Friday, October 30, 2020

The Orphan Collector

Title:  The Orphan Collector
Author:  Ellen Marie Wiseman
Publication Information:  Kensington. 2020. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1496715861 / 978-1496715869

Book Source:  I received this book through Bookish First free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The deadly virus stole unnoticed through the crowded cobblestone streets of Philadelphia on a sunny September day, unseen and unheard amidst the jubilant chaos of the Liberty loan parade and the patriotic marches of John Philip Sousa."

Favorite Quote:  "Desperation was a powerful thing."

The flu came to Philadelphia in September of 1918. It is believed to have arrived with sailors coming to the Navy Yard from Boston. The city's crowding and close quarters caused the disease to spread fast, particularly through the more impoverished population. Unfortunately, city officials authorized a rally for the Liberty loan campaign that supported the war effort. That event brought over 200,000 city residents together for a concert and parade. (Social distancing, anyone?)

That is where this book begins. Thousands were infected that day, and over 12,000 Philadelphia residents ultimately died of the disease. Based on demographics and economics, the city's immigrant populations were particularly hard it.

Within this context of history is the personal story of Pia Lange, a thirteen-year-old German immigrant. Her mother brings her and the twin brothers to the parade. Her father is away serving in the army. Days later, her mother is dead, and Pia is left to care for her baby brothers. A desperate need for food leads Pia to leave their tenement apartment. She attempts to make sure that her brothers will be safe for what she hopes will only be a short while.

Sadly, she wakes up days later in a hospital and then is shuttled off to an orphanage. The fate of her brothers is at the heart of the conflict of this book. A neighbor, Bernice, devastated by her own grief makes a life altering decision. Pia channels all her energies in the coming years to find her brothers, and Bernice to ensure that she does not.

The history of the orphanages as told through Pia's eyes is devastating and tragic, particularly as so many were left orphaned and in these institutions as a result of this epidemic. The book does portray that Pia find both detractors and helpers on her journey; however, the good are very very good and the bad are horrible! Bernice goes from being a tragic figure to one make deliberate choices to harm. She also becomes the epitome embodying hatred towards immigrants who she deems responsible for her sorrows. (Sadly, this too sounds familiar even today.)

In this very historical novel, the author also introduces an element of magical realism. Pia can apparently feel the pain and distress of others through touch. It seems an odd touch and more a literary device to provide connections in the book that might not otherwise have happened.

Ultimately, the historical setting of this book is timely, but the story is about the personal conflict between Pia and Bernice and all that they each represent. Are there inferences to be drawn about the current pandemic and the current political climate? I leave that for you to decide.

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


  1. I found this to be very powerful - it was so enthralling as a historical fiction novel ... I could hardly turn the pages quickly enough. In my review I included "I’ve never disliked a character so strongly! If Bernice were a person living today, I know who she’d vote for in the Presidential election."

    1. Bernice was looking for someone to blame for all her sorrows, and she sadly found that outlet in Pia and her family. It was amazing to me how many of these same conversations are being repeated today.