Friday, August 14, 2015

Orphan #8

Title:  Orphan #8
Author:  Kim van Alkemade
Publication Information:  William Morrow. 2015. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0062338307 / 978-0062338303

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "From her bed of bundled newspapers under the kitchen table, Rachel Rabinowitz watched her mother's bare feet shuffle to the sink."

Favorite Quote:  "I'd look like Frankenstein's monster ... no, not a monster - an Amazonian warrior. Ridiculous, yet the idea did make me straighten my spine. Why not let her name it? The reality would be the same either way."

I am really torn about this book. It is based on true events; it illuminates horrific history about the use of children in scientific experiments. It documents the physical and emotional scars these children carried the rest of their lives. It documents the destruction of lives in the name of science. The world needs to remember these children and their stories and ensure that such atrocities never ever occur again. This book preserves that history, including images and an account of the true people and places that inspired this book and a bibliography pointing to the actual historical sources.

This story straddles two time periods - Rachel Rabinowitz's childhood from about age four on in 1918 in New York City and Rachel Rabinowitz as an adult in the 1950s. As a child, Rachel's is brutally orphaned, separated from even her brother, and placed in a home for infants. In the home, the doctors responsible for her care use her and other children as subjects in their science experiments. The scientists garner praise and recognition for their work. Rachel and the other children who survive are discarded to an orphanage, their lives forever altered. As an adult, Rachel works as a nurse. A new patient under her care turns out to be Mildred Solomon, one of the doctors from the infant home. This brings back the horrible memories of Rachel's childhood and triggers thoughts of revenge or forgiveness. What decision will Rachel make? Where will Rachel's history lead her?

I am glad I learned the history this book illuminates. I really wanted to love this book for that reason, but I do not.

While I find the history of these orphans tragic and heartbreaking, I don't find Rachel's character to be empathetic. A distance seems to exist. It might be because the story jumps between time periods. It may be because the infant Rachel's story is told as a third-person narrative while Rachel tells her own story as an adult. It might be because some of Rachel's actions are not particularly likable. It may be because Rachel does not seem to develop as a character; her discoveries about her own childhood seem not to generate the change you may expect. Her life is filled with sadness, but the sadness does not quite reach out of the book. My sadness remains for the orphans of history but not specifically for Rachel Rabinowitz, Orphan #8.

I also do not care for the presence of sexual scenes in this book - both heterosexual and homosexual. Both are unnecessary for the story. Dominance and power can be demonstrated without describing forced sex.  Similarly, love and acceptance of physical appearance can be shown without a sexual encounter. Such scenes are jarring, even more so in a book about orphan children.

The presence of a homosexual relationship in a book set in the 1950s also introduces an entirely distinct plot line to the book. It introduces the challenges and struggles associated with that relationship at a personal and social level at this time in history. That plot line, while valid, seems to have no place in a book about Rachel's experiences as a child. It is entirely irrelevant to her decision between "forgiveness and revenge."

Regardless of my overall reaction to the book, I honor and respect the history documented in this book. May these children always be remembered.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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