The Orphan's Tale
For me, the hallmark of a good book is a desperate desire to reach the end. The Orphan’s Tale was a very good book and I became deeply invested in finding out how it would conclude.
When Noa’s family finds out that the German soldier who had been lodging with them had seduced her and left her pregnant, they throw her out. Young and essentially penniless, she makes her way to a Lebensborn home and gives birth to a dark haired, dark eyed boy. She is stunned; a Dutch beauty with porcelain skin, platinum hair and sky blue eyes it seems unreal that she and an Aryan soldier would have such a child. It also doesn’t matter. While Noa immediately loves the child and wants to keep it, the baby is snatched from her arms and a few short days later Noa is put out of the home, left to fend for herself.
She does so by cleaning at a train station for a pittance, sleeping in a closet there when she isn’t working. One night while exhaustedly dragging a broom around the steps, she hears a strange sound coming from a railcar; what she finds when she investigates stuns her. Hundreds of babies have been left in the cold, in a ramshackle wooden box car. Most have already died, some are clearly just moments away from expiration but one young boy seems to have been spared the worst of it. Snatching him up, she races into the night before the guards can catch her. She and the child seem destined to die in the blizzard that aids their escape but a miracle happens: A circus clown finds them freezing in the woods and takes them back to the performer’s winter camp, where Noa and the newly christened Theo find a refuge from the war raging around them.
The title of the book is deceptive. This is not really a story about the orphan but about the two women who care for him: Noa, whose generous heart constantly leads her to sacrifice herself for others and Astrid, a Jewish trapeze artist who trains Noa to become a part of the circus. It’s an absolutely terrific account of female friendship, about survival in tough times and about the practical nature of love in war. What makes it especially heart-touchingly beautiful are the quiet, mesmerizing ordinary heroes who people its text. From Noa, who tries to save everyone she encounters to Peter, who defies the Nazi regime through subtle mockery, to Herr Neuhoff, who saves lives by hiding Jewish performers and workers in plain sight. I fell in love with all of them, worried endlessly about what their fates would be in such terrible circumstances and cried and celebrated with them as they lived and loved in the toughest of circumstances.
This isn’t the cheeriest tale but it does, ultimately, have a happy ending for some of the characters and is a reminder that a life well lived is more important than living a poor one for a long time. I am happy to recommend this novel to anyone who likes a good book.