Saturday, August 15, 2015

Orphan Train: a book club review

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline is a book I approached with a certain excited trepidation. Having written my masters thesis on Victorian orphans, I knew the despicable pedant in me would be on the look out for historical inaccuracies, but it's also a topic I find fascinating and the blurbs sounded good. Of course, there is a world of difference between Dickens' "lone, lorn, creatures" and American children sent from East Coast cities to lives of servitude in the Midwest (the plot is slightly more Anne of Green Gables than Oliver Twist).

Orphan Train uses the classic (a.k.a. cliché) story-within-a-story structure. The framing story has troubled Goth teenager Molly meeting aged rich lady Vivian to do some community service. There are no surprises in Orphan Train - I can hardly even clarify for myself what might constitute a spoiler in this review since not a single element of the plot was a twist. Their friendship builds as Vivian tells Molly the story of her childhood as an 'Orphan Train rider' and ... the rest is glossed-over history. 

Kline's story-telling is pleasant. Her writing style is both poetic and fluid, and her characters, in general, are well-developed. I devoured the book like one does a meringue - in the moment it's great, but you aren't left with much at the end.

In fact, as I was preparing to go to book club, I had to check my book shelf to remember what book we'd read. What was missing was any sort of sensory input. Not just skirting the issue of 'bad things happening,' but the stench of a family of 6 living in a New York City tenement, the cold of an unheated Minnesota sewing room, the pain of soul-crushing loss, the ache of horny teenagers, the promise of spring. Given the time period of the inside story, Kline left a lot on the table.

It's a good book. On the 'liked/didn't like, recommend/don't recommend, three-word review' test for book club I'd say
  • liked
  • recommend
  • predictable, enjoyable, fails to impress

Dear sweet funny bad-ass Little E hosted a luscious summer patio dinner, and faced the challenge of hosting for this book head on. We have a tradition in the club of, when possible, tying the theme of the dinner to the theme of the book. For a book like The Great Gatsby or The Secret Life of Bees the theme can be both obvious and inspiring to work with. For a book about orphans sent to work on farms and in other forms of indentured servitude for people little capable of or willing to care for them, during the Great Depression, with references only to squirrel stew or weak potato soup well, the cooking becomes a little more challenging.

And so, in true Little E style, we started with vodka spiked rosemary lemonade. I don't know that there's a connection to the book, and I don't care. She should bottle that stuff! From there, the framing story of the book is set on the coast of Maine, and Little E wisely took her inspiration from there.

Clam chowder thick enough to stand a spoon in, with an extra bowl of crumbled bacon on the side if we wanted more (it's bacon - WE WANTED MORE!). Seafood tacos with sass and verve and succulence. Lobster salad. There was more. Much more. And sorbet in orange peel bowls for dessert were the perfect palette cleansing touch of sweetness.

As always, the conversation was rich and far-ranging and sometimes off topic and insightful. On a sunny July deck in a gorgeous thriving back garden, with bees (okay, wasps, but they're less poetic) buzzing and a sweet baby girl stopping by to say "goodnight Mama" to our hostess, there was plenty of proof once again why book club is my favourite night of the month.

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