Book Review: Orphan Number Eight, Kim van Alkemade (2015)

August 7th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A Tense Psychological Thriller Tempered With a Heartrending Coming-of-Age Story

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and violence, including illicit human experimentation. Also, this review contains a plot summary with minor spoilers.)

The question sounded strange in the present tense. I used to think that orphaned was something I’d been as a child and since outgrown. It occurred to me, though, that was exactly how I’d been feeling all summer.

“I guess anyone alone in the world’s an orphan,” I said.

The year is 1918, and four-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz has just landed in the Infant Home, an orphanage for Jewish kids under the age of six in New York City. After her lying, cheating, rapist father accidentally kills her mother* and then runs from the police, Rachel and her brother Sam are effectively orphaned, taken in by the Jewish Children’s Agency. Two years her senior, Sam is sent to the Orphaned Hebrews Home.

The children are considered lucky, in a sense: funded by wealthy patrons, the Infant Home and Orphaned Hebrews Home are well-regarded. Whereas gentile kids in their position – and there are many, left penniless, homeless, and/or without a family to call their own by the twin terrors of the so-called Spanish Influenza and World War I – would be left to fend for themselves, Rachel and Sam get a roof over their heads, beds to call their own, three square meals a day – even an education.

Of course, none of this can make up for the pain of separation. By the time a sympathetic receptionist locates a foster home that will take both siblings, Rachel has contracted measles and is in quarantine. And, just like that, their moment has passed: it will be two years before Rachel sees her brother again. By story’s end, it still remains to be seen whether the two will ever be able to bridge the chasm created their relationship.

The doctors at the Infant Home – Dr. Hess and Dr. Solomon – don’t see their charges as patients so much as study material. In the orphanage, environmental factors like exercise, diet, and exposure to sunlight are easily controlled; and there’s no need to bother with pesky niceties like consent where orphans are concerned. Besides, these children are parasites, surviving – no, thriving! – on the largess of donors. They owe society a debt, and at the Infant Home they will repay it with their very bodies. Or at least that’s the reasoning Dr. Solomon will lay on Rachel many decades after the fact. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While recovering from a host of illnesses, Rachel comes to the attention of Dr. Mildred Solomon, a female doctor in the time when such things were still a rarity – back in the “good ole days,” before women could even vote. Eager, ambitious, and with everything to prove, Dr. Solomon recruits Rachel as patient #8 in her inaugural study, where she’s subjected to high doses of radiation to destroy her (healthy) tonsils in lieu of a surgical tonsillectomy. Like many of the other subjects, Rachel develops alopecia: she loses all her hair. Permanently.

By the time she ages out of the Infant Home and rejoins Sam in the Orphaned Hebrews Home, Rachel’s memories of the “x-ray treatments” – as she’s come to know them – have mostly faded. Once she settles in, her life assumes a sort of quiet, comforting monotony, governed by bells, bullies, and older student monitors (not all of them mutually exclusive). The years tick by. Sam pays a girl from his year to protect Rachel; she and Naomi eventually develop a friendship, and then something more. When Rachel’s arch-rival and resident Mean Girl Amelia orchestrates her sexual assault, Sam seeks revenge on her behalf – and is beaten in front of the school by Superintendent Grossman, whose own son Marc is to blame. Tired of the Home’s rigid structure and unfair rules, Sam runs away, west to Colorado – and Rachel follows, unwilling to let go of what little family she has left.

Fast-foward several decades. It’s the 1950s, and Rachel is nearing 40. Now a nurse, Rachel works at the Old Hebrews Home, caring for dying patients on the dreaded fifth floor. Sapped by the sweltering summer weather and further deflated by her lover’s absence, Rachel’s already in a precarious state of mind when a Mildred Solomon is assigned to the room of the recently-departed Mr. Mendelshon. Something in the woman’s face jogs Rachel’s memory, and before you can say “count backwards from ten,” Rachel’s in a free-fall down the proverbial rabbit hole.

Reading about Dr. Solomon’s radiation experiments, filed away for posterity in ancient medical journals, suddenly it all makes sense: Her alopecia, and the lifelong self-esteem issues it caused. Her rift with Sam. The inappropriate attentions visited upon her by lecherous, predatory men – Marc Grossman only being the first of many. But most of all, the tender, acorn-sized lump in her breast. Dr. Solomon is to blame. Dr. Solomon was always to blame. The source of all of Rachel’s suffering is lying – helpless, addicted to morphine, and dying a painful death of bone cancer – right there in her bed. For the first time in her life, it is Rachel who has all the power.

Orphan Number Eight is an odd creature: equal parts historical fiction, coming out/coming of age story, and psychological thriller. The chapters flit between two periods in Rachel’s life: her childhood and middle adulthood; the former is told in third-person past tense, the other in first-person past tense. This has an interesting effect, distancing us somewhat from young Rachel and drawing us closer to 1950s Rachel. However, as the story progresses and we learn how Rachel advanced from Point A to Point B, the two Rachels coalesce, become one. Suddenly it’s not so hard to see how such a traumatic childhood formed this very broken, very damaged – but still fundamentally good – adult sitting in front of us, laying her soul bare.

To be honest, the first chapter had me thinking that this might be a DNF. It’s surprisingly boring, which feels weird to say considering it ends in a violent murder. But there’s a tedious amount of talk about buttons leading up to it, okay? Needless to say, I’m glad I stuck with it (not that I’d ever give up on a book that quickly, mind you), because Orphan Number Eight is an engrossing read: at turns horrifying, tragic, and heartwarming.

Here are just a few of the things I loved about it. (I know this review is already long enough, but humor me while I gush!)

  • The unexpected LGBTQ spin. As if Rachel’s adolescence isn’t fraught with enough minefields, she has to navigate her budding sexuality with little or no guidance. Rachel’s a lesbian, back in the days before such things were discussed openly; “passionate female friendships” were whispered about as “unnatural” or “unhealthy.” Her relationship with Naomi is lovely, and you kind of want to smack Rachel upside the head when it looks as though she’s messed it up forever.

    Nor are Rachel and Noami the only two gay youths in the book. While working at a tuberculosis clinic in Colorado, Rachel befriends a dying girl named Mary. She was in love with a girl named Sheila, who was forbidden to see Mary when her mother discovered their letters. After Mary passes away, Rachel inherits her steamer trunk – love letters and all – and it’s only by reading Sheila’s correspondence that Rachel begins to envision something more, something lasting, with Naomi.

    As an adult, her partnership with her unnamed lover is a great source of stress to Rachel. Or rather, the need to hide it, to keep it secret and not to assign it the importance it deserves, is. Rachel recounts the sympathetic looks she gets from the other nurses as they discuss their husbands and boyfriends, unable as she is to join in. And as the dread of surgery looms large, the unfairness of having to say that her lover is her sister so that she may be admitted to the recovery room further eats away at her. At best, homosexuals are a source of pity, as is the case with the gay man in her neighbor Molly Lippman’s Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society (“poor boy”).

    With its alternating between different time periods, Orphan Number Eight opens a window onto the different challenges faced by gay and lesbian folks throughout the first half of the 1900s.

  • Dr. Mildred Solomon, feminist pioneer? Make no mistake: Dr. Solomon is an odious person. She dehumanizes and objectifies her pint-sized subjects, violates the trust of children placed in her care, and lets her ambition outrank her patients’ well-being. Even when confronted by one of her ex-subjects, now suffering from cancer possibly caused by her fruitless experiments, Dr. Solomon is unrepentant. It’s likely that Dr. Solomon’s bone cancer is also thanks to excessive radiation – caused by administering all those x-rays – a point she harps on time and again. Yet she fails to see the fundamental difference: Dr. Solomon consented to performing the experiments, while her participants had no choice.

    Even so, much like Rachel’s coming out story, the early scenes (and recollections of) of a very female Dr. Solomon practicing medicine in a decidedly masculine world are as revealing as they are infuriating. The nurses mistake her for one of them; question her orders more frequently than those given by the equally sadistic Dr. Hess; and Dr. Solomon is constantly forced to toe an invisible line: act too severe, and she’ll be punished for being too feminine; perform femininity too well, and the men will dismiss her as silly and frivolous. Nearly a century later, some of these things have changed; but it’s defeating to observe that which hasn’t.

    Perhaps most egregious of all, in her dying days, Dr. Solomon has been stripped of the title she worked so hard to achieve: her chart reads simply “Mildred Solomon.” The nurses don’t believe that she’s actually a doctor until Rachel confirms it.

    Of course, none of this excuses Dr. Solomon’s transgressions as she would have Rachel believe: belonging to an oppressed class doesn’t give you license to oppress others.

  • The parallels between Dr. Solomon and later Nazi scientists. Though Dr. Solomon balks at the comparison, adult Rachel notes the (very ironic) similarities between the way Drs. Solomon and Hess treated the kids at the Infant Home, and Nazi experiments on Jewish captives. Rachel’s physical similarity to a death camp survivor – noted by Sam, who fought in WWII and helped to liberate one such camp – is only the most superficial of them. The doctors routinely dehumanize and objectify their patients, referring to them as “material,” not people; things with numbers, not children with names. They are neglected save for experimentation; their emotional and intellectual development deemed unimportant. Even as an adult, Dr. Solomon refers to Rachel simply as “Eight.”
  • The delicious ironies. There’s a wonderful little passage wherein patient Mildred Solomon complains about a doctor’s threat to force-feed her, should she refuse to eat on her own – which gives Rachel flashbacks to when Dr. Solomon forcibly fed an uncooperative Rachel a barium “milkshake” prior to a “treatment.” See also: Nazi scientists above.
  • The doublespeak. Like a page out of the Bush-Cheney playbook.
  • Rape culture 101. From the very first chapter, with the rape that doesn’t yet have a name, rape culture lurks in the shadows of Orphan Number Eight. It’s well-known around the Home that Marc Grossman is a serial predator, for example; but rather than acknowledge that his son has a problem – and sacrifice him for the good of his one thousand other charges – Superintendent Grossman goes after Sam instead. Indeed, given the structure of the Home – older students are promoted to monitors and given the power to boss, bully, intimidate, and even physically punish younger kids for the slightest transgression – it’s surprising that we don’t see more instances of sexual abuse: like many rigid institutions, it seems almost designed to facilitate such abuses!

    And then there’s Rachel’s Uncle Max, who’ll only let the fifteen-year-old stay with him if she agrees to marry him. With his rabbi’s blessing! Again, make no mistake: blackmailing someone into marrying you = rape.

    Over time, Rachel seems to recognize that she’s a magnet for the unwanted advances of men, especially older men and predators. This mirrors statistics on rape; a 1999 study, for example, found that women who had been raped were seven times more likely to be raped again. Predators know to target the vulnerable and marginalized: for Rachel, these vulnerabilities include being poor, being an orphan, being a runaway, potentially becoming homeless, and all-around low self-esteem due to her alopecia and “deviant” sexuality.

    Even as they take her assault seriously, some of the adults’ reactions to the Marc Grossman incident are an exercise in rape culture: “is that all?” (There was no penis-vagina contact, “just” unwanted touching.) At one point, Rachel questions whether she’s even pretty enough to be raped. Sadly, this is still used as an insult, some 100 years later. (“You’re so ugly you wish someone would rape you” is a common refrain of trolls.)

  • New York City through the ages. Though the kids rarely leave the two city blocks that encompass the Orphaned Hebrews Home and their middle school, adult Rachel takes us on a tour through NYC, from the Lower Eastside and the famed Goldman Shirtwaist Factory, to the beaches of Coney Island.
  • The ending. Though I had my fingers double-crossed for revenge, what ultimately transpires in that hospice room proved much more nuanced and potentially satisfying. Still, it hurt to see Rachel’s potential catharsis thwarted at every turn.
  • There’s even a reference section – perfect for the history buffs in the audience. The story was inspired in part by the author’s grandfather, who grew up in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York; his mother worked there as a Reception House counselor.

    Read it if: You’re a sucker for historical fiction; you’re yearning for an edge-of-your-seat read; you have a sick fascination with the seedy side of science; you want another volume to add to your #WeNeedDiverseBooks TBR pile.

    * In his defense, the murder was accidental/in self-defense. However, make no mistake: the sexual encounter we see between Harry and Visha the morning of the murder is indeed rape: Visha says no, but he penetrates her anyway. While she eventually acquiesces, there’s no such thing as retroactive consent. Additionally, he physically restrains her at two different points during the encounter. That this transpired 70+ years before marital rape was recognized as a crime doesn’t make it any less wrong.

    (This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

     

    Comments (May contain spoilers!)

    Diversity: Yes! When their father accidentally kills their mother (it may have been manslaughter, but the rape was totally on purpose) and then runs from the police, four-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz and her six-year-old brother Sam are effectively orphaned. They’re sent to a Jewish orphanage, but separated due to their ages: Rachel goes to the Infant Home, while Sam is placed in the Orphaned Hebrews Home. Instead of caring for them, the doctors at the Infant Home – Dr. Hess and Dr. Solomon – experiment on the young children, for example, purposefully withholding Vitamin C in order to track the progression of scurvy.

    Rachel become subject #8 in Dr. Solomon’s study, where she’s subjected to high doses of radiation to destroy her (healthy) tonsils in lieu of a surgical tonsillectomy. The x-rays cause alopecia: Rachel is completely bald. Naturally, the kids at the Orphaned Hebrews Home tease her mercilessly; her brother can barely stand to look at her; and she struggles with self-esteem issues her whole life. As she approaches 40, Rachel discovers a lump in her breast. (The story alternates between Rachel’s childhood and adulthood.)

    Complicating matters is Rachel’s sexuality: she’s gay, back in the days when “passionate female friendships” were whispered about as “unnatural.” (Rachel was born in 1914, I believe.) She develops a relationship with an older classmate at the Orphaned Hebrews Home, Naomi; at first her brother pays the girl to protect his sister, but eventually they become friends, and then lovers. When she’s working as a nurse at a tuberculosis clinic in Colorado, she befriends a young woman named Mary, who’s also a lesbian; it’s when Rachel inherits her letters to Sheila that she begins to picture something more with Naomi.

    Even in the ’50s, Rachel struggles with having to pretend that her lover is her roommate, and worries what will happen once she goes under the knife (her lover has to pretend to be her sister, since only family is allowed visiting privileges). There’s also a chance encounter with a librarian named Deborah. Orphan Number Eight challenges the reader to imagine what life had in store for LGBTQ folks in the days before Pride Parades, before gay marriage (now just marriage) was the law of the land, when homosexuality was something to be pitied – at best.

    Elsewhere, Dr. Mildren Solomon recounts how difficult it was being a pioneer in her field, and Sam may struggle with PTSD.

    On her way west, Rachel meets a porter named Ralph who asks her employers not to call him “boy”: “as I am lately a grandfather, I’m afraid I’m just a little too old to answer to ‘boy.'” And later on, while she’s working the night shift at the Old Hebrews Home, she meets a “Negro” janitor named Horace to whom she gifts a lock of her hair: for his art studies.

     

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