What is it with me reading orphan books lately? In the past 6 months I’ve read: The Orphan Master’s Son, The Goldfinch, The Panopticon, The Cider House Rules, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Eva Luna, and now Orphan Train.
No doubt that “orphans” has long been a popular theme in literature: Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, and, like, all of Dickens’ protagonists***.
(*** one or more of these books were referenced in almost all of the orphan-themed books I read in the last 6 months)
What is it about orphan tales? Is it that we feel instant empathy for an orphan character? Orphan tales are usually survival tales: does this feed in with our recent collective desire to read post-apocalyptic stories? Is Dickens now the new old thing? (see: newly published book Havisham. Maybe we’re moving on from Austen reworkings to Dickens). Are we nervous about our own survival? Do we identify with feeling alone in the world, even if we do have family and friends? I don’t know.
The thing with orphan stories, though, is that their built in pathos has to be dealt with delicately by the author. Orphan stories can quickly go maudlin, or become gratuitous in depictions of deprivation. Orphan stories a la Dickens often have outrageous coincidences, as if the orphan’s hard luck is being compensated by divine fate. And too often, orphan stories feature the cruelest of villains, their inward hatefulness reflected by the ugliest of physical features. I think in some ways that all orphan stories are at their heart fairy tales: the lost hero or heroine, the evil villain, the fairy godmother or -father, the magic of coincidence, the bag of gold at the end of the journey. It takes a gifted writer to write an orphan story that goes beyond this fairy tale trope, and beyond its own plot to tell a story that has a greater commentary on life and how we live it.
The Orphan Master’s Son, The Goldfinch, The Panopticon, The Cider House Rules, The Miseducation of Cameron Post,, and Eva Luna all pulled this off, especially the first three on this list. Orphan Master and Goldfinch especially so, and I hurtled along with the story, gripped by the characters and what the story was trying to say, and almost didn’t notice the outrageous Dickensian coincidences. Maybe that’s because the characters felt real, three-dimensional, complicated, flawed. Maybe because the book did not feel like a plot delivery device, constructed by an author sitting at a table. I lived in those novels.
Not so with Orphan Train. (funny, I almost mistyped orphan as Oprah there…hmmm). Many of the good characters have golden hair and attractive features. The scenes of depravity feel out of tone with the rest of the book’s narrative style, as if the author is going for a modern edginess but is not really comfortable doing so. The narration flips between modern day third person and 1920s first person, both in the present tense, and this narrative choice especially did not work for me. The 1920s first person present narration was particularly weird: a nine year old girl narrating what is happening with the voice of her older self looking back, yet it is really meant to be present tense without the removal of time. The plot was wholly predictable, the orphan fairy tale structure from beginning to end.
It is not a “bad” book. The writing flows well, and you feel sympathy for the two main protagonists (how could you not? they’re orphans). But Orphan Train felt like a ride that you got on and knew exactly where it was going.