Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Orphan #8: A Novel" by Kim van Alkemade



I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting when I started reading Kim van Alkemade's "Orphan #8:A Novel" , but I can tell you that this author's debut novel surpassed any expectations I had! A historical fiction piece spanning the early to mid 1900s, this is the story of the world of New York City's Jewish orphanages. 

In this stunning new historical novel inspired by true events, Kim van Alkemade tells the fascinating story of a woman who must choose between revenge and mercy when she encounters the doctor who subjected her to dangerous medical experiments in a New York City Jewish orphanage years before.
In 1919, Rachel Rabinowitz is a vivacious four-year-old living with her family in a crowded tenement on New York City’s Lower Eastside. When tragedy strikes, Rachel is separated from her brother Sam and sent to a Jewish orphanage where Dr. Mildred Solomon is conducting medical research. Subjected to X-ray treatments that leave her disfigured, Rachel suffers years of cruel harassment from the other orphans. But when she turns fifteen, she runs away to Colorado hoping to find the brother she lost and discovers a family she never knew she had.
Though Rachel believes she’s shut out her painful childhood memories, years later she is confronted with her dark past when she becomes a nurse at Manhattan’s Old Hebrews Home and her patient is none other than the elderly, cancer-stricken Dr. Solomon. Rachel becomes obsessed with making Dr. Solomon acknowledge, and pay for, her wrongdoing. But each passing hour Rachel spends with the old doctor reveal to Rachel the complexities of her own nature. She realizes that a person’s fate—to be one who inflicts harm or one who heals—is not always set in stone.
Lush in historical detail, rich in atmosphere and based on true events, Orphan #8 is a powerful, affecting novel of the unexpected choices we are compelled to make that can shape our destinies. ~ Description taken from Amazon

 As stated above, this book is inspired by true events which had me very intrigued. It wasn't until reading this book and afterwards, doing some very light online research I had no idea this world of orphaned Jews and medical experiments in early 1900 even existed. 

Rachel is an easy character to love and I was immediately engaged in her character. This book alternated between Rachel's childhood past and her current situation. In her current situation she comes to a huge realization that her disfigurement is not some side effect of medical procedure that she needed as a very young child, but rather an experiment on her once perfectly healthy body. She was used merely for research. She was given the name "Number 8" in the study and upon her realization she decides this is the cause of her hard life.

Now a nurse on The Fifth, a hospital floor for the terminally sick and dying at Manhattan's Old Hebrews Home, she discovers she must care for a dying patient that was the cause of all this- the doctor who performed this horrific experiment. She is forced to relive her past and dissect every major moment of her life. She is torn between the ethics of being a nurse and the revenge from a patient where the medical experiment went horribly wrong. From sadness and hatred, to strength and independence, this book takes the reader through a wide range of emotions.

As the story flip flops between past and present the reader slowly gets the full picture of Rachel's life. How she came to be in this situation of carrying for her former doctor. How what this doctor did shaped Rachel's entire life and set forth a sequence of hardships, heartaches and triumphs. Though her past is horrific and sad, she slowly realizes that she wouldn't be the person she is today had it not been for this ghastly doctor.

This book also tells us about the relationship between Rachel and her older brother, Sam. How losing their parents, being separated as orphans, and how being reunited after Rachel is disfigured sets off feelings and emotions that two siblings normally don't have to deal with. The sibling relationship is strained but at the same time is so strong. They are both frustrated and searching for meaning in their lives. They are trying to find their purpose in this world both together and alone.

The author's note tells us that this book is based on the experiences of her grandfather and her mother. It takes a harsh look at the horrible conditions and treatments of orphans in 1920s NYC. The loss of culture a child looses when orphaned. The treatment of women who chose to live outside the realm of "normal" life. So many emotions are brought about in this writing. 

I highly recommend checking out the author's website here and reading through the true stories posted that inspired her to write such a stunning book. 

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes of this book: 

“To Sam I said, “Sometimes I ask myself if there's any limit to the harm that people can do to each other.”
 “No”, he said. “There's no limit.”

I give this book 5 stars. I hope you love it too.
Happy Reading! 

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