Desert Isle Keeper
The Orphan's Tale
World War II is a period in history that fascinates me. Every time I read a book set during this bleak period, I learn something new. In The Orphan’s Tale, author Pam Jenoff explores the role German circuses played in hiding Jewish people and smuggling them out of Germany. Since I absolutely love circuses and books dealing with resistance, I had high hopes I’d really enjoy this story.
Sixteen-year-old Noa is living above a train station which she cleans in order to earn her keep. A year before our story opens, she was cast out of her family home after she got pregnant by a Nazi soldier. Her baby was taken from her and supposedly given to a good Aryan family, but Noa isn’t convinced. She can’t stop thinking about her infant son, fantasizing about the day they can be reunited.
One night, Noa stumbles upon a boxcar loaded with dead and dying infants, and impulsively, she snatches a baby boy and flees into the snowy night. Part of her is convinced this is the son that was so cruelly taken from her, but another part of her knows this can’t be true. Still, she is determined to save the baby’s life, even though she doesn’t have a clue how she’ll go about it.
Luckily for her, she and the baby are taken in by a traveling German circus. They are short an aerialist, and even though Noa knows nothing about the flying trapeze, she agrees to become part of the act, as long as she is allowed to keep the baby – whom she names Theo – with her. The ringmaster agrees, promising to keep her and Theo safe until the circus makes its way into France, where they all hope Jews will be safe.
Astrid is the lead aerialist, and she’s not at all pleased that Noa has joined the show. A Jew herself, once married to a Nazi official, she’s sure Theo and Noa will jeopardize her own safety. Even so, she grudgingly agrees to train Noa on the trapeze, and is quite surprised by her skill. Sure, Noa is a novice, but she studied gymnastics as a child and this training stands her in good stead.
As the weeks pass, Noa integrates herself into circus life, feeling, for the first time in well over a year, that she finally belongs somewhere. Even Astrid seems to be slowly warming to her, but what will happen when Astrid learns that Theo is not Noa’s brother as she had first claimed? Secrets run rampant among the circus performers, and it’s likely those secrets will ruin things for everyone involved.
I loved the relationship between Astrid and Noa. They’re two very different women who struggle to find commonality during a terrifying time. I would hesitate to call them friends, but they do work together to ensure the safety of all the circus performers and laborers.
Astrid herself is a difficult character to like. She’s very cold and cynical, and there are times her treatment of Noa is downright cruel. Still, as more of her background was revealed, I found myself understanding why she behaves as she does. She eventually softens a bit, and watching that happen was one of my very favorite things about this book.
Noa is a little too naïve and idealistic, which fits given her upbringing, but I sometimes wanted to shake her for her inability to see the truth of her predicament. She trusts people too easily, which puts everyone in danger. She’s very young though, and still struggling to find out who she is and how she fits into this changing world, so I couldn’t hold those things against her for too long.
I cried several times while reading this. Ms. Jenoff’s writing is incredibly beautiful and evocative. I felt like I was living the story, and for me, that’s one of the very best parts of reading historical fiction.
If you’re a fan of fiction set during the Second World War, I highly recommend this book. It’s heartbreakingly sad, but has an element of hope running through it. I imagine it’s that spark of hope that kept so many people alive and helped them get through those dark times.