Friday, March 30, 2018

Not recommended: ORPHAN TRAIN GIRL by Christina Baker Kline

In 2013, Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train was published. In 2017, a young readers’ edition came out. Here’s the description:
This young readers’ edition of Christina Baker Kline’s #1 New York Times bestselling novel Orphan Train follows a twelve-year-old foster girl who forms an unlikely bond with a ninety-one-year-old woman.

Adapted and condensed for a young audience, Orphan Train Girl includes an author’s note and archival photos from the orphan train era. This book is especially perfect for mother/daughter reading groups.
Molly Ayer has been in foster care since she was eight years old. Most of the time, Molly knows it’s her attitude that’s the problem, but after being shipped from one family to another, she’s had her fair share of adults treating her like an inconvenience. So when Molly’s forced to help an a wealthy elderly woman clean out her attic for community service, Molly is wary. 
But from the moment they meet, Molly realizes that Vivian isn’t like any of the adults she’s encountered before. Vivian asks Molly questions about her life and actually listens to the answers.
Soon Molly sees they have more in common than she thought. Vivian was once an orphan, too—an Irish immigrant to New York City who was put on a so-called "orphan train" to the Midwest with hundreds of other children—and she can understand, better than anyone else, the emotional binds that have been making Molly’s life so hard.
Together, they not only clear boxes of past mementos from Vivian’s attic, but forge a path of friendship, forgiveness, and new beginnings.
As the description indicates, there are two main characters in this story. The one of interest to me is the sixth-grade girl, Molly, who is Penobscot. She is named after Molly Molasses (p. 64):
…a Penobscot Indian born the year before America declared its independence. […] The Penobscots said Molly Molasses had powers, m’teoulin, given by the Great Spirit. People with those powers, her dad told her, could interpret what dreams meant, cure diseases, and tell hunters where to find game. It’s too bad Molly didn’t wind up with any of those powers herself. 
Kline's story is set in Maine. Molly spent her early years living on the reservation on Indian Island with her dad, who was Penobscot, and her mom (her identity is not specified, which means, she's white. You know--the default is always White). 

When she turned eight her mom made macaroni and cheese for the two of them and then they waited for Molly’s dad. Her mom tries calling his cell. He doesn’t pick up, but Molly hears her mom hissing into the phone “How could you forget your daughter’s birthday?”  After a while she goes to bed and wakes him when her dad is there, shaking her shoulder telling her to hold out her hand (p. 166-167):
She did, and he pulled three little cards out of the bag. On each one a small charm was wired into place. “Fishy,” he said, handing her the small pearly blue-and-green fish. “Raven.” The pewter bird. “Bear.” A tiny brown teddy bear. “It’s supposed to be a Maine black bear, but this is all they had,” he said apologetically. “I was trying to figure out what I could get you for your birthday. And I was thinking. You and me are Indian. Your mom’s not, but we are. So let’s see if I remember this right.” He moved over to sit on the bed and plucked the bird charm out of her hands. “Okay, this guy is magic. He’ll protect you from bad spells and stuff.” Then he picked up the teddy bear. “This fierce guy is a protector.” 
She laughed, relaxing. Her dad was home. Now her mom wouldn’t be mad anymore. Everything was all right, and it was okay that she’d had a birthday after all. 
“No, really. He may not look like much, but he’s fearless. And he’ll make you brave, too. All right. Now the fish. This one might be the best of all. He’ll give you the power to resist other people’s magic. How cool is that?”
She smiled sleepily. “But magic’s not real. Just in stories.” Her father’s face grew serious.  
“No, there’s a real kind of magic, Molly Molasses. You’re old enough to know about it now.” She felt a thrill that climbed up from her stomach, hearing her father say that. “It’s not like bad spells. It might be stuff that looks real good and sounds real nice. It might be—oh, I don’t know. Like maybe somebody telling you it’s okay to steal a candy bar from the Mini-Mart. You know it’s wrong to steal a candy bar, right? But maybe this person has a lot of magic and he’s saying, ‘Oh, come on, Moll, you won’t get caught. Don’t you love candy, come on, just one time?’” He wiggled the fish in his fingers and pretended that it was talking. “‘No, thank you! I know what you’re up to. You are not putting your magic on me, no sir, I will swim right away from you, y’hear?’”
Molly smiled. Her dad smiled back. “But now you’re protected from that sort of magic. Nobody can make you do stuff you don’t want to do. Nobody can tell you who you are, nobody but you.” 
Before then, her dad had given her a corn husk doll but she didn’t much like it. She would have rather had a Barbie doll. Two weeks after that birthday evening is the car crash. Her mom is having a hard time with his death, so, a case worker steps in, and six months later she's put into the foster system (p. 10): 

There weren’t any foster families on the reservation who could take her, so she ended up getting shuffled around before landing with Ralph and Dina.
That placement with Ralph and Dina is where this story takes place. There's a lot about emotional interactions Molly has with foster families and other children but almost nothing about emotions over her parents. She's snarky about her mom, but her dad is pretty much just... not in her head or heart. 

Molly’s social studies class is studying the Wabanaki Indians, and for the first time since she started at this new school, she’s interested because she’s learning things about the Wabanakis that she didn’t know. She’s angry, for example, when she learns about the treaties and how land had been taken from the Wabanakis, and how people called them “dirty, redskins, savages” (p. 125). When someone in the class says that the Wabanakis just have to deal with what happened, she raises her hand, tells them she’s part Wabanaki, and that (p. 125):
… what happened to the Native Americans wasn’t a fair fight. You can’t take everything away from someone, everything they own and care about, and then just say, ‘Deal with it.’ That’s not okay.”


That, in short, is pretty much all that Kline tells us about Molly and her identity. Orphan Train Girl is really about the girl who was, in fact, an orphan train girl. That girl, Vivian, is the other character in the story.  The book description tells us that Vivian asks Molly about her life, but there's very little of Molly's life in comparison to what Vivian tells her about her own life. Molly’s identity and purpose for being in this story is to provide a way for Kline to tell a story about Vivian.

In the Acknowledgements, Kline wrote that when she was writing this book, her mother was teaching a class at the University of Maine. That class was “Native American Women in Literature and Myth.” A final assignment was to (p. 226):
…use the Indian concept of portaging to describe “their journeys along uncharted waters and what they chose to carry forward in portages to come.” The concept of portaging, I realized, was the missing strand I needed to weave my book together.  
Kline’s mother used portaging for her own purposes. Kline apparently liked that idea so much that she had Molly’s teacher give Molly’s class that same assignment. They were to interview a parent or grandparent and (p. 63-64): 
… interview someone in your family. Someone older. Your mother or father, a grandparent, someone who’s lived through things you haven’t. And ask them about a time they had to take a journey of some kind. Maybe it was an actual journey, maybe just a change of life, trying something new. Ask what they took with them from their old life and what they decided to leave behind. You’ll turn the answers they give you into a report for the class.” 
And that, speaking frankly, is how a major publisher can turn a best seller into something that will bring in more money: adapt it for young readers and put it forth as if it is a Native story. It isn't. Orphan Train Girl is (if you can't tell), rubbing me the wrong way. 

But there's more. I think somebody read Orphan Train and told Kline that Molly's identity as a Native child being put into the foster system was a problem. Someone told her about ICWA. But, she (or perhaps--Sarah Thompson--the person who adapted the story for young readers) didn't incorporate any of that into the story. Instead, Kline put this in a note in the back (p. 227):
In a case like Molly’s, when a Native American family is not available to foster a child, the Tribal Court will allow her to be fostered to a non-Indian family.
She also says, in that note, that Donna Loring, a member of the Penobscot Nation read the manuscript (p. 227):
...advising me on issues related to the ICWA, and adding shading and nuance to some complicated questions about Native American symbols and laws.
As I noted, though, there's no ICWA in the story. I assume the "symbols" has to do with those charms that Molly's dad gave to her. But all in all, the story that Kline tells is one where she's using a Native character and Native content to tell a story that is--at its heart--about a White woman. It is a history Kline clearly wants to tell but she could have done that without this decorative use of Molly. 

In short: I do not recommend Orphan Train Girl. Published in 2017 by Harper, this is another instance of a book written by a non-Native writer who is using Native content (poorly) and getting published by a major publisher. For the sake of every child in the US, this has to stop. 


Ava Jarvis said...

Gently tamping down my anger for this comment because not feeling well this afternoon. So I'll just note that the book description of

"and she can understand, better than anyone else, the emotional binds that have been making Molly’s life so hard."

makes me wonder why "better than anyone else" is here. Like, what does that mean? Why would Vivian understand Molly based on Vivian's history than, say, oh, so many other folks with marginalized identities who were separated from their parents and tossed into foster homes? This is insulting hyperbole on the part of the author, or if the author didn't write the description, whoever wrote it.

Also *cringe* all I can think of at the end is, yes, great, another author who took on a sensitivity reader and didn't listen enough to their advice to incorporate any of it into their final draft.

Beverly Slapin said...

Yup, using Indians as decoration in order to market and sell (and win awards for) "diverse" (formerly "multicultural") children's books.

Anonymous said...

I hope that Christina Baker Kline, and anyone who read the book, will watch the new (Nov 2018) documentary "Dawnland" to understand the issue of ICWA and Native American child removal in Maine.

Jaxxi said...

I liked this book the first time I read it but the way Kline overshadows Vivian over Molly, I didn't even remember that she was Indian....and I AM part Indian!I feel so different now. Yes she was MAJORLY out- characterized by Vivian, leaving nothing remarkable.