Book review: Forgiveness or revenge?

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Many Jewish novels focus on similar themes, for example, the problems of assimilation, the Holocaust, World War II and Israel, among others. Some days it seems as if almost every possible view of Jewish life has been offered and novelists can only expand on what has been previously produced. However, “Orphan #8” by Kim van Alkemade (William Morrow) offers an original facet to the American Jewish story – looking at the lives of Jewish orphans in early 20th century New York City – while also raising interesting questions about a variety of moral dilemmas in a novel that is both gripping and moving.
Van Alkemade’s story features two alternating views of her main character, Rachel Rabinowitz: a third-person narrative beginning in 1918, when Rachel is 4-years-old, and a first-person exploration of her life in 1954, when she is working at a nursing home. When something horrendous happens to the young Rachel’s family, she finds herself at the Hebrew Infant Home. There she comes to the attention of Dr. Mildred Solomon, who gives Rachel an experimental course of x-rays. Rachel meets Solomon again when the now very ill doctor is placed under her care at the Old Hebrew Home. Interested in learning what disease she had that needed treatment, Rachel looks for the medical articles Solomon published and uncovers a horrible surprise. She must then decide whether to forgive the doctor her sins or exact revenge.
“Orphan #8” offers readers a world filled with shades of grey – something sure to provoke discussions of moral options. For example, although as an adult, Rachel describes the Jewish orphanage she lived in after the infant home as “a kind of ghetto, the scrape of metal as the gates swung shut the same sound in Manhattan as in [the original ghetto in] Venice,” Italy. However, when visiting a state orphanage as a nurse, she notes that “the conditions were so bleak they made me ill. I hadn’t realized, before, what advantages our wealthy donors had brought us: our teeth straightened, our health tended, our clothes washed, our educations secured, our stomachs filled.” The regimentation the home offered – the long list of bells that ordered and controlled their lives – affected the children long after they left the orphanage’s gates. If a child was late or broke a rule, physical punishment – slaps across the face from the older children who supervised them – were the norm, although beatings were rare.
The novel also raises moral questions about the ramifications of medical research. When Rachel reads about the different studies done at the infant home, she is disappointed and upset: “[The doctor] used the word material for the children of [the] study, as if we were guinea pigs or rats. The article pointed out that orphans made particularly good material for medical research, and not just because there were no parents from whom to wrangle consent.” Even better was that the researchers could control all aspects of the children’s lives – from what they ate to whether or not they were isolated. There was also no one to question how the study might negatively affect the children. What bothers Rachel most is that the researchers didn’t see her as a person: the number eight, which was embroidered on her collar so researchers could identify her without having to learn her name, showed she and the other children were “expendable, disposable, numbers on a graph.”
While this might make the novel sound one-sided, the opposite is actually true. Van Alkemade allows Solomon to tell her side of the story – not only about how difficult it was to be a female doctor during that time period, but how she hoped her research would have a positive affect on the world. Solomon also suffers from that time period’s the limited knowledge about the side effects of radiation and requires heavy doses of medicine to control her pain. At one point, she defends her life, telling Rachel that “if researchers gave up their experiments because they were worried about consequences, we’d still be dying of smallpox.” When do the needs of society trump that of the individual? Rachel and Solomon answer that question differently.
“Orphan #8” looks at a variety of other moral issues, including the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel. In addition, since Rachel is a lesbian (something revealed very early in the novel), it also shines a light on society’s treatment of gays in the 1950s. One very moving section shows the difficulties a committed couple face when one of them becomes ill or dies: “Everything I was – everything we were – would be forgotten, no chiseled beloved or loving to bear witness that I’d been more than a spinster. I wasn’t named on her pension; she wasn’t in my will. She’d have to masquerade as a sibling just to visit me in the hospital. Built on the insubstantial foundation of our feelings, the life we created together seemed a figment of our imaginations that dissolved into fairy dust in the face of something real, and deadly, like cancer.”
Yet, Rachel comes to believe that the problem that underlies the world’s evil – be it of Holocaust victims, orphans or gays – is “indifference,” when people pretend that nothing evil is happening, or turn their faces away, hoping what they ignore doesn’t really exist. By the novel’s end, Rachel must also make a moral decision – one that will define her life. The themes and questions raised in Van Alkemade’s exciting debut novel will remain with readers long after the last page is turned.