Orphans – we are captivated by their stories. From Huck Finn to Oliver Twist to Jane Eyre to Anne Shirley, their stories endure. Even children, perhaps from fearing the unthinkable loss of parents, find orphan stories fascinating. I’m thinking of Madeline, The Box Car Children, The Whipping Boy, and Mary Lennox in her secret garden. In Kim van Alkemade’s debut novel, Orphan #8, we see the darker side of a child’s helplessness acted out by the adult orphan. Van Alkemade introduces us to Rachel at age four, who with her older brother Sam becomes an orphan when her father runs away after fatally stabbing their mother. Van Alkemade delves into family dynamics and the sordid treatment of orphans during the early 20th century in this powerful and convincing novel.
Orphan #8 is based on real events that took place in the 1920s. It is compelling for several reasons. My heart wrenched as Rachel is plunged into the world of The New York City Jewish Orphanage. She is separated from her brother and isolated until it can be determined she has no contagious disease. She is then placed in an institutional ward filled with young children in cribs with no books or toys and very little interaction with the attending nurses. Her emotional abandonment is only alleviated when Rachel is chosen as a subject in an early medical experiment, where she is identified only as orphan #8, and leading to another gripping aspect of the story.
As an historical novelist, I found it most interesting to read about real events that were covered up for years, only coming to light in obscure medical journals and through the experiences of van Alkemade’s character Rachel. The author includes references and an appendix of true stories related to the orphanage, giving her work authentic substance. I was appalled at the lack of ethics in early medical research, especially on children who had no recourse when they were selected as study subjects. The fictional Dr. Mildred Solomon arrives on the scene to conduct a study of early x-ray treatments for tonsillitis. Rachel is understandably drawn to the doctor with whom she gets to spend time in the private treatment room. She is praised for her cooperation and basks in the doctor’s attention. When the individual x-ray sessions come to an end, Rachel is devastated that she no longer gets to spend time with her special friend. Once again, she is abandoned. Even worse, the treatments cause permanent baldness, plaguing Rachel at every turn in her life. Medical ethics continue to play a pivotal role as the story unfolds, even into Rachel’s adulthood.
As a teenager, Rachel is pulled between her desire for social acceptance from both the popular girls and boys and her dawning awareness that she’s different, that she possesses “unnatural tendencies.” Ostracized because of her baldness, Rachel is taken under the wing of a slightly older female student, Naomi, for protection and friendship. The friendship that develops between them is life-altering. Another relationship, between Rachel and Amelia, progresses in an opposite fashion. Amelia is the darling of the school and has a head of lush, long locks in an astonishing golden red hue. Amelia, though, is not a friend. She is the ringleader of the girls who mercilessly taunt and shame Rachel.
Although Rachel is provided a wig, she never cares for it until she arrives at that age where the girls and boys begin noticing each other. Each year the home holds a Purim dance, the highlight of the social calendar. Rachel is coiffed and made-up and presented as a reasonably attractive young lady. Ironically, this is both her fortune and misfortune. She is admired by many boys, but catches the attention of one in particular, Marc, who is the dreaded Amelia’s flame. At one point in the evening Rachel excuses herself to go to the restroom, and Marc follows. Alone in the hall, he forces her against the wall and shoves his knee between her legs. Leaning into her face, he uses the nickname Rachel had been given in deference to her bald head as he accosts her.
“I heard your head’s not the only place you’re bald, isn’t that right, Egg? Aren’t you bald everywhere?”
A chaperone interrupts just in time, and Rachel is allowed to recover in the infirmary. Circumstances give her the opportunity to remain in the infirmary an extended period of time and assist the nurse. This is where she discovers her interest in medicine. Although she now lives separately from the dorms and social arena, Rachel’s relationship with Naomi blossoms. Having a revulsion to boys since the incident with Marc, and with Naomi’s willing instruction, Rachel acknowledges her sexual tendencies and seems relieved to know that she can find love and satisfaction. The acceptance of this discovery without self-guilt allows Rachel to experience loving relationships throughout her life in spite of the devastating losses she experienced in early childhood.
In an ironic twist, Rachel ends up nursing in the Manhattan Old Hebrews’ Home, where she encounters the doctor who performed the medical experimentation on her at the orphanage. Dr. Solomon is dying and in great pain. Considering that Rachel has been diagnosed with radiation-induced cancer, I understood her bitterness and desire for revenge. Now that the tables are turned, she holds the power over Dr. Solomon. She wants an admission of the horrors that took place in the orphanage and an apology and acknowledgement of herself as a person and not just a subject known as orphan #8. Rachel contemplates withholding medications to induce more suffering for Dr. Solomon, and even considers ending the doctor’s life in a final act of revenge. Implications abound in this story. What is just? What is ethical? What is fair? Does the end result justify the means? The back and forth timing of the novel, between Rachel’s past and current adult life, helps us see the effect of her early experiences concurrently with their result.
This captivating novel causes me to wonder what I would do in the same circumstances. Does anyone really know how they would respond faced with an opportunity to confront a tormentor who has caused lasting damage to their health and well-being? At one point near the end of the novel, as Rachel faces the inevitable consequence of Dr. Solomon’s actions, she welcomes the oblivion of sleep and thinks, “I wonder if this was what dying would feel like.” Who among us has not had that same thought?
Orphan #8 is compelling. Although I wanted to know more, the ending leaves room for the imagination to write its own conclusion. And write it we must, for have we not all suffered hurt, rejection, or loss at the hands of others whether from insults thrown in childish name-calling, insensitive adults, unscrupulous professionals, our own family members, or by our culture’s intolerance at large? Can writing be used as a tool to help us resolve notions of hurt and the desire for revenge? We can revel vicariously through characters like Rachel, indulging a fantasy for acts we would never consider actually committing in real life.
Now it’s your turn. We welcome your comments on this review. Or perhaps you’d like to respond to this question: Have you ever identified with other literary characters and wished to be as bold as they, either for evil or good?