Monday, January 25, 2021

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

I know next to nothing about circuses or aerialists, but reading Pam Jenoff’s fascinating novel, The Orphan’s Tale has me wanting to know lots more about both. This novel is about two women who, for very different reasons are on the run during WWII. Noa is a young woman whose parents have kicked her out of her home because of an unwed pregnancy. 

The girls’ home where I lived after my parents found out I was expecting and kicked me out had been located far from anywhere in the name of discretion and they could have dropped me off in Mainz, or at least the nearest town. They simply opened the door, though, dismissing me on foot. I’d headed to the train station before realizing that I had nowhere to go.

When her very non-Aryan son is born with dark eyes and olive skin, she is not allowed even to hold him, before he is whisked away. Working as a cleaner in the railway station, she lives in a tiny storage room. One night she hears a sound coming from a boxcar. “The sound continues to grow, almost a keening now, like a wounded animal in the brush.” When she slides the door of the boxcar open, “There are babies, tiny bodies too many to count, lying on the hay-covered floor of the railcar, packed close and atop one another. Most do not move and I can’t tell whether they are dead or sleeping” But one baby has woven booties on and on impulse, she grabs the now crying baby and takes it to the little storage closet where she sleeps. Once she realizes there is no way she can keep the child and still do her job, she runs away with it.

The second woman, Astrid, is Jewish and comes from a circus family. She is married to German officer who turns her out to save his career. Although her family circus is no longer together and, for all she knows, has been arrested or killed by the Nazis, another circus shelters her and takes her on as an aerialist, a trapeze artist. 

Noa stumbles onto the circus as she runs from the police, and she, too, is taken in by the kind circus owner, both she and her stolen baby given shelter. The two women with such completely different backgrounds start a relationship that begins in hostility but blossoms over time into a wonderful friendship.

I will not give away much more of the story here except to say that Astrid trains Noa to become an aerialist and both travel by rail with the circus into Nazi occupied France. As we learn from the author in her afterward remarks, the kernel of the novel begins from her reading two stories, one about a boxcar full of babies, “ripped from their families and headed for a concentration camp, too young to know their own names,” the Unknown Children. And the second about a German circus that sheltered Jews during the war. 

The author obviously researched extensively about circuses in general and about The Circus Althoff in particular. The reader is treated to long descriptions of how the circus travels from town to town, set up from scratch at each location. We readers are also given hair-raising descriptions of how the aerialists perform protected only by their skill and very inadequate nets. 

While it is obvious that author Jenoff mainly wants to tell the story of how Jews were sheltered by German circuses, she develops her characters carefully and fully so the story, itself, is fascinating quite aside from its political and moral messages.

I am told by reader friends that there is a large circus community in Portland, and I find myself driven to learn more about the history of circuses and aerialists. This is love story of the very best sort; it is heartwarming and frightening in equal measures. Although a fairly long novel, I predict that most readers will read it in a sitting or two. Once started it is hard to put down.

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