Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Orphan’s Tale, by Pam Jenoff. MIRA Books, 2017

There are multiple orphans in this story. Astrid, a Jewish woman whose Nazi husband has been ordered to divorce her, returns to her circus family home to find everyone gone and presumed dead. Noa, a Dutch girl impregnated by a German soldier, is cast out by her family; her baby was taken from her by the Germans and she lives by being a custodian at a country railroad station. When she sees a boxcar filled with babies, with no one caring for them and exposed to the cold, she steals one of these parentless children and runs off through the snow. These orphans converge on Herr Neuhoff’s circus. Astrid knows him from her childhood; her family lived next door to the Neuhoff’s home base and she grew up with him. Noa and the baby, who she claims is her brother, Theo, lands with them by accident. To Astrid falls the chore of training Noa to be an aerialist like herself; to avoid questions, everyone in the circus must have a job. Plus, Neuhoff needs another aerialist to work with Astrid on the trapeze. Never mind that Noa has never done any such thing, and is afraid of heights.

After working together for a while, Astrid and Noa grow to respect and even like each other. Astrid has a lover; a Russian clown who does dangerous political satire. Noa also meets someone and falls in love instantly; the son of a small French town mayor who is a collaborator.

They are always in peril; even when safe for a few hours, they are on high alert. They hope to escape Nazi areas, but it’s not to be. False papers protect Astrid and Noa as long as they are not closely examined. But multiple tragedies befall the circus, and hard decisions must be made.

While the plot line of hiding from the Nazis could make this a thriller, it’s really a book about relationships: lovers, parents, friends. These relationships interweave like the net that stretches below the aerialists in the big top, which should catch a falling person but you never know when it will fail.

Astrid and Noa are really the only characters who are fleshed out decently. The others seem rather flat; they fill the space nicely but have no existence outside of the story. I would have liked to have seen more of Peter the goose-stepping clown, and the story would have seemed realer had Noa and Luc spent more time together before falling head over heels in love. But it’s a good, tense story, showing WW 2 from a perspective I’ve not encountered before. 

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