As a writer I’ve always been interested in how people tell the stories of their lives and what these stories reveal, intentionally or not, about who they are. I am intrigued by the spaces between words, the silences that conceal long-kept secrets, the complexities that lie beneath the surface. And I am interested in the pervasive and insidious legacy of trauma: the way events beyond our control can shape and define our lives. All of my novels address these themes.
Like my four previous novels, Orphan Train is about cultural identity and family history. For the first time, however, I undertook a project that required a huge amount of historical, cultural, and geographical research. This novel traces the journey of Vivian Day, a 91-year-old woman, from a small village in Ireland to the crowded streets of the Lower East Side to the wide-open expanses of the Midwest to the coast of Maine. Her life spans nearly a century, encompassing great historical change and upheaval.
Orphan Train is a specifically American story of mobility and rootlessness, highlighting a little-known but historically significant moment in our country’s past. Between 1854 and 1929, so-called “orphan trains ” transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children from the coastal cities of the eastern United States to the Midwest, where they were taken in and many were eventually adopted. My own background is partly Irish, and so I decided that I wanted to write about an Irish girl who has kept silent about the circumstances that led her to the orphan train. “People who cross the threshold between the known world and that place where the impossible does happen discover the problem of how to convey that experience, ” Kathryn Harrison writes. Over the course of Orphan Train Vivian moves from shame about her past to acceptance, eventually coming to terms with what she’s been through. In the process she learns about the regenerative power of claiming — and telling — one’s life story.