by Jill hedgecock
The Orphan’s Tale (2017, MIRA, 368 pages, $7.57) by Pam Jenoff provides fascinating insights into the lives of German traveling circus performers under Nazi rule in the 1940s. It is also a tale of hiding Jews in plain sight during the final years of World War II.
This historical fiction novel is told from two points of view: Astrid, a Jewish aerialist, and a brave 16-year-old German girl, Noa. The two women’s worlds collide when Noa, who was working at a train station, discovers a rail car full of Jewish babies. On impulse, she takes an orphan, who reminds her of her illegitimate child that she was forbidden to keep. Pursued by Nazi soldiers, she runs until she collapses from exhaustion in the snow where she is later found unconscious by the circus. The kind owner, Herr Neuhoff, takes her in along with baby Theo, who Noa claims is her brother. To pay for her keep, a reluctant Noa agrees to learn the flying trapeze. Astrid takes an instant dislike to Noa but is required to instruct her. Because of the frosty relationship, Noa has no intention of telling Astrid the truth about Theo. Likewise, Astrid has no intention of revealing to Noa that she’s Jewish.
While Astrid appears to be a very cold person, we soon learn of her unhappy history. She had been happily married to a German officer. Because he was a high-ranking Nazi, he was instructed to dissolve the marriage. Forced to leave her home and with nowhere to go, Astrid begs Herr Neuhoff to hire her as an aerialist, a profession she had left when she married. At great risk to himself and the other performers, the circus owner agrees to hire her. Astrid embraced her new life and became involved with the circus clown, a sympathizer. Meanwhile, as Noa struggles to overcome her fear of falling, she develops a desire to please Astrid, who in turn begins to respect her young protégé’s grit. The friendship that develops is the cement that ties together this story which provides a unique view into a little-known aspect of the Hitler-era.
Pam Jenoff is the author of several novels. This book became an instant New York Times bestseller. Jenoff’s The Kommandant’s Girl received widespread acclaim and earned her a nomination for the Quill Award. While working at the U.S. Consulate in Poland, Pam helped Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors reclaim their property and developed close relations with them, an experience that no doubt helped her bring a sense of realism to The Orphan’s Tale.
Readers who enjoy World War II historical novels and are fans of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay will likely find The Orphan’s Tale a compelling read.