The Need to Know: I stayed up until 1:06 this morning reading this book and wiping tears from my cheeks. So yeah, I really liked this book.
The first sentence of The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff is “They will be looking for me by now.” Immediately I was hooked.
In the opening pages of this thrilling story, an unnamed narrator has snuck away to an exhibit called “Two Hundred Years of Circus Magic.” The narrator glances at the exhibit’s photographs before locating a railcar, where she opens up a compartment in the back, hoping to find something which is not fully revealed to the reader. But there’s nothing there, “and the dream I had that it might hold the answers evaporates like cool mist.”
This kind of narrative is one of my favorites: a frame story told from the perspective of an elderly person, about to reveal her life’s greatest secrets—if only to the reader—and a passionate, tender inner story that is slowly built on until the book’s last revelations.
After the prologue, The Orphan’s Tale is told from two different perspectives, Noa’s and Astrid’s, both of which are rooted in the WWII period. Noa is a young Dutch woman who was thrown out of her parents’ home after she became pregnant with a German soldier’s baby. She ends up in Germany, alone, until in an impulsive moment she takes a Jewish baby from a railcar which the Germans are sending east.
A series of events lead her and the baby to a famous circus, where she meets Astrid.
Astrid’s husband, a member of the Reich, cast her aside because she is Jewish, and she returns to the winter quarters of her family’s circus, the only home she has ever known. Her family’s circus is no longer in operation because her Jewish parents and siblings are gone, but Herr Neuhoff, their former circus rival, offers her a job as an aerialist--her previous role in her family's circus--and she accepts.
After Noa and the baby, Theo, arrive at Neuhoff's circus, Herr Neuhoff tasks Astrid with making Noa an aerialist within a 6-week time period—a task which Astrid resents for multiple reasons, not least because she thinks it is impossible. Will Noa become an aerialist? Will she and Astrid ever trust one another?
But the captivating circus and the performers’ dynamics are only part of the story here. After all the story is set in World War II; two of its main characters are Jewish, and many of the other characters are accomplices to sheltering them, whether they wish to be or not.
This beautiful story moved me in deep ways, and in the final pages, I wiped tears off of my cheeks as I read in bed. Now, hours later, I still feel immersed in the world of The Orphan’s Tale, and I’m also still processing what happened to the nuanced, imperfect, and also noble characters Jenoff created.
I have read comparisons of The Orphan’s Tale to Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train. I would also add Natasha Solomons’ The House at Tyneford, and Kate Morton’s books, which use the same type of frame structure.
In one way this thrilling, lovely book was easy to read. I raced through its pages. But on the other, there were sections of this book which were truly difficult to read and come to terms with, particularly after I read the “Author’s Note” and learned that a couple of the main plot-points are inspired by real-life events.
The Orphan’s Tale offers the reader a chance to mourn and to celebrate, to become invested in the lives of the characters and to be reminded of our history.
I’m so glad that I found this book.
I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided in this review are my own.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.