Did anyone know what was going on there? Of course they did. They must have.
Kim van Alkemade, a writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania at Shippensburg spent about five years researching and writing her first novel – Orphan #8, the story of Rachel Rabinowitz, a 4-year old orphan sent to live in the Hebrew Infant Home in New York City in 1919. While there, Rachel becomes part of a medical research study in which healthy children (who were dehumanized by being assigned numbers) are x-rayed to see if radiation could provide an alternative to the surgical removal of tonsils. The doctor conducting the study – Dr. Mildred Solomon – is a recent graduate of the male dominated medical school system and an ambitious young doctor who did not adequately weigh the risks or consider the rights of children without a voice.
Told from the perspective of Rachel Rabinowitz, the story unfolds over 376 pages in alternating chapters of Rachel as a child and Rachel on the cusp of turning 40 in the mid 1950’s when she is faced with the aftereffects of the radiation administered more than three decades prior. Working as a nurse in a hospice wing of a hospital, Rachel comes face to face with Dr. Mildred Soloman when the doctor is admitted for end of life care. As Rachel learns more and more, she must decide whether to forgive or seek revenge – the central question of the novel.
Orphan #8 is fiction although the story is inspired by actual events that involve abandonment, gender roles, inequality, human rights, and what happened in a society in the absence of a safety net. With the underlying Jewish cultural belief that “it is everyone’s responsibility to help someone else, for the good of us all,” the author makes the argument that these orphanages and the life provided to these children was both good and bad. The orphans had their stomachs fed, their education secured, their clothes washed, and their health tended, as inadequate as it often was. In exchange, the children gave up respect and rights. As Rachel notes,
I learned to stop asking questions. To eat everything on my plate. To open my mouth for the dentist. To stand with arms outstretched for punishment. To strip for the showers.To snap into silence.
The danger of this paradox is when the powerful cross the line and no longer treat the weak like human beings. This can be between adults and children or adults and adults, as Rachel realizes as she contemplates her actions:
I would have argued that the world was divided between those capable of inflicting pain and those whose fate it was to be hurt, that Mildred Solomon and I were on opposite rims of that canyon. I knew now that any one of us could cross over.
Orphan #8 provides a historical perspective of our culture at a time that we can be both proud and ashamed of. A light read, the book is structurally brilliant with the alternating chapters showing the perspective of the same person at different parts of her life while telling a good story. Although the prose is simplistic and often touches lightly on deep issues, the message is strong: only by looking back and learning from our mistakes can we move forward and do better.
Sometimes I ask myself if there’s any limit to the harm people can do to each other?