The Significance of Oppression Essay Example: Orphan Train
“So is it just human nature to believe that things happen for a reason - to find some shred of meaning even in the worst experiences?” -Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train. Between 1854 and 1929, “orphan trains” carried more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children from the coastal cities of the eastern United States to the Midwest. Many children were eventually adopted, however this sometimes didn’t prove to be much better. Their “adoption” often turned out to be indentured servitude.
Some families and towns warmly welcomed children, but others were beaten, mistreated, taunted, or ignored, as well as losing any sense of their cultural identities and backgrounds. Set in present day Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, Orphan Train highlights the real-life stories of the trains that carried thousands of abandoned children from the East Coast to the Midwest. It’s the story of two women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphaned train rider and a troubled teen with one last chance at redemption. As they begin to understand each other, they find unforeseen common ground and together are able to undo the emotional knots of their troubled pasts. In the Orphan Train, adversity and hardships are prerequisites for a new perspective, as well as leading a meaningful and happy life. These prerequisites bring a strand of hope in the midst of terrible events.
To begin, belonging and connection is repeatedly shown in Orphan Train. The hardships shown through this belonging, lead both women to come to a new understanding. In the novel, Vivian was a child living in temporary adoptive homes, with the constant fear of being thrown out. Molly, having lived in several foster homes herself, shared this constant fear. Even though both women eventually find a stable home, they continue to worry that they aren’t wanted. When Vivian and Molly do feel wanted, they both have trouble identifying with the emotions of others and this results in an overall feeling of disconnection. “They don’t seem eager to learn about me, but then again, few people are. I get the sense that my abandonment, and the circumstances that brought me to them, matter little to them, compared to the need I might fill in their lives.”
As shown in the novel, the girls struggled to find a new sense of belonging and connection in their adoptive and foster care homes. For example, Vivian constantly was thrown out of houses, and kicked to the side. Being a child, this continual feeling made her feel as though this was a normal behavior. Over the course of the story, both women come to realize that shared experiences can also help to build a sense of common identity. Their stories and experiences are different, with a wide age difference, but they share the common experience of having been orphaned as children.
These experiences give each other insight to their background, and gives them a sense of belonging and connection to each other. For example, the novel states, “We both start laughing – at the absurdity of our shared experiences, the relief of recognition. We cling to each other like survivors of a shipwreck, astonished that neither of us drowned.” When Molly had the opportunity to stay with Vivian, her connection with the woman grew stronger, and she felt as if she was where she was supposed to be. “She can sleep with the door open, wander around freely, come and go without someone watching her every move. She hadn’t realized how much of a toll the years of judgment and criticism, implied and expressed, had taken on her. It’s as if she’s been walking on a wire, trying to keep her balance, and now, for the first time, she is on solid ground.”
Along with belonging and connection, safety and survival are key themes in the novel. Throughout the story, the woman’s safety is often threatened, making both women vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Even when their safety isn’t immediately threatened, their status as orphaned children makes them vulnerable to the passing thoughts of strangers, and prevents them from feeling safe, adding to their sense of disconnection. In many of the girls homes, they did not have a sense of security. For example, when Vivian lived with the Brynes, she was mainly used for labor and work. The only person who helped her and gave her some security was Fanny, a kind elderly seamstress for the Brynes’ garment business. Similarly, the Grotes household was not much better.
Vivian’s second adoptive home with the Grotes gave almost no security or safety as the house crumbled beneath their feet. Vivian’s only outlet was the promise of school. Miss Larsen, the teacher at her rural schoolhouse, was very kind to Vivian, and helped her feel like more of a human in the face of her circumstances. The women's struggles make them strong and resourceful, but forces them to suppress and conceal their emotions in order to focus on survival. With the lack of a consistent guardian, both Vivian and Molly are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and neglect. In response to these abusive and exploitative adoptive families, both girls become skeptical and distrusting of others. Molly states, “Even after getting into trouble like this and probably getting sent away, she knows she’d never have asked Jack to buy the book.
If there is one thing she hates most about being in the foster care system, it’s this dependence on people you barely know, your vulnerability to their whims. She has learned not to expect anything from anybody.” Vivian felt very similarly as a child observing her new life on the train. “Our sponsors have told us little; we know only that we are going to a land where apples grow in abundance on low-hanging branches and cows and pigs and sheep roam freely in the fresh country air. A land where good people – families – are eager to take us in […] But I am skeptical. I know all too well how it is when the beautiful visions you’ve been fed don’t match up with reality.” Many times, the women feel as though they should resist getting attached because it is easier to let go, bounce back, and move forward after loss when they are not attached to the people and places of their past. For both women, their friendship gives them the feeling of a physical and emotional safety and security, that then frees them to address their emotional needs for meaning and connection. Overall, throughout the novel, safety comes with hope and the trauma and loss they’ve experienced.
Lastly, Orphan Train is riddled with traumatic events and losses that are beyond Molly and Vivian’s control. These events shape their outlook and their sense of the world, and impair their ability to feel safe and connected to others. However, both Molly and Vivian learn that it is necessary to recover from and process trauma in order to fully reconcile with oneself, move forward in life, and develop new attachments and connections. The majority of the story revolves around Vivian and her struggles and path she leads moving between adoptive homes in the 1930s.
Each family she was brought to, each segment of her life, brought some sort of trauma. Even when Vivian was an adult, the hardships of World War II, and the events that followed brought more pain to her old wounds. After losing her parents, siblings, and husband, Vivian didn’t want to let herself risk the pain of potentially losing her child, so she gave her up for adoption as a way to cope with the pain she felt. “Lying in that hospital bed I feel all of it: the terrible weight of sorrow, the crumbling of my dreams. I sob uncontrollably for all that I’ve lost – the love of my life, my family, a future I’d dared to envision. And at that moment I make a decision. I can’t go through this again. I can’t give myself to someone so completely only to lose them. I don’t want, ever again, to experience the loss of someone I love beyond reason.” Though these factors greatly impacted Vivian, the primary trauma for both women, is the loss of their parents at an early age.
When they experience additional traumatic events, such as neglect and sexual exploitation, they are forced to repress their emotions, which not only is traumatic, but affects their safety and trust of others. The novel states, “No one feels sorry for me because I’ve lost my family. Each of us has a sad tale; we wouldn’t be here otherwise. The general feeling is that it’s best not to talk about the past, that the quickest relief will come in forgetting.” Ultimately, Vivian and Molly discover that hope is imperative to feeling connected to others, and connection is what gives life meaning. Because the source of their hopelessness is their distrust in the love or consistency of others, their ability to find love and consistency in their friendship serves to revive their respective senses of hope.
Overall, Orphan Train revolves around hardships and challenges that ultimately lead to something good. Every challenge, setback, or trauma experienced, brings both women to realize that without these oppressions, they wouldn’t be where they are today. Christina Baker Kline presents a beautiful novel showing the extreme importance of finding someone you can connect and grieve with. Her powerful novel explains the terrors children experienced in the late 19th and early 20th century.
From Kline’s novel, readers are able to come to terms with a little-known, but historically significant moment in America’s past. The significance of understanding another human and their grief is one of the many brilliances of Orphan Train. The novel shows that shame about one's past can lead to acceptance, and allow them to come to terms with what they’ve been through. This process can reveal the regenerative power of claiming, and telling one’s life story. Therefore, these traumatic events beyond our control, can shape and define our lives.