The Best Book Club Ideas for “Orphan Train”

Everything You Need to Lead the Best Book Club discussion ever of Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, a novel.

Orphans lined up outside their train in Kansas. Kansas State Historical Society via Humanities Magazine .

Orphans lined up outside their train in Kansas. Kansas State Historical Society via Humanities Magazine.

Background Information for Orphan Train

  1. The Orphan Train Movement in the United States

    Information about the Orphan Train Movement online is plentiful, but much of it is contradictory and apparently not well researched. This article, from history.com is reliable and has links to photos by Lewis Hine, who famously photographed the New York slums and children working around the United Staes during the time that the movement occurred. It’s easy to see why reformers wanted to get the children out of cities and factories and on to farms even if their impulses might seem misguided by modern standards.

2. Penobscot Nation

Molly is a member of the Penobscot Nation through her father. Check this article for information in print and audio along with maps and pictures (pages 22 and 161 for description).Portaging, which is a concept that is a basis for Molly’s school assignment on page 161.

3. Portaging

Blog Post: Canoeing and portaging with kids on the East Branch Penobscot River

Although this blog post is about a modern application of the concept of “portaging”, this version should better help everyone understand what’s involved when they think about packing for a trip…with kids…while everything is portable and water tight. The author talks about “portaging” about 2/3rds of the way down.   

The author never clearly explains how she is using the term (which is apparently a common kayaking/canoeing term in the modern sense), but portaging is when you combine hiking and water travel, so you have to have everything packed into water-tight luggage that can also be easily carried. 

About Christina Baker Kline and More of Her Books

Christina Baker Kline is an Englishwoman who was educated in the U.K. and the U.S. She supports a wide variety of charities related to topics in her books, including American indigenous people, adoption, and literacy.

She has published several books, which you can see here. Most of them are set in the present day and are not historical. Readers of Orphan Train might especially be interested in three of her publiactions:

  1. Vivian’s Choice, an expanded scene from Orphan Train, which is a free Kindle download from Amazon. It might be a good idea for the entire book club to be made aware of this excerpt before the meeting!

  2. Orphan Train Girl, a “Young Readers” edition of Orphan Train designed for middle school and up and also good for time-crunched book club members!

  3. The Exiles, a historical novel set in Australia during its time as a British penal colony.

Discussion Questions for Orphan Train

Note: If the discussion falters, ask the group what they didn’t understand or what they “wondered” about. You will find out what the group is interested in. 

Don’t rush the group through the questions or try to hit every single question, but don’t allow members to “take over” the discussion either. If time starts to run short, give the group a choice.

Finish on the agreed upon time so there is time for socialization after.

  1. Opening questions for discussion of Orphan Train

(elicit as many responses as possible):


  1. What literal things would you portage, if you had to suddenly move or leave home?

  2.  What would you portage in a metaphorical sense? 

  3. What traits are the most important to who you are, and what would you “leave behind”?


2. Discussion Questions for Orphan Train


  1. a. Considering the experiences of Niamh/Vivian, Dutchy, and Carmine as presented in the book, was the concept of the “orphan train” or placing children out of state a good solution with respect to the outcomes for the children?

    b. What do you think of the concept of teenagers and older children being expected to work at home, as they are in Orphan Train, in exchange for their room, board (e.g. meals), and access to education in contrast to the modern system, in which the government supports the children until they are 18? 

    c. “Dutchy” is cynical about his prospects in the West and regrets being separated from the support system he found through his friends on the street, who supported themselves through selling newspapers, shining shoes, or “posting bills” (putting up advertising signs) (page 52).

2. The modern foster care program that we have in the United States grew out of the system described as the “orphan train”, which was in turn seen as better than raising children in orphanages.  Niamh/Vivian and Molly.  Given that contrast, what works (and doesn’t) in the modern system, based on the depiction of these characters?

3. Closing Questions for Orphan Train

 1. After reading this book, what does author Christina Baker Kline want you to remember?

2. What will you remember?

Further Reading for Topics Related to Orphan Train

  1. Women of the Dawn by Bunny McBride

Women of the Dawn is a collective biography of 4 women from the Wabanaki Native (Indian) Nation Confederacy, of which the Penobscot Nation is a member. The second in the group is Molly Molasses, for whom “Molly” is named.

2. Emily’s Story – The Brave Journey of an Orphan Train Rider by Clark Kidder

  1. Historian Clark Kidder has written several books about the background of the Orphan Train Movement, but the centerpiece of his work is Emily’s Story, written about his own grandmother’s experience as one of the “orphans”. Parts of her story are eerily similar to Vivian’s. This PBS video, in which Kidder reads from Emily’s Story and shares photographs with a live audience, is also highly recommended.

    As of publication, Emily’s Story is available through FREE a Kindle Unlimited membership. If you choose to join Kindle Unlimited, PLEASE click here! You can always join just for FREE trial period.

3. White Oleander by Janet Fitch

I would call this early Oprah book club selection from 2000 a modern, if minor, classic about a teenager growing up in the Los Angeles foster care system while her mother, a poet, is incarcerated.

Please be sure to add your tips for having a great Book Club Meeting about Orphan Train below!