Orphan #8 was on my TBR list for a while, solely because it was a best seller that received positive reviews. I bought it not knowing much about the plot. I gathered it was about the life of an orphan, but I soon realized this story would be deeply personal.
Some background: My great grandfather (Samuel Weiland) grew up in an orphanage. He had living parents (or at least a living mother) who dropped him off there when it became too difficult to financially support the whole family. I didn’t know anything about this until late in my teen years because it’s not something my family discussed. I only learned because my family once mentioned Grandpa Sam’s involvement in a society called the Crows and Ravens. It seemed to be a group the boys in the orphanage formed to protect and support each other. What? A secret club? What? An orphanage? I learned that Grandpa Sam was left at the orphanage (though he probably saw his mother on occasion) but actually had siblings. His mother was left with a real life Sophie’s Choice of sorts. When I moved to New York I decided to look up the Crows and Ravens and was led to the American Jewish Historical Society. There, my Mom and I found her grandfather’s records of admission as well as actual newsletters from the Crows and Ravens. It seems those boys kept up with each other after all those years, holding events and sharing their joys and sorrows. In one newsletter, we even found wartime photos of my own Grandpa and his brother, praising their service in WWII. I still can’t wrap my head around leaving a child in an orphanage or what that child must have felt. Uncovering all this information was certainly emotional.
Then I started reading this book. A few chapters in, I realized the historical fiction novel was based not just on the orphan experience, but specifically on the SAME orphanage in which Grandpa Sam lived. Not only was the location the same, the years in which it took place were nearly identical. Let me tell you; all those emotions came rushing back. Author Kim van Alkemade did tons of research about the experience in the home so I now feel like I understand much better what my great grandfather’s life may have been like. I would love to get my hands on some of this research – Kim, holler at your girl if you ever wanna compare notes.
The book introduces us to Rachel Rabinowitz who, along with her brother Sam, are orphaned when their mother dies and their father (fearing the cops) flees. At age 6, Sam is old enough to go straight to the children’s home; however, at 4 years old, Rachel must first go to the infant home before being reunited with her brother. At the infant home, Rachel is subjected to unnecessary and harmful medical testing by a woman named Mildred Solomon. The treatments Dr. Solomon inflicted on Rachel left her disfigured and open to bullying when she was later sent on to the children’s home. As an adult, Rachel is working as a nurse in a nursing home when Dr. Solomon enters as a patient. After 35 years, Rachel faces the women who made her life much more difficult than it ever should have been.
Even if you don’t have a personal connection to a New York City Jewish orphanage, you’ll enjoy this book. It unveils a history most know nothing about.
5 out of 5 stars.
Note: This book is set to satisfy the “A book set in two different time periods” requirement of my 2017 PopSugar Reading Challenge.
Wow, recalling our very emotionally enriching family research in NYC is so wonderful to me. We come from strong stock, you and I and it is a legacy that I am proud to know you cherish as much as I do after all this time.
The book sounds good, and perhaps I will pick it up one day. For today, however I will remember the very moment when we found Grandpa Sam’s name and date in the handwritten entry into the orphanage log book on the day he was processed in at the home.
Hi Tess, I just encountered your review of my novel, thanks so much for spending time with my little orphan! I did most of my research at the American Jewish Historical Society, too. Seeing my grandfather’s admission form was a really emotional moment for me. I am really glad my book connected with you and your family history. Kim