The unnamed narrator (Vivian) is with her neighbors, a childless German couple called the Schatzmans, a couple days “after the fire.” Mr. Schatzman wakes her to announce his plans to take her to the Children’s Aid Society. The narrator wants to wait for her Mam, who was taken away screaming, but he explains her mother “isn’t coming back.” Mr. Schatzman also says that the narrator’s sister, Maisie, “didn’t make it.” The girl is grief-stricken. The night before, she was stung to hear Mrs. Schatzman through the walls saying, “I didn’t ask for this.” The narrator then remembers the night of the fire – her Da and brothers’ bodies in the hallway, Maisie and her Mam taken away by medics. She thinks of relatives in Ireland who could take her, but realizes there is no way of getting in contact with them or paying the ship fare. The narrator realizes that she is completely alone – “a burden to society, and nobody’s responsibility.”
The author’s choice to zoom in on this moment, rather than to feature the fire, illustrates that what matters most from this period is Vivian’s feeling of being alone and defenseless. This is the moment when she realizes how vulnerable she is because she is “nobody’s responsibility.” This scene shows many parallels with Molly’s situation; Mrs. Schatzman’s complaint that she “didn’t ask” to be responsible for the child parallels Dina’s attitude of indignation at Molly’s mistakes. Further, Vivian’s feeling of being unsafe parallels Molly’s feeling that she isn’t secure in her home or relationships.
At the Children’s Aid Society, an unhappy middle-aged woman grooms and lectures the narrator. She warns her that people will judge her harshly because she is Irish. So that she will be accepted, the matron advises her to keep her red hair pinned back and to behave very well. She also reminds her that some women won’t like having a girl in the house who is “too comely.” She and another matron try to tell her that she can’t bring her claddagh cross necklace onto “the train” because the children “aren’t allowed keepsakes.” The narrator tells them it is all she has left of her family, both because it’s true and because she “thinks it will sway them,” which it does.
It becomes clear that young Vivian is going to be put up for adoption and sent on some kind of train. Despite the matron’s unhappy demeanor and the prejudice behind her comments, it appears she is trying to help Vivian improve her chances of finding a home. This moment illustrates how cultural prejudice further isolates Vivian – not only is she severed from her family, but from her surrounding culture as well. The rule against keepsakes illustrates how the children’s origins are erased to become adoptable.
The narrator is huddled onto a train platform along with dozens of other children. She wears a stiff pinafore that, along with her small suitcase of clothing, was given to her by the Children’s Aid Society. The volunteer who sewed her name onto her clothes scoffed at its foreign lettering. The narrator then reveals her name: Niamh (pronounced “Neev”) Power. The volunteer disdainfully told Niamh that her new family would surely change her name. Niamh explains that nobody “feels sorry” for her, because all the other children around her have also lost their families. The Children’s Aid workers focus on preparing them to begin their new lives, treating them as if they were “born the moment” they were placed in their care. As they board the train, the matron in charge, Mrs. Scatcherd, charges Niamh with taking care of a fourteen-month-old baby, Carmine.
It is now revealed that Vivian was born with a different name: Niamh. The volunteer’s disdain for Niamh’s name further supports the idea that Niamh’s culture won’t be welcomed in her new life. Surrounded by other children in the same predicament and forced to focus on the immediate problem of finding a home, Niamh has no space to process her loss—she must repress her sadness and focus on survival. The attitude of the Children’s Aid Society denies the preexisting identities and experiences of the children, forcing them to repress and hide their origins.
On the train, Mrs. Scatcherd makes a speech. She opens by saying, “They call this an orphan train.” She explains that they are leaving depraved backgrounds for new families and the “nobility of the country.” She warns them to behave well, or else they will be sent back to the city. Niamh is settled with Carmine, who cries from hunger. She feeds him sugar lumps that she pocketed from her meager breakfast, and he falls asleep in her lap. Mr. Curran, the other attendant, provides them each with lunch and blankets. Niamh wants to feel optimistic, but she knows promises don’t always “match with reality.” She longingly remembers her home and family in Kinvara. Caring for Carmine both comforts and pains her, reminding her of Maisie. She thinks of other, larger immigrant families in her New York tenement, and wonders if her parents would have fared better with more social support.
Mrs. Scatcherd’s speech reveals her stereotyped view of the poor and immigrant families of New York, while also giving the novel its title and offering the central motif of the book—the train carrying unwanted children from place to place. Caring for a baby is familiar and soothing to Niamh, and distracts her from her loneliness and fears. Though she wants to feel hopeful, just as she did when her family first immigrated, her disappointments and losses are beginning to teach her not to believe in promises. In this way, her wariness resembles Molly’s. Her thoughts about her parents’ isolation reflect her awareness that humans need each other and of how her isolation puts her at risk.