Within the novel, appearances are often deceiving. Over time, this creates illusions about reality that can have detrimental consequences for the vulnerable protagonists. At the same time, secrets and pretenses may also help to aid vulnerable people in their survival. Ultimately, Vivian and Molly discover that liberation from secrets and illusions is part of the process of reconciling with past mistakes and trauma in order to move forward.
As Vivian and Molly discover, misleading appearances can be dangerous, especially during moments of extreme vulnerability. For example, Mr. Sorenson, the social worker with the Children’s Aid Society in Minnesota, believes that something is wrong with Niamh because she has been ejected from two foster families in a row, and both times by the woman of the house. Mr. Sorenson quickly assumes that his perception of reality is accurate, and that this pattern is the consequence of Niamh’s character deficiencies. In reality, however, she has had the bad luck of being placed into two abusive foster homes where the foster mother didn’t really want her there in the first place. Acting on his misguided interpretation of events, Mr. Sorenson tries to send Niamh back to the home where she was molested, which would have again threatened her safety. Luckily for Niamh, Mrs. Murphy, the innkeeper, arranges an alternate home for Niamh, which saves her from the consequences of the misunderstanding.
As Niamh’s other experiences show, intentional lies may also be harmful, particularly for vulnerable individuals. Niamh’s first foster family, the Byrnes, pretend to be adopting a child when, in reality, they are using adoption in order to get free labor for their clothing business. And after Mr. Grote molests Niamh, he and his wife throw her out into the cold with the intention of lying to social workers about it later (even if she should die).
At the same time, however, intentional deceit can also help vulnerable individuals in their survival. As a child, Niamh hides or minimizes her Irish Catholic background in order to better assimilate into the Protestant Midwestern households in which she is placed. In her first foster home, she also lies to Mrs. Byrne when she is blamed for “stealing food”: her family isn’t feeding her enough, so she is forced to steal food and lie about it in order to survive. In Molly’s case, she believes that she must lie to Vivian about the purpose of her “community service” help so that Vivian will agree to participate. She tells Vivian she is doing a community service project for school, but in reality, she is on probation for stealing a book from the library, and she must complete a community service project or else face time in juvenile detention. If Molly goes to “juvie,” she will lose her foster care placement and face a criminal record. Molly knows that if she tells Vivian the truth, she may refuse to sponsor Molly’s project. Facing the risk of juvenile detention, Molly sees lying to Vivian as her only opportunity to get out of a bad situation.
Sometimes secrets and omissions of information allow the characters to create false illusions that serve their purposes. For example, Vivian never tells her second husband, Jim Daly, the full truth about her childhood as an orphan. She also keeps it a secret that she had a baby who she gave up for adoption. She keeps these secrets because she doesn’t want to think about the hard parts of her past. By keeping them a secret from her husband, she is able to pretend they never happened. This gives her a sense of a clean slate, although in reality she remains deeply affected by her experiences.
The novel presents the idea that everyone, at one time or another, relies on illusions to get through life. As Vivian tells Molly when she learns about Molly’s lie, “We all come under false pretenses.” In Vivian’s view and in the view of the novel, the tendency toward “pretense” is a common part of human behavior. This removes some of the stigma and judgment from falseness, as it is a common and often necessary human flaw.
While illusions and pretense may be useful, the novel conveys the idea that, in order to know and understand another person fully, one must know the truth about that person’s history. While secrets can sometimes be helpful for survival and coping in the moment, telling the truth can lead the characters to longer-term peace, reconciliation, and hope. As they clean out Vivian’s attic and review the relics of her past together, Molly and Vivian provide each other with the opportunity to tell their full stories and reveal their full identities. Each of them has managed to get through life by hiding behind illusions and adaptations of the self. However, through storytelling, mutual acceptance, and love, they are both able to find their way back to their true selves.
Secrets, Reality, and Illusions ThemeTracker
Secrets, Reality, and Illusions Quotes in Orphan Train
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.
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 feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.
He’s always making excuses – “She didn’t mean nothing by it,” “She’s yanking your chain” – when Dina does things like intone “the Tribe has spoken” when Molly expresses an opinion. “You need to stop taking yourself so seriously, little girl,” Dina said when Molly asked her to knock it off. “If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re going to have a very hard life.”
Maybe it’ll be a stretch to find drama in Vivian’s portage – a happy, stable life does not an interesting story make, right? But even the rich have their problems, or so Molly’s heard. It will be her task to extract them.
Why shouldn’t Vivian’s attic be filled with things that are meaningful to her? The stark truth is that she will die sooner than later […] So yes – Molly has begun to view her work at Vivian’s in a different light. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process – in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots.
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.