Van Alkemade, Kim. Orphan #8. William Morrow Co., 2015. 381p. PB. $14.99 ISBN 978-0-06-233830-3
Even non-aficionados of historical fiction will find much to savor in this remarkable novel. Its themes and artistry will linger in reader memory.
In 1919, due to troubled family circumstances, four-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz is placed in a New York City Jewish orphanage where she becomes subject to unorthodox experiments conducted by the ambitious Dr. Mildred Solomon, who labels her “Orphan #8.” The X-ray exposure Rachel endures at Solomon’s hands results in her permanent baldness and, years later, internal tumors. Rachel remains in the orphanage until young adulthood (discovering her lesbianism along the way), eventually becoming a hospice nurse in the city’s “Old Hebrews Home.”
One day in 1954, Rachel realizes her newest patient is Dr. Solomon, the same woman whose torturous research permanently damaged her life. During one tumultuous night shift, Rachel must decide if her decades-long hatred for the woman will cause her to end Solomon’s life prematurely—meaning Rachel would be the one in control for once—or if forgiveness will prevail.
This novel uses a two-in-one structure: chapters describing Rachel’s childhood and maturation leading up to the moment she recognizes Dr. Solomon are narrated in third person and interspersed with sections in which Rachel herself relates the events of that fateful week on hospice duty. The author’s shift in “voice” is seamless.
The novel also deals effectively with broader issues: Jewish spirituality, family conflict, the need for community, and even institutional discrimination against professional women, as Dr. Solomon claims her experiments on young Rachel were necessary to advance her career in the face of male prejudice. Rachel’s need to conceal her lesbianism as an adult is another central theme, hand in hand with her struggle for normality despite a traumatic childhood.
Orphan #8 is a remarkable work, well rooted in some little-known history: the author also includes an essay describing the “true stories” that inspired her book. This novel is especially recommended for historical fiction readers, along with those interested in Jewish cultural history, and societal views of early 20th-century lesbianism and medical research—-in short, a broad landscape of issues, superbly rendered.
Dallas (TX) Public Library