Kline beautifully recreates the atmosphere of 1920s America, immigrants streaming into New York in hope of better lives, a promise of opportunity unheard of elsewhere. Unfortunately, the city is soon overrun with newcomers, a great stew of foreign languages. Poverty is endemic, children often the victims of a society unprepared to provide for orphaned dependents. From 1854-1929, a process is instigated to solve this growing problem: a Christian effort to place orphans in a healthier environment where they will learn a decent work ethic and the skills to create successful futures. So-called Orphan Trains carry Christian-chaperoned children from New York City to the Midwest, stopping at posted stations where they can be selected by families willing to take them.
This grand experiment is flawed at best. Many children are chosen for use as free labor or child care for rural families needing another hand—if not another mouth—few willing to offer a warm and welcoming home. One of these unfortunates is nine-year-old Niamh (Neev) Power, a daughter of Irish immigrants who has lost her entire family in a tenement apartment fire. Frightened and confused, Niamh is selected by one couple to work as a seamstress in the family business (there to be named Dorothy), then another on a rural farm, suffering unbearable conditions, provided meager rations, forced to concede to whatever demands her new families impose and a level of poverty consistent with what she has already endured in the city. Eventually chosen by a Maine couple who have lost a beloved daughter (here she becomes Vivian), the girl is given a new identity, the secrets of her past carefully packed away in boxes she saves through the years.
Fast forward to 2011. Foster teen Molly Ayer is given the option of community service in lieu of a record for stealing a copy of Jane Eyre from the public library. She agrees to spend the required eighty hours assisting ninety-one-year-old Vivian Daly in organizing the ancient widow's attic. A Penobscot Indian about to "age out" of the system, Molly doesn't want to lose her last placement, despite a combative foster mother determined to be rid of the girl. Of disparate ages, Molly and Vivian come together, neither expecting the deep friendship that will bloom between them, their similarities as unwanted children compelling each to share their stories with unexpected results. What begins as a sullen teen's avoidance of a record and certain eviction becomes instead the intimate sharing of two lonely souls as Vivian's tale is slowly revealed in the stuffy attic where her past is stored.
In alternating chapters—and worlds—between 2011 and the 1920s and ‘30s, Kline travels back in time to Niamh's earliest memories and harrowing experiences as she speaks to Molly about the days of living as a chattel or worse, cast into the bony bosom of grueling rural poverty. As Vivian shares her tale of survival, Molly discovers her own inner resources, the power of story uniting the two women of different cultures, each confronting life without the comfort of family. The ill-conceived social experiment begun in the last century spawns a new generation of survivors, their histories rewritten and reshaped in Middle America. What neither Molly nor Vivian expects to find is an uncommon bond, a sense of purpose—and, for Vivian, an opportunity to reconnect with a past she thought forever forfeit.