As children, Molly and Vivian both become responsible for their own survival, and they struggle to find a place in which they feel safe physically and emotionally. Their safety is often threatened, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse—and even when their safety isn’t immediately threatened, their status as orphaned children makes them vulnerable to the whims of strangers, which prevents them from ever feeling truly safe. Their struggle makes them strong and resourceful, but it also forces them to repress their emotions in order to concentrate on survival. Nevertheless, they both ultimately find a place in the world where they feel safe.
Without consistent guardians, both Vivian and Molly are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and neglect. In response to abusive and exploitative caregivers, both girls become skeptical and distrusting of others. For example, at the Byrnes’, Vivian is underfed, exploited for free labor, and abandoned to care for herself. At the home of the Grotes, she is also underfed, left to sleep in the cold, and sexually abused by Mr. Grote. After these experiences, she becomes distrustful of the intentions of others. She moves forward in life assuming that most people are selfish and potentially dangerous. Similarly, Molly’s experiences of neglect, physical abuse, and sexual exploitation while in foster care have led her to believe that most adults are selfish, deceitful, and unreliable. She sees herself as being the only person responsible for her survival, and she struggles to trust the intentions and reliability of others.
As the novel illustrates, a sense of safety also requires having a stable, secure home and family. Conversely, a feeling of being unsafe results from living in an unstable or temporary home, or living with the constant risk of rejection. After losing their parents, both Molly and Vivian are left to move between temporary families. The temporary nature of foster care (and in Vivian’s case, adoptive care in the 1920s) keeps them from developing a secure sense of home and belonging. In each new home, they run the risk of being ejected if their presence becomes unwanted. This creates a constant fear of rejection. Even when the girls’ physical safety isn’t endangered, they have no guarantee of how long they will be welcomed and cared for in each home.
With no consistent guardians to keep them safe, Vivian and Molly must both be vigilant about their own survival—and their struggle to survive requires them to repress their emotions in order to continue moving forward. Because they are in “survival mode,” their energy and effort is entirely dedicated to self-protection. This produces a drain on their emotional energy, which then disrupts their ability to feel and express normal emotions and to invest in building human connections with others. For example, as a child temporarily living with the Grote family, Vivian feels no love or connection to the other Grote children. She knows that they need love, but she only has enough energy to perform her household chores, feed the children, and take herself to school—she doesn’t have the strength or resources to provide the love that the other children should be getting from their parents. When Vivian finds a stable home with the Nielsens, however, she again begins to feel capable of empathy, as evidenced by her interest in the hungry homeless children who visit her adoptive parents’ general store.
For both women, a lifetime of focusing primarily on physical and emotional survival often means moving forward without fully managing the trauma of the past. Moving forward involves going through the motions of building a new life without acknowledging one’s underlying emotional needs and experiences. After so many experiences of abuse, neglect, hunger and deprivation, Vivian simply craves a comfortable, safe home above all else. But while she craves love and a sense of belonging, she also desperately fears the risks associated with these pursuits. When her fear of loss materializes in the death of her husband, Dutchy, she retreats yet again into focusing on her survival, repressing her lifetime of grief and eliminating any possibility of risk by marrying someone she doesn’t love deeply. Similarly, Molly tries not to think about how she misses her parents or to consider her sense of loneliness and fear. Instead, she is always focused on holding herself together and finding a safe next place to live. One of the many reasons she resists forming attachment is that it is easier to let go, bounce back, and move forward after loss when she isn’t attached to people and places. For both women, their friendship ultimately gives them a sense of physical and emotional safety and security that then frees them to address their emotional needs for meaning and connection.
Safety and Survival ThemeTracker
Safety and Survival Quotes in Orphan Train
Even after getting into trouble like this and probably getting sent away, she knows she’d never have asked Jack to buy the book. If there is one thing she hates most about being in the foster care system, it’s this dependence on people you barely know, your vulnerability to their whims. She has learned not to expect anything from anybody.
But Mr. Schatzman frowns and shakes his head, and it’s then that I realize just how alone I am. There is no adult on this side of the Atlantic who has reason to take any interest in me, no one to guide me onto a boat or pay for my passage. I am a burden to society, and nobody’s responsibility.
No one feels sorry for me because I’ve lost my family. Each of us has a sad tale; we wouldn’t be here otherwise. The general feeling is that it’s best not to talk about the past, that the quickest relief will come in forgetting.
Our sponsors have told us little; we know only that we are going to a land where apples grow in abundance on low-hanging branches and cows and pigs and sheep roam freely in the fresh country air. A land where good people – families – are eager to take us in […] But I am skeptical. I know all too well how it is when the beautiful visions you’ve been fed don’t match up with reality.
Dina purses her lips and cocks her head, clearly trying to gauge whether Molly’s praise is sincere. Well, Dina, Molly thinks, it is and it isn’t. Thank you for taking me in and feeding me. But if you think you can squash my ideals, force me to eat meat when I told you I don’t, expect me to care about your aching back when you don’t seem the slightest bit interested in my life, you can forget it. I’ll play your fucking game. But I don’t have to play by your rules.
I keep forgetting to answer to Dorothy. But in a way I am glad to have a new identity. It makes it easier to let go of so much else. I’m not the same Niamh who left her Gram and aunties and uncles in Kinvara and came across the ocean on the Agnes Pauline, who lived with her family on Elizabeth Street. No, I am Dorothy now.
“I will help you find a home,” she says gently. “A place that is safe and clean, where you’ll be treated like a ten-year-old-girl. I promise you that.”
And though I rarely take the claddagh off, as I get older I can’t escape the realization that the only remaining piece of my blood family comes from a woman who pushed her only son and his family out to sea in a boat, knowing full well she’d probably never see them again.
We both start laughing – at the absurdity of our shared experiences, the relief of recognition. We cling to each other like survivors of a shipwreck, astonished that neither of us drowned.
Lying in that hospital bed I feel all of it: the terrible weight of sorrow, the crumbling of my dreams. I sob uncontrollably for all that I’ve lost – the love of my life, my family, a future I’d dared to envision. And in that moment I make a decision. I can’t go through this again. I can’t give myself to someone so completely only to lose them. I don’t want, ever again, to experience the loss of someone I love beyond reason.
She can sleep with the door open, wander around freely, come and go without someone watching her every move. She hadn’t realized how much of a toll the years of judgment and criticism, implied and expressed, had taken on her. It’s as if she’s been walking on a wire, trying to keep her balance, and now, for the first time, she is on solid ground.
Sitting in the rocker in the kitchen, looking out at the water, Molly feels oddly at peace. For the first time since she can remember, her life is beginning to make sense. What up until this moment has felt like a random, disconnected series of unhappy events she now views as necessary steps in a journey toward… enlightenment is perhaps too strong a word, but there are others, less lofty, like self-acceptance and perspective.