Orphan Train

Orphan Train

Orphan Train Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mrs. Byrne introduces Niamh (as “Dorothy”) to the women in the room, all of whom are sitting and operating sewing machines or sewing by hand. She introduces them by name – Bernice, Joan and Sally, and the youngest, Mary, who seems displeased. An elderly woman, Fanny, is the only one to smile at Niamh. Mrs. Byrne explains that meals are served at specific times, with no snacking allowed, and that “Dorothy” can settled in after supper. Until then, she leaves Niamh to help do Mary’s “scut work.” Niamh begins hand-sewing and collecting pins for Mary, who is annoyed with her presence. When Niamh asks for help finding a bathroom, Fanny walks her to an outhouse and warns Niamh never to use the indoor bathroom. She notices how thin Niamh is and gives her an apple she pocketed from lunch, instructing her to eat it in the privy so nobody will see.
Mrs. Byrne gives Niamh no time to settle in or adjust after her long travels before she makes her start working. This further highlights how little Mrs. Byrne cares about Niamh’s needs and wellbeing. Fanny takes on the role of looking after Niamh, which is especially important given Mrs. Byrne’s disinterest and the indifference and even hostility of the other girls. The rule against snacking illustrates the austerity and strictness of the girls’ work environment, and the rule against using the indoor bathroom serves to dehumanize and distance the seamstresses from the Byrnes.
Themes
Belonging and Connection Theme Icon
Self and Identity Theme Icon
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Hope and Skepticism Theme Icon
Back in the sewing room, Mary continues to criticize Niamh’s work. Niamh knows her work is nearly perfect because she used to help her mother, who took on sewing jobs to make extra money. Still, Mary makes her repeatedly redo her stitches, until Niamh loses her temper. Mary hisses that Niamh is “nothing” and doesn’t “even have a family.” Niamh walks out. Fanny follows, reasoning with her to ignore Mary. She quietly asks Niamh whether the Byrnes are paying her, but just then, Mrs. Byrne appears in the stairwell. She asks what the commotion is about. Fanny feigns frustration with the girls, explaining that they are fighting about whether or not the newspaper boy “has a sweetheart.” Mrs. Byrne gently scolds Niamh not to get involved in such “nonsense.” For the rest of the day, Mary and Niamh don’t speak.
Fanny’s question about whether or not the Byrnes are paying Niamh highlights the extent to which the Byrnes are exploiting Niamh for free labor. It also suggests that Mary may be upset that the Byrnes have hired an unpaid laborer to do the work she is paid for. Mary’s cruel words to Niamh about being “nothing” highlight both her own lack of compassion and the commonly held belief that a person’s value depends on their family. Fanny’s crafty cover shows how well she knows how to lie to avoid her boss’s rage – a skill that seems necessary to protect herself and others.
Themes
Belonging and Connection Theme Icon
Self and Identity Theme Icon
Safety and Survival Theme Icon
Secrets, Reality, and Illusions Theme Icon
After dinner, Mrs. Byrne tells Niamh that there is a pallet for her to roll out every night in the hallway. When Niamh expresses her surprise, Mrs. Byrne laughs at the idea that Niamh thought she’d be sleeping “with [them] on the second floor.” She instructs Niamh not to “disturb” her and Mr. Byrne after dinner, and says she is certain they will all have a “positive experience” so long as Niamh doesn’t “disappoint them.” After Niamh washes the dinner dishes, she sits down and thinks about her situation. Even though the Byrnes “don’t want to treat [her] like a child,” she supposes she wouldn’t want that anyway. She tries to think of the “bright side,” just as her Gram taught her: She is lucky to have food, shelter, and work to occupy her mind, and soon she will be in school, which she loves. After she visits the outhouse, she discovers that someone put a padlock on the refrigerator.
Mrs. Byrne’s laughter when she realizes Niamh thought she would be sleeping on the second floor highlights just how unapologetic she is about treating Niamh like a servant. Forcing Niamh to sleep on a pallet when they have a large enough house to put her up elsewhere shows how the Byrnes are intentionally depriving Niamh in order to “keep her in her place.” Their rule against “disturbing” them after dinner highlights just how alone and neglected Niamh is in their house. Yet as a coping mechanism, Niamh tries to convince herself that she is okay with this situation. Just like Molly, she has learned to make lists of positive things to guard against suffering.
Themes
Belonging and Connection Theme Icon
Safety and Survival Theme Icon
Secrets, Reality, and Illusions Theme Icon
Hope and Skepticism Theme Icon