The Train to Success

New York Times bestselling author Christina Baker Kline discusses the Maine inspirations behind her latest novel, Orphan Train.

Writer Christina Baker Kline laughs as she says she knows she doesn’t qualify as a true Mainer, having moved to the state at the ripe old age of six. But despite her non-native status, Maine is frequently a setting in her books, including her most recent, the instantly absorbing historical novel Orphan Train, which shot onto the New York Times bestseller list this spring.

In Orphan Train, Kline weaves together stories set in two time frames. Contemporary Maine teenager Molly is part Penobscot Indian, dresses goth, and has spent more than half her life in unwelcoming foster families. Irish immigrant Niamh arrives in New York with her family in 1927 and loses them all two years later in a tenement fire on the Lower East Side. At age nine, the orphaned immigrant is shipped across country on one of the “orphan trains,” which dispatched children to be adopted throughout the West between 1854 and 1929. The two characters meet in 2011 when Molly, in trouble for having stolen a library book, reluctantly arrives at the now 91-year-old woman’s seaside mansion to fulfill community service hours by cleaning out her attic. Down East talked to Kline about what it’s like to have 100,000 copies of her book in print, and why she felt compelled to make up her own Maine town.

All of the sections of Orphan Train set in present day take place in a fictional Maine town on Mount Desert Island called Spruce Harbor, which you also used as a setting for your earlier novel, The Way Life Should Be. Why did you decide on that approach?  
William Faulkner was probably the greatest influence on me because of the way he thought about the world he created. I went to his studio in Oxford, Mississippi, and saw the way that he had mapped out the town — he wrote all over his wall — and his stories. I wanted to write about Mount Desert Island because so much of my family lives there now, but I realized that I would have a lot more freedom if I created a fictional town.

You grew up in Bangor. When did your family make the transition to Mount Desert? 
My parents were professors at the University of Maine, and they retired to Southwest Harbor — because of me. When I wrote my first novel, Sweet Water (in 1994), I visited Oz Books, which no longer exists, in Southwest Harbor. We’re a Southern family originally, and my parents had always thought they would probably retire to Asheville, North Carolina. But I got to this town, and I told them, this is where you should come. I said, “You have four daughters, and if you buy a house here we would all always come to see you here.

They found this white elephant of a house, with seven bedrooms, that had been lived in by squatters. There was actually a burned hole in the kitchen floor where the squatters built a fire every night. It was a complete wreck but on this gorgeous piece of land, so they bought it. My dad had been a carpenter in his youth, and he fixed it up over the years.

Was your prediction right, do all the daughters come visit?
Well, then my other three sisters all bought houses in Southwest Harbor. One of them lives there full time; she’s the town librarian. She married a carpenter, and has four kids aged zero to seven. She does the whole Maine fantasy! And now I am the only one who stays with my dad when I go there because I don’t have a ton of spare cash lying around.

Is Spruce Harbor just Southwest Harbor masquerading under another name?  
I decided that if I wrote about Southwest Harbor explicitly that it could be a little bit presumptuous. I almost felt I would have to be living there full time to do that. My novel Desire Lines (1998) was set in Bangor, but I knew Bangor so well; it’s where I grew up, so I felt I was entitled to write about it.

And I wanted some freedom geographically. I wanted a coffee shop that would be in a certain place where there isn’t a coffee shop in Southwest Harbor. In my mind, Spruce Harbor is sort of like Platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter books, which operates in between places that are real. So Spruce Harbor is my mythical little sliver of a place between the actual places. Emotionally, it gives me this little place that is only mine.

Faulkner always went back to Yoknapatawpha County. Will you always go back to Spruce Harbor?
Definitely. I have a few other novels that are in my mind’s pipeline and a little bit down on paper that will be set in Spruce Harbor. But because Orphan Train has been doing so well, and the historical angle has been so big for this one, I have an idea to do a novel that looks at Christina’s World, the painting by Andrew Wyeth.

After all these books, are you surprised by the success of Orphan Train? And what do you attribute it to? 
My publisher was caught off guard; I was caught off guard. For the first time ever I had a book published as a paperback original. I had always been opposed to that, but Target, which is one of the largest retailers of books in the country, wanted to feature it as its book club selection, and for that to happen it had to be a paperback original. I was ambivalent about having a paperback original, that it wouldn’t be reviewed or considered prestigious. But I have published five novels, and I needed a push to get off the mid-list. So it was a gamble and the nice thing was, it paid off. The other thing is, I had no idea how many people are really interested in family history and in recovering and uncovering family secrets. — Mary Pols

Mary Pols is a film critic for Time and the author of a memoir, Accidentally on Purpose.