Thursday, January 16, 2020

Orphans are everywhere in today's historical fiction

From Oliver Twist to Anne Shirley, and from Jane Eyre to Cosette from Les Misérables, orphans play starring roles in many classic works of literature. The hooks for these stories practically write themselves: what circumstances left these young people alone in the world, and how do they learn to survive? Their coming-of-age and ongoing character growth can result in gripping fiction.

And so it may not be surprising to see orphans trending in historical novels. Helping to spur this focus is the huge success of Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train (2013), a multi-period novel about the homeless and abandoned children from America's eastern cities who were sent out West on trains, in hopes they'd find a better life with foster parents there (the reality, though, was sometimes grim).

Here are a dozen recent historical novels with a distinctive title commonality. Many, though not all, take place during the early decades of the 20th century.  How many have you read?

Here are a few more — all very popular with historical fiction readers and book clubs — that incorporate similar themes: children who endure traumatic circumstances during historical times.

For a full list of authors, titles, and settings in the collages above, here's a historical orphan reading list.  Please add additional suggestions in the comments.

Elizabeth Brooks, The Orphan of Salt Winds (Tin House, 2019). 1939 England.

Shirley Dickson, The Orphan Sisters (Bookouture, 2019). WWII-era England.

Joanna Goodman, The Home for Unwanted Girls (Harper, 2019).  1950s Quebec.

Stacey Halls, The Lost Orphan (MIRA, April 2020).  1750s London.

Pam Jenoff, The Orphan's Tale (MIRA, 2017). WWII-era Europe.

Jeanne Kalogridis, The Orphan of Florence (St. Martin's Griffin, 2017). 15th-century Florence, Italy.

Lauren Kate, The Orphan's Song (Putnam, 2019).  18th-century Venice.

Natasha Lester, The Paris Orphan (Forever, 2019).  WWII-era Paris.

Gemma Liviero, Pastel Orphans (Lake Union, 2015).  1930s Berlin.

Kristina McMorris, Sold on a Monday (Sourcebooks, 2018).  Depression-era Pennsylvania.

Glynis Peters, The Secret Orphan (One More Chapter, 2019). WWII-era England.

Sandy Taylor, The Little Orphan Girl (Bookouture, 2018). 1901 Ireland.

Kim van Alkemade, Orphan #8 (William Morrow, 2015). 1920s Manhattan; multi-period.

Ellen Marie Wiseman, The Orphan Collector (Kensington, July 2020). WWI-era Philadelphia.

Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours (Ballantine, 2019). 1930s-40s Tennessee; multi-period.


  1. Suggestion from author Carrie Turansky: her recent novel No Ocean Too Wide (Multnomah, 2019) definitely fits this list, too. It covers the British Home Children sent overseas to Canada in the early 20th century. Thanks, Carrie!

  2. Alice Hoffman’s The World that We Knew is definitely orphan-intensive (Jewish refugees during WWII). I reviewed Sold on a Monday for HNR last year and was very impressed!

  3. I've been meaning to read The World That We Knew - bought it for the library last year. Sold on a Monday did sound very good!

  4. I haven't read any of those! I've found, with a recent explosion of grandchildren (five of them 3 years old and under!), that stories portraying children in danger are really difficult to read. There's another whose cover I can see clearly, but I couldn't come up with the title, that might fit into your grouping - a dejected boy sits in a brown field with a suitcase next to him. Too sad looking for me!

    1. Yes, that's it - a very distressing cover for me! But I know many of the stories likely have positive endings.

    2. Yes - I think it would be hard for them to find many readers if they didn't. We keep reading assuming/hoping things will get better.

  5. That's very true - the novels can be hard to read. Is that book Sold on a Monday? That's the only one I can think of with a boy and a suitcase, but there may be another...

  6. There are certainly some prevalent themes around in HF

  7. Definitely - and some of them take the industry by surprise, too.