Friday, August 28, 2015

Book review: Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade

With her first book, Kim van Alkemade has struck a perfect balance that many historical novelists struggle to attain. The rapid, page-turning pacing is never impeded by the wealth of intriguing detail she includes on a little-known segment of history: the plight of children in Jewish orphanages in early 20th-century New York.

“From her bed of bundled newspapers under the kitchen table, Rachel Rabinowitz watched her mother’s bare feet shuffle to the sink.” The first sentence does its job well, setting the scene while posing questions about Rachel's situation. A four-year-old living with her older brother, Sam, and their parents and boarders in a shabby tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1919, Rachel is an active, inquisitive child.

By the end of the day, their circumstances tragically altered, the siblings are put in the care of social workers. At the Hebrew Infant Home, separated from Sam, Rachel experiences horrifying treatment in the name of medical research. She and other orphans become the ideal subjects in an experimental X-ray lab under the supervision of Dr. Mildred Solomon, a woman seeking to make her mark in a male-dominated field. The scenes at the home are emotionally powerful and disturbing, whether seen from the viewpoint of an innocent child or the matter-of-fact, detached perspective of the doctors.

Years later, in 1954, the two meet up again, but this time Rachel is Dr. Solomon's nurse at the Old Hebrews Home where Dr. Solomon is dying of cancer. As Rachel’s faint childhood memories drive her to uncover her real role in the doctor’s research, she runs up against an ethical dilemma. While she’s doped up on morphine, Dr. Solomon can’t give Rachel the answers or the apology she seeks.

As Rachel contemplates her options, grasping the power she holds over another’s fate, the novel teeters on the edge of melodrama. The two timelines are well structured and contribute to the full picture of Rachel’s growth and development, and how her unusual upbringing in an orphanage, alongside a thousand other children, ultimately led to her career choice. Also, as a lesbian in the repressive 1950s, Rachel must keep her love life secret, and the novel depicts the different faces that Rachel presents to the world.

Both the experiments and young Rachel’s experiences are based on real-life history; the author’s grandfather (Victor, a friend of Sam's in the novel) grew up in a Hebrew orphanage, with his mother working as the Reception House counselor there. In addition to picking up a new angle on American history, readers will leave this compelling novel pondering choices and alternatives, responsibilities and their consequences. Orphan #8 is Target’s August book club pick, and with its courageous take on important ethical issues, it’s an excellent choice for book discussions.

Kim van Alkemade's Orphan #8 was published this summer by Morrow ($14.99/C$18.50, pb, 381pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

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