Words on Words: Orphan Train

6 mins read

The Orphan Train is coming to Farmington. Christina Baker Kline will be visiting the bookstore to present from her exceptionally wonderful new novel Orphan Train. This novel deftly juxtaposes the experiences of two seemingly unrelated individuals,  a young, troubled Penobscot woman and a 91 year old Irish immigrant. As well written as it is well researched, the Orphan Train book is  a book which mirrors its narrative, reaching strongly across many generations of readers. To find out more we caught up with Christina and tricked her into agreeing to a Daily Bulldog interview.

Kenny: Jumping a generation between protagonists, as you have done in Orphan Train, seems to be part of the recipe for some strong narratives. One thinks of Tove Jansson’s Summer Book and Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of a Hedgehog for example. Is this bad news for parents who have the misfortune of only being one generation apart from their offspring?

Christina: A reviewer recently pointed out that three of my five novels — Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, and Sweet Water — feature relationships that skip a generation. Who knew? (This is the beauty of reviews: they point out aspects of your own work that you might not have realized!) I do think that contrasting narratives provide a writer with good opportunities for connection and insight. You can juxtapose plots and ideas in ways that suggest parallels and highlight story lines through contrast. I suppose this is true even if the stories are only a generation apart — I just happen to like old ladies.

Kenny: The coast of Maine is the it place for fictional settings this year, I’ve noticed. Most times the Maine setting is a bit thin in the holding up to scrutiny department. Orphan Train is different.  Spruce Harbor, Maine feels real enough to make one feel that it was left out of The Maine Atlas by mistake. You’ve clearly either somehow actually lived there or done a good deal of research. Can you tell us about your research and your approach?

Christina: Spruce Harbor is actually a mythical place wedged somewhere between Southwest Harbor and Pretty Marsh, on the “Quiet Side,” as locals call it, of Mount Desert Island. I wanted the freedom to create a village to my own specifications. But it’s as real to me as any of the actual places on MDI, which I know well. I grew up in Bangor, just an hour from MDI, and went there often as a kid (Sand Beach! Thunder Hole! Popovers at Jordan Pond!). My parents retired to Bass Harbor and my sister Clara is now the town librarian; she lives in Manset with her carpenter husband and four children. I spend as much time on MDI as I possibly can, given that I now live outside of New York City.

Kenny: The connections between the Irish immigrant experience and the Native American experience is an interesting one. For example Francis Jennings argued in The Invasion of America that British policy in Ireland was the blueprint for their lamentable Native American policies in the “New World.” What brought you to bring them together in Orphan Train?

Christina: Yes, isn’t it interesting that the Brits oppressed and lied to the Irish and did the same thing to the Native Americans? The similarities became more and more apparent as I wrote the book. I didn’t start out intending to equate the Irish immigrant experience with the experience of Native Americans, but the more I researched — in Ireland, at the Tenement Museum in Lower Manhattan, on Ellis Island, and in Maine — the more I learned about shared experiences of prejudice and deprivation. I also learned that both cultures are hardy, resilient, and use humor to poke fun at themselves and others.

Kenny: All right, so the ending is really moving. Were you trying to embarrass people or just write a really good book?

Christina: I’m so pleased that you liked the ending. I get lots of emails from readers asking me what happens next. When I wrote the last page of the novel I felt that my characters were launched on their journeys, and all you have to do is follow their trajectories through to imagine what happens next.

Kenny: Thanks, Christina, we’re looking forward to your visit.

Christina: Thank you for inviting me! I can’t wait to share stories with your readers about the research that went into writing Orphan Train — and the many surprises and discoveries along the way.

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