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5 Books like Orphan Train: Hoping, Dreaming, Living

Kedar Prasana itcherIf you love to keep yourself up-to-date with the best of contemporary literary works, there’s a good chance that reading this masterpiece from Christina Baker Kline was one of the highlights of your 2015. In that case, these books like ‘Orphan Train’ will surely help you dig a little deeper into the world defined and defied by hopes and dreams: ‘The Cider House Rules’, ‘The Little Immigrants’, ‘Look Homeward, Angel’, ‘Villette’, ‘O Pioneers!’. ~ Kedar Prasana

A Sea of Emotions Stuffed in a Matchbox

Time constricts and flattens, you know. It’s not evenly weighted. Certain moments linger in the mind and others disappear.

I came across ‘Orphan Train’ in the most clichéd of ways – browsing the New York Times Bestsellers List. As avid readers would know, the said list is reflection of what sells and not what’s good.

But I was past whatever apprehension I had after reading through the first few pages and soon enough, the alternating style and storyline of two lonely girls trapped in similar prisons of solitude one century and a few hundred miles apart became a compulsive page turner.

The Orphan Trains of the last century were a phenomenon that manifested to us what ‘well-meaning evil’ looks like. Maybe you would have an even better insight into the twisted logic of it after turning over 300-or-so pages that this gem of a book packs.  

Loneliness and the feeling of not belonging anywhere at all are the two great emotions that can drive one to desperation. ‘Orphan Train’, and the books similar to it listed below do a great job of analysing this basest of human emotions.  


Books Similar to ‘Orphan Train’…

‘The Cider House Rules’ (John Irving, 1985)

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If pride is a sin, moral pride is the greatest sin.

‘The Cider House Rules’ is a treat for everyone who loves a complex storyline, alternating temporal leaps and in general, a feeling of loose perfection that threatens to go awry if not kept in check.

John Irving, better known for his screenwriting, broke into the world of letters with this remarkable tale of an orphan boy named Homer Wells and his convoluted relationships with the world at large.

The life of an American orphan – a trait made so romantic by Hollywood of the 50s – is depicted with authority and morbid candidness in an attempt to rise above sympathy or charity.

An acclaimed movie adaptation of the book was released in 1999.

Similarity Match: 90%
‘The Cider House Rules’, just like ‘Orphan Train’, manages to paint a real picture of rootless life in America. Homer Wells, unlike two female protagonists of ‘Orphan Train’, is, however, far from being vulnerable.

‘The Little Immigrants’ (Kenneth Bagnell, 2000)

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What drove them to the hilt and back wasn’t righteousness or morality. It was hunger.

‘The Little Immigrants’, despite being a highly anticipated book, was received with rather lukewarm response by the readers and the critics alike.

That’s why, when I first skimmed through it, I didn’t even have much intention of reading it through. But I did end up reading it, and I have cherished every second of it.

The story chiefly revolves around a large lot of young orphans who were shipped from England to Canada during the latter parts of the 19th century to help ‘build’ Canada.    

Similarity Match: 85%
The strongest similarity between ‘The Little Immigrants’ and ‘Orphan Train’ is the idea of mass exodus of orphan children. The former, however, reads more like a screenplay at times, unlike the latter.

‘Look Homeward, Angel’ (Thomas Wolfe, 1929)

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Each of us is all the sums he has not counted; subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.

With ‘Look Homeward, Angel’, a writer named Thomas Wolfe rose on the American literary horizon, only to shine for a brief period of time.

For many, it is the best depression era novel (save ‘The Grapes of Wrath’) that dealt with fading family values and the heart-wrenching struggle of a well-meaning young lad to get out of a small-town in Texas (it wouldn’t be surprising if the story reminds you of ‘Little Cloud’ by le meilleur littérateur James Joyce).

Similarity Match: 80%
The deep sense of frustration and helplessness is a running theme that makes ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ very much a book like ‘Orphan Train’. It, however, has got nothing to do with orphaned life.


If You Like ‘Orphan Train’, You Will Like…

‘Orphan Train’ is a book that is entirely driven by emotions. This tradition of using characters to express one’s own emotions, from bliss to grief and everything that lies in between, goes a long way back.

So, let’s take a look at two classics that are usually overlooked.

‘Villette’ (Charlotte Brontë, 1853)

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“Take her,” he said. “Take her, John Bretton; and may God deal with you as you deal with her!”

Charlotte Brontë need not be introduced at all to readers of classic Victorian English literature. ‘Villette’ is probably the most underrated novel and perhaps the very best in terms of emotional exploration.

The story is that of a life-deciding journey that a young English girl has to make to a fictional French town named ‘Villette’ in order to get away from her grief and demons of the past.

For the fans of wrist-breaking tomes and eye-watering melodramas, this is a formula worth storing in a time capsule for the posterity.

‘Orphan Train’ was a quintessentially American phenomenon, while ‘Villette’ signified the provincialities of Old English ways of life, making them both similar despite differences, perhaps similar in differences.

‘O Pioneers!’ (Willa Cather, 1905)

Image Source: Biblio Betty Books

To take what you would give me, I should have to be either a very large man or a very small one, and I am only in the middle class.

Willa Cather’s best known work is also her least demanding one. ‘O Pioneers!’ is an ode to the lost tribe of righteous, old-schooled, country-building and farm-raking hands that built America.

The Bergson family of young and orphaned siblings traverse through the heart of America from snowy Chicago to vast Nebraska in order to settle into a life of fulfilment. What follows is a journey that takes more turns than one could care to count.

But rest assured, it’s all worth the effort.

‘O Pioneers!’ and ‘Orphan Train’, despite dealing with the same theme of having nowhere to go in America, differ in principle, as Alexandra Bergson, the protagonist of the former, is nowhere close to being vulnerable or weak.


Finding Home, All Over Again!

Most of us take for granted the feeling of having a home to go back to at the end of the day. That’s why we need these books like ‘Orphan Train’ to remind us to count our blessing and, in the least, be empathetic towards those who can’t.

If you are looking for more such books that deal with the sense of being unstuck, you might want to check the following titles out: ‘Silas Marner’, ‘Kim’, ‘Big Little Lies’, ‘We are Water’, and ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’.

As usual, all of your comments and feedback about this article can be posted right below. We look forward to hearing from you!

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