Both Vivian and Molly struggle to maintain and define their identities in the face of changing, unreliable, and even hostile environments. Both protagonists come into foster or adoptive care at a young age—before their identities and personalities have been fully formed—and both struggle to develop and define their identities in situations in which they do not feel the love and acceptance that would allow them to express themselves in authentic ways. Compounding this, both women have cultural identities that differ from the adults who take care of them, and, because of this, have difficulty determining whether and how they should assimilate to their new environments. The two main characters ultimately accept their unique identities and incorporate their various experiences into their senses of self.
As the novel reveals, cultural background is strongly linked to a sense of self. As Irish immigrants to the United States, Vivian’s family has a sense of belonging with each other and a sense of alienation from the culture of their new country. Similarly, Molly has a shared cultural identity with her father, Mr. Ayer, who is a Penobscot Indian, and this connection made her feel that she belonged with him. After the death of their parents, both Molly and Vivian are placed in foster care and adoptive homes where their cultural backgrounds are criticized and marginalized. As a consequence, they are both forced to try to assimilate to their new environments, which creates a sense in both girls that they are becoming estranged from their identities and pasts.
As a consequence of their changing environments, the main characters are forced to become several different “selves.” As a child born in rural Ireland, Vivian is christened as “Niamh.” When she comes to New York with her family, she must confront a new culture. After she is orphaned and taken in by the Byrnes, Niamh is renamed “Dorothy” because the Byrnes believe that “she should have an American name.” She remains Dorothy until she is adopted by the Nielsens, who ask her take on the name of their deceased daughter, Vivian. Each new name represents a change in Vivian’s identity and a new incarnation of her self that reflects her environment.
In Molly’s case, it’s her presentation of herself, rather than her name, that changes with each new home and environment. In order to cope with the changing expectations of each new foster family, Molly becomes an expert in molding and adapting herself to fit her environment. Eventually, she turns her skill at adaptation into an opportunity to reinvent herself. In each new foster home, Molly changes her style of dress, hair, and makeup to create a new “persona.” While living with Ralph and Dina, Molly darkens her hair and wears heavy makeup and jewelry to present herself as “goth.” Instead of considering herself helpless in the face of changing expectations, she chooses to turn reinvention into a way of claiming her own identity.
Although adaptation is a helpful tool for survival, the main characters feel safe and connected to others only when their full selves and identities are seen and embraced. It’s only when young Vivian reunites with Dutchy, the boy she met as a child on the orphan train, that she feels free to fully express herself without fear of judgment. As an orphan himself, Dutchy shares a common experience with her. Because she is able to talk about and express her true self without any need for adaptation, she feels safe with him. For the first time in years, she is able to let go of pretense and open her heart, which enables her to fall in love with him.
Similarly, after years of trying to negotiate the demands and expectations of foster families, Molly describes a feeling of “freedom” when she moves in with Vivian. Unlike her foster families and others in her life, Vivian understands and empathizes with Molly’s past and the effects her past has had on her. As a consequence, Vivian is able to fully accept and embrace Molly without misunderstanding or judgment. With Vivian, Molly feels free to reconnect with herself and her emotions.
Self and Identity ThemeTracker
Self and Identity Quotes in Orphan Train
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.
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.
How strange, I think – that I am in a place my parents have never been and will never see. How strange that I am here and they are gone. I touch the claddagh cross around my neck.
“For goodness’ sake, Raymond, it doesn’t matter what she thinks,” Mrs. Byrne snaps as she opens her car door. “Dorothy is our choice, and Dorothy she will be.”
To her surprise, Molly feels a lump in her throat. She swallows, pushing it down. How ridiculous – an old lady gives her a moldy book she has no use for, and she chokes up. She must be getting her period.
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.”
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.
They don’t seem eager to learn about me, but then again, few people are. I get the sense that my abandonment, and the circumstances that brought me to them, matter little to them, compared to the need I might fill in their lives.
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.
Molly touches Vivian’s shoulder, frail and bony under her thin silk cardigan. She half turns, half smiles, her eyes brimming with tears. Her hand flutters to her clavicle, to the silver chain around her neck, the claddagh charm – those tiny hands clasping a crowned heart: love, loyalty, friendship – a never-ending path that leads away from home and circles back.