Friday, December 8, 2017

The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff

This book is based on an interesting premise and, in the author's note at the end of the book I see she took certain aspects from historical facts.

In 1994 Noa is a 16 year old Dutch girl who gets pregnant following a brief relationship with an occupying Nazi soldier.  When her shame is discovered her father sends her away.  On a train she meets a German woman who suggests, with her "Aryan" features she would be welcomed at a home for unwed mothers in Germany.  She goes there to give birth to a "child of the Reich".  But, when the baby is born, he has dark features and Not falls in love with him instantly.  However, the doctor and nurse in charge tear him from her arms and she never sees him again.  When she has nowhere to go she ends up working as a cleaner in a railway station nearby.

One evening Noa hears unusual sounds coming from a railroad car waiting on the tracks.  She sneaks over and finds a car full of Jewish babies who have been separated from their families, many are already dead from the cold and the others are obviously headed to concentration camps.  Without much thought she grabs one of the babies and runs away from him.  According to the author, this boxcar of "unknown children" really existed.

While running away Noa and the baby who she names Theo collapse in the snow and are rescued by the clown from a nearby circus and taken back to the circus.  The kindly head of the circus takes them in.  There Noa meets and eventually befriends Astrid, a Jewish woman who is hiding in plain sight at the circus.  She grew up the only daughter of a multi-generational Jewish circus family where she performed as an aerialist from a young age.  As a young woman she married a German man and moved with him to Berlin.  However as he rose in the Nazi party he was pressured into denouncing her and the marriage.

Cast out she returned to her home to find her family and all traces of the circus gone.  So she turns to a rival non-Jewish circus that wintered across from her family's winter grounds.  This kindly circus leader also takes her in, gives her a new name and a job and works hard to protect her from the Nazi regime.  According to the author, there were many multi-generational Jewish circuses in Europe prior to the war which were for the most part eliminated by the Nazis.  It is also the case that certain non-Jewish circuses were willing hide Jews.

The novel follows the story of Noa and Astrid who start out as bitter rivals and end up friends.  There are many twists and turns surrounding Astrid's relationship with a Russian clown, Noa's with the son of a local Nazi sympathizing mayor in France, and close calls and ultimate tragedies involving the Nazis.

The epilogue gives us an idea of where most of the characters ended up - some fates surprising and others unhappy but realistic.

While this is not high brow literature it was an interesting read and a new take on Holocaust literature.  I recommend it.

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