The novel is riddled with traumatic events and losses that are beyond Molly and Vivian’s control. These events shape their outlook and their sense of the world, and impair their ability to feel safe and connected to others. Yet, as both Molly and Vivian learn, it is necessary to recover from and process trauma in order to fully reconcile with oneself, move forward in life, and develop new attachments and connections.
Both Molly and Vivian’s lives are characterized not by one single defining trauma but rather by the accumulation of different traumas over time. Since they don’t have the social support needed to recover from traumatic events as they happen, they both get in the habit of repressing their emotions in order to move forward. They become intent only on preventing future traumatic events, rather than on grappling with what has happened in the past. These losses mark turning points in their development that continue to haunt them throughout their lives. Because they are each forced to focus on the present and on finding a safe place to live, they are unable to properly process and recover from past losses. As a consequence, they carry their trauma with them into the future.
The primary trauma for both Molly and Vivian is the loss of their parents at an early age. When they experience additional traumatic events, such as neglect and sexual exploitation, they are forced to repress their emotions. After being sexually abused, Vivian is focused entirely on preventing the Children’s Aid Society from sending her back to the home where she was molested. When the Nielsens adopt her, they fail to express interest in her past experiences, instead expecting her to move forward as part of their family, essentially pretending that she had no past before them. As a result, she keeps her abuse a secret for many years.
As Molly and Vivian’s experiences demonstrate, unprocessed and unresolved past traumas create difficulties in the present. In particular, past traumatic events can make it difficult to move forward in new relationships and to form new connections. After the death of Vivian’s first husband, Dutchy, she chooses to give her baby May up for adoption. Years later as an elderly woman, while telling Molly the story of how she gave up her baby, Vivian explains that she couldn’t bear to let herself love again. After losing her biological parents, her siblings, and then Dutchy, Vivian doesn’t want to let herself risk the pain of potentially losing her child. In effect, Vivian deals with traumatic losses by closing her heart to future connections.
In a similar way, after several dangerous and unstable experiences with foster care families, Molly struggles to trust the adults in her life. When she first meets Vivian, she is initially resentful and distrustful of Vivian’s character. Molly approaches her peers with a sense of wariness, and she therefore has difficulty forming friendships. Similarly, despite her boyfriend Jack’s constant expressions of commitment and displays of love, she maintains a sense of paranoia that he’ll change his mind and leave her. Like Vivian, Molly copes with her past traumatic losses by becoming secretive, distrusting, and closed off.
But, as both women discover, supportive relationships—in particular, relationships in which a person can talk about one’s past—provide a therapeutic space for traumatic events to be processed and for their effects to be resolved. Vivian and Molly’s supportive, nonjudgmental friendship gives them both the space to discuss the difficult parts of their pasts with one another. Together, they acknowledge and process their respective traumas and unresolved struggles. Through their mutual support, they are able to finally overcome the lingering impact of past traumas and are emotionally freed to move forward with their lives and relationships.
Trauma and Loss ThemeTracker
Trauma and Loss Quotes in Orphan Train
The charms are all she has left of what used to be her life.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“Well,” Molly says, “I think the boat represents what you take with you – the essential things – from place to place. And the water – well, I think it’s the place you’re always trying to get to.”
“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.”
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.
But over and over, Molly begins to understand as she listens to the tapes, Vivian has come back to the idea that the people who matter in our lives stay with us, haunting our most ordinary moments. They are with us in the grocery store as we turn a corner, chat with a friend. They rise up through the pavement; we absorb them through our soles.
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.
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.
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.