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Monday, December 28, 2015

Orphan #8 A Fascinating, Based-on-a-True-Story Historical Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When a heated argument between her parents takes a violent turn, 4-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz loses everything she's ever known—her guardians, her older brother, and her home.  Taken from her Lower Eastside tenement, the frightened child is thrust into the Hebrew Infant Home, a New York City orphanage that runs on the donations of wealthy Jews.  There, she becomes a guinea pig for Dr. Mildred Solomon, a radiologist who uses the home's residents for her science experiments.  It's a bleak, terrifying existence for a frightened, lonely girl, the emotional and physical effects of which will haunt her for the rest of her life.

Fast forward 35 years.  It's 1954 and Rachel is a hospice nurse working at the Old Hebrew Home in New York.  She is shocked when she receives a new patient, whose name she recognizes instantly—Dr. Mildred Solomon.  Dying from bone cancer, the woman is as cold and vain as ever.  She doesn't recognize Rachel (once known as Orphan #8), which makes the nurse even more angry with her old nemesis.  Buoyed by thoughts of revenge, Rachel goes through the motions of caring for the elderly woman, all the while entertaining murderous thoughts.  But when it comes to actually ending Dr. Solomon's life, can Rachel do it?  Faced with the ultimate choice—exact revenge or exercise mercy—what will she choose?

Like the heroine of her first novel, Kim van Alkemade has ties to a famous New York City orphanage.  Her grandfather and his two brothers grew up in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York (on which the fictional Hebrew Infant Home and Orphaned Hebrews Home are based).  It was while doing genealogical research on these men that van Alkemade came across the astonishing story of Dr. Elsie Fox, a graduate of Cornell Medical School who performed science experiments on children at the orphanage.  Using this intriguing historical tidbit as a springboard, van Alkemade uses a made-up character to tell the stories of real children (like her grandfather and great uncles) who grew up inside institutions like the Hebrew Orphan Asylum.  The result is an engrossing historical novel that's taut, vivid, and thought-provoking.  As you can imagine, it's also downright depressing.  Even though I empathized with Rachel, I didn't find myself connecting much with her.  So, although the premise of Orphan #8 fascinated me, the story itself disappointed a bit.  All in all, I found the book interesting and memorable, but not knock-my-socks-off amazing.

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't really think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language, violence, sexual content, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a finished copy of Orphan #8 with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  


  1. I saw a review of this book a while back and thought it sounded horrifying and interesting. I'll need to look and see if I went ahead and picked it up. Yes, 2015 saw me getting way too many new books. Coming back to the blogging world has been fun and, for me, sent my book buying a little out of control. 2016 will be my year to read 'my books'. LOL

  2. Whoa, this one just sounds weird and, yes, depressing.

  3. I am totally intrigued with this one. Even though it didn't quite live up to your expectations, I still want to check it out!


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