A box of her dead mother’s mementos arrives at Sam’s door, and the mystery surrounding the contents speaks to the chasm between mothers and daughters.
The novel opens as Sam drops baby Ella off at the sitter's for the first time after eight months of dedicated motherhood. It is the general consensus that she needs to get back to her pottery studio. She is fiercely attached to Ella, making up for the cool reserve of her mother Iris, whose own story focuses on the last few weeks of her life. Living contentedly alone in a condo in Florida, Iris, losing her life to cancer (it wasn’t much of a battle), reflects on the quiet moments she had with her own stoic mother, a farmer’s wife in Minnesota. In this multigenerational saga, that farmer's wife turns out to be Sam's grandmother Violet, a castaway on an orphan train, whose narrative centers the novel. A century ago, beautiful Lilibeth (the mother of Violet, who is the mother of Iris, who is the mother of Sam) dreamed of greater things and left her husband and Kentucky for New York, taking young Violet and little else. There, Lilibeth, who relies on the kindness of strange men, becomes a regular at Madame Tang’s opium den, and Violet adapts to the hardscrabble life of a tenement child on the Lower East Side. Violet’s New York is filthy and frightening, yet she loves the independence and the other tough kids she meets. Bound for the orphanage, Violet asks her mother to send her off on the orphan train instead. Operating for almost 80 years, the train brought destitute children to families in the Midwest, with varying results. Violet travels from town to town with the other children, parading on makeshift stages in the hope of being adopted. The wonder and strangeness of Violet’s journey is the highlight of the novel, and it lays the groundwork for a yearning, restrained relationship between Sam and Iris.
A little girl boards New York’s orphan train at the turn of the 20th century and shapes generations to follow in this satisfying portrait of the many faces of motherhood.