian to give Molly the book and for Dina to wrongly accuse her of stealing it. 

And finally … the question every book club asks: Why did Vivian give away her daughter?

There are a number of reasons Vivian gave up her daughter -- and truthfully, if I could, I would do a better job of articulating them in the novel. First, Vivian was despondent over Dutchy's death; she was grieving, vulnerable, and alone. Though Mrs. Nielsen has been kind, and loving in her way, she was not a nurturing presence.  Vivian didn't trust that she had the capacity to take care of a child on her own, without the ballast of a loving husband.  Second, as Vivian says she didn't want, "ever again, to experience the loss of someone I love beyond reason."  Every person who had mattered deeply in her life had been taken away: her grandmother, her parents, her sister, Dutchy. Vivian was afraid that if she allowed herself to love this baby she would be setting herself up for another profound loss.  And finally -- a number of train riders told me that they were afraid of becoming parents because they had no model for how to be good ones. They had been abused, abandoned, and put to work.  Like children of alcoholics who fear becoming alcoholics themselves, and children of abuse who worry that they will become perpetrators, Vivian was terrified that not having grown up in a stable, nurturing environment, she wouldn't know how to create one herself.