Based on historical events, Christiana Baker Kline's Orphan Train is told through the point of view of fictional characters with similar backgrounds: They were both orphaned, and their lives were put into the hands of the foster care system. Despite the eighty years between Molly and Vivian, the parallels between their stories are staggering. Their experiences reveal the consequences of a system that tries to do what is best for these parentless children, but question whether the results override the intentions. Students will learn about this little-known event in American history and determine for themselves how much the foster care system has improved over the majority of a century.

Baker Kline also places her characters into situations in which they much deal with the unfamiliarity of a new country on their own and must overcome the constant threat of losing their identity. Students can discuss the significance of identity as well as the implications for this issue's continued relevancy, most notably the resulting feelings of isolation that both Molly and Vivian eventually subject themselves to.


Key Facts

  • Length: 278 pages
  • Publication Date: 2013
  • Lexile Measure: 890
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9 – 10

Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer is presented with a choice: go to a juvenile hall facility and allow her transgressions to leave a permanent mark on her record, or put in some community service hours by helping the widow Vivian Daly clean out her attic. As Molly begrudgingly opens the boxes containing items from Vivian's past, she learns that not only is Vivian an orphan like herself, but both have been subject to the unreliable, and at times cruel, system society has in place for dealing with displaced children. The more objects Molly dusts off, the further Vivian divulges about her past, and the novel's setting shifts from modern-day Maine to the pre-depression era orphan train as it departs the station in New York City and travels to the farm fields of Minnesota. Just like Molly, twelve year-old Vivian (then Niamh), is taken in, abused, rejected, and must constantly wonder if anyone will ever want her. By the time the attic is set right, Molly has taken it upon herself to do a little research, and is not only able to find Vivian's long-lost family, but finds one of her own.

Content Warning: This novel contains child abuse, racial prejudice, instances of profanity, and some sexual content, including rape.

Your students will love:

  • Learning about this little-known historical event
  • Following the characters as they learn and grow from experience

Students may have problems with:

  • Keeping track of the numerous characters
  • Discussions of child abuse, rape, and moments of racial prejudice

Objectives for Teaching Orphan Train

  • Discuss and compare the similarities between Molly's and Vivian's heritage and how both women deal with their oppression.
  • Point out and give examples of instances in which the foster care system fails children.
  • Explain the role of identity and how identity is threatened throughout the novel.
  • Understand the relationship between social status and the treatment of orphans, as well as how the Depression influenced this connection.
  • List the characteristics and expectations for both the boys and girls on the train.
  • Comment on Vivian's view of family and how it changes throughout the novel.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Historical Present
  • Paralleism
  • Point of View
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

Displacement and Feelings of Disassociation  — Vivian must leave behind all she knows in Ireland, but when she arrives, she must not only adjust to the new culture, she, like Molly, must constantly adapt to the new familial environments she is placed in.

Related Works:

Identity and Oppression — The Irish are looked down upon in the early 1900s, and Vivian must struggle to hold onto anything to remind her of her old life, just as Molly must deal with the eradication of her Indian ancestors.

Related Works:

Overcoming Hardships — The novel portrays the adversities faced by those who were placed on the orphan trains, as well as those who are currently in the foster care system.

Related Works:


  • #1New York Times bestseller (2012)
  • Maine Literary Award Nominee for Fiction (Finalist) (2014)
  • Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2013)


A 1979 film titled Orphan Train provides a fictionalized account set in 1854. The movie was directed by William A. Graham and stars Jill Eikenberry and Kevin Dobson. Kline’s novel is currently in the process of being adapted by Broad Green Pictures.

External Resources

Orphan Train Free Library Resources:

More Teacher's Guides to Literature:

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.