Orphan Train

Orphan Train


Christina Baker Kline

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Orphan Train: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Several hours pass in the train. Niamh occupies herself with caring for Carmine and reading from Mrs. Scatcherd’s Bible. Niamh is one of the only children who know how to read. She thinks of how her mother taught her to read when she was little, and made her practice by reading food labels and packaging. She recalls when her mother took out a volume by a Kinvara poet, Francis Fahy. A poem about Fahy’s determination to return to his beloved Kinvara often made Niamh’s Mam cry and express her regret over leaving Ireland.
Until now, the author has primarily portrayed Niamh’s mother as bitter and neglectful. However, she now deepens the mother’s character by showing how she put effort into teaching her daughter to read. Niamh’s memory of reading Fahy’s poetry with her mother shows how literature connected them and how much her mother suffered from isolation and longing in their new country.
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Some older boys on the train start making trouble for Mr. Curran, who is easily flustered. One boy frightens the children by shouting that he’d rather go back to shoe shining than end up living in a barn with animals. Mrs. Scatcherd intervenes, announcing that their “Christian duty” is to find good, god-fearing families to reform and raise the children well – though, she admits, this won’t work out for everyone. She sends the biggest troublemaker to sit with Niamh, to Niamh’s dismay. The boy, who is about twelve, looks at Niamh “in a way that makes [her] blush.” He starts playing with Carmine. He tells Niamh that it will be hard for them to find homes because they’re older and she’s redheaded, so it would be better to run away. Even though she knows he’s probably right, she debates with him, arguing the virtues of following along and behaving well.
This passage reveals how Mr. Curran isn’t as formidable an authoritarian as Mrs. Scatcherd, suggesting that despite gender norms for the era, the woman in this situation is the more dominant individual. Mrs. Scatcherd’s words reveal her realism about the children’s predicament. Because of the boy’s skepticism about the orphan train, he would rather go back to the familiar streets of New York and fend for himself. Like Molly, he doesn’t want to put himself in a situation where he is dependent on others. Niamh continues to behave well, perhaps hoping that doing so might help secure her a good home.
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