By Pam Jenoff
Release Date: February 21, 2017
Reviewed by PJ
A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan's Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival
Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.
Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.
Jenoff is a gifted writer, her evocative prose and impeccable research melding to immerse readers in each new world of her creation. In The Orphan's Tale, she not only brings to life the precarious daily existence of ordinary citizens in Germany and occupied France but, especially, those attached to the Neuhoff Circus. I had no idea that circuses still performed during the war or that some of them bravely hid Jews among their company. (be sure to read the Author's Notes and Q&A at the end of the book)
As a child, circus people seemed magical, almost otherworldly to me. I wasn't able to relate to the life they led. Jenoff pulls that mystical curtain aside and shows us the person behind the greasepaint. Each complex character is meticulously crafted, an essential cog in both the circus as well as the overall story. I could feel the hopes, dreams, fears, jealousy, kindness, and grief that form the layers that make them whole and opened my heart to their pain, their sorrow, their ambition, their joy. But while there are many fascinating characters in this story, it's heart revolves around Astrid, a 40-year-old Jewish woman divorced by her beloved husband on orders from his Nazi superiors, and Noa, a Dutch teen forced to grow up too soon. Their journey from reluctant teacher/student, to professional adversaries, to mutual protectors, to sisters by choice is rich with emotion, compelling suspense, heartbreak, betrayal, and sacrifice that is heart-wrenching but also life-affirming. The reader is reminded that even in the face of devastation and death, the human spirit is strong and resilient and will, eventually, triumph.
I was captivated by this story from beginning to end. In fact, I was so absorbed that I read the entire book in one day. Jenoff keeps readers on their toes with the numerous twists and turns throughout Astrid's and Noa's journey as well as the emotional peaks and valleys that had me reaching for tissues more than once.
The Orphan's Tale is historical fiction at its finest. I highly recommend it.
After moving to the State Department, Pam was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland where she developed her expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust and developed close relations with the surviving Jewish community.
Pam left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked for several years as a labor and employment attorney both at a firm and in-house in Philadelphia and now teaches law school at Rutgers.