One of the realities American society has been facing with increasing frequency is a shifting definition of family. As I was growing up in the 1960s, most Americans (at least white, middle-class Americans) assumed the norm was the two-heterosexual-parent family raising two or more children born to them via the wife’s pregnancies. But nobody who’s been paying attention to media reports in the past ten years can avoid knowing that picture of the American family has changed. The 60s picture now only describes a minority of family types, and we’re acutely aware that American families also are made up of single-parent families, same-sex-parent families, and families in which grandparents are doing the bulk of the parenting.
Christina Baker Kline’s The Orphan Train shows us how a shifting definition of family was already true for the cohort of orphans flung across the country by train nearly a century ago. The book shows us all manner of family types that were every bit as dysfunctional as modern families are. Both Niamh’s and Dutchy’s own birth families were sadly compromised: Dutchy’s by a missing father and breadwinner; Niamh’s by a parent’s alcoholism; both by the shattering experience of immigration. Those families eventually disintegrated, leaving the children at the mercy of strangers. And those mercies turned out to be none too tender, as households from the Byrnes with their failing business to the Grotes in their squalor to Dutchy’s life with a slave-driving farmer proved. Decades later, in Maine, a similar story repeats itself for Molly. Clearly, a birth family can fail a child, and, just as clearly, merely joining a family can present more problems than it solves.
When Niamh (now Vivian) and Molly enter each other’s lives, it’s against that backdrop of family failure. What they find is that blood or even structural ties count a whole lot less than a willingness to be open, to be honest, to explore, and to trust. Finding someone – just about anyone, in fact – who will treat you with respect, care about what you think and welcome you as who you are, we learn, is as good a way as any to create family. The comfort of strangers can be enough.
My spouse and I come from a long line of families cast in the 60s-style mode, and that’s the way we structured our own family. Our children are as biologically related to us as they could possibly be. Our family’s experience is a long way from Vivian’s and Molly’s. But last fall, about the time I was reading The Orphan Train, our family took on a new wrinkle. Our daughter and son–in-law announced they would be adding to their family, and thereby to ours, by adoption. Our new granddaughter won’t know for a very long time that, from a traditional-family point of view, she’s among strangers, because our daughter has been with her almost from the moment of her birth. Meanwhile, everyone in our family is realizing that while our traditional blood ties are important, the attitudes that really keep us together – trust, respect, love, acceptance – will allow us to bring her into our family. They are what truly make us a family, regardless of who the birth parents are or how the family is structured. In The Orphan Train, that’s a truth Vivian and Molly discover, and it’s a truth they share with us.
~Malcolm McBryde, Reading Together Steering Committee
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts