Orphan's Tale.jpgTitle: The Orphan’s Tale
Author: Pam Jenoff
ISBN: 9780778330639
Pages: 336 pages
Publisher/Date: MIRA Books, c2017.

A woman an child, alone in the woods at night. This is queer, even for the circus. No good can come from strange happenings–or strangers. (46)

Astrid, a thirty-something lead aerialist with the Circus Neuhoff, has every right to be suspicious of the teen-aged Noa and the child she shields from the cold. After all, the circus doesn’t appreciate outsiders on good days, and with the ongoing war there are very few good days anymore. She claims to have fled with her baby brother, but everyone can tell she is lying about or hiding something. But the circus owner, already hiding secrets of his own and those of his performers, vetoes Astrid’s objections and adds Noa to the roster, to be taught the act by Astrid in only six weeks. As the training and performances proceed, they begin to get to know each other a little better and choose to reveal their secrets and rely on each other for advice and support. But trust is hard to come by, and circumstances will make both question whether they chose correctly.

Hoopla recently chose this title for their quarterly book group promotion, although I read the physical instead of digital copy. We’ll be reading it for my book club, to be discussed next month. It’s interesting to see these two women get paired with each other and face so many similar hardships, especially considering the age gap. Trust, love, possibilities and visions of a future, and uncertainties regarding their past and those they have loved all make an appearance in their musings and concerns. There is also a substantial amount of naivety, although neither woman wants to admit having themselves and is quick to point it out in the other. The primary focus is the two women, with the other characters revolving around them, serving as props as they weigh their options. Both women have a man from their past who literally set events in motion with their antagonistic actions of abandonment. Romantic interests Peter and Luc are respectively characterized as the moody, brooding, but patient lover and the entitled, idealistic, “problem boy”, forcing Noa and Astrid, both hesitant and jaded, to determine if they are ready for love. The possible consequences lay heavily on their mind.

I wrap my arms around my stomach, feeling the hollowness and mourning all that will never be. […] I thought I had already lost everything, that nothing more could be taken from me. But this, the final blow, is too much. I had let myself hope again, against every promise I had made myself when I left Berlin. I let myself get close. And now I am paying the price. (267-268)

I wish we had seen more of circus owner Herr Neuhoff and gained some insight into why he acted the way he did. According to an author’s note, this is inspired by actual events. There were boxcars full of kidnapped babies that were transported to concentration camps. There was a German circus that sheltered Jews during the war, including one owned by Adolf Althoff, who was named Righteous Among the Nations in 1995. I wonder if Neuhoff’s reserved demeanor in the book is supposed to only reflect a man intent on keeping his knowledge close to his chest so as to keep safe his charges/employees/staff, or if author Jenoff also found it difficult to suppose the rational behind protecting all these people.

I’ve admitted before and I’ll maintain again that I’m partial to books and movies inspired by or based from a true story. And the World War II time frame seems to be a popular one for writers, possibly because its large scope allows for so many perspectives and possibly because there is so much documentation to draw from (pictures, written documents, radio transmissions, video reels, etc.). It’s also still recent enough that writers can gain knowledge and accounts from people who lived through the events over 70 years ago. But regardless of my own biases, I think this will be a book that most readers will find something to talk about.

 

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