The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.
Orphans are as common in literature as no-good, two-timing liars and cheats are in country music. Cinderella . . . Jane Eyre . . . Peter Pan and the Lost Boys . . .Heidi . . .Huckleberry Finn . . . Frodo Baggins . . . Harry Potter . . . the list of brave and noble orphans who succeed against the odds is seemingly endless. Children’s literature, especially, is full of children who have lost parents. Could this be because this is every child’s greatest fear?
Kim van Alkemade’s grandfather, Victor Berger, was not technically an orphan, but he suffered the loss of his father at a young age. In 1918, Harry Berger, a Russian immigrant working in the shirtwaist industry, ran off to Colorado, leaving Victor and his family destitute. Fannie Berger, “like thousands of parents before her, who, for reasons of death or desertion or illness, were unable to care for their children,” brought her children to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City.
Van Alkemade, an English professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, was conducting family research at the Center for Jewish Research when she discovered archives that inspired her to write Orphan #8. “The idea of writing a historical novel was the furthest thing from my mind when I opened Box 54 of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum collection,” she writes. But her curiosity was piqued when she read a motion approved by the orphanage’s Executive Committee: “the purchase of wigs for eight children who had developed alopecia as a result of X-ray treatments given to them at the Home for Hebrew Infants.”
Orphan #8 is the fictionalized story of one of those children, Rachel Rabinowitz, following her throughout her life as she comes to terms with her past as a subject of medical experimentation. Rachel’s struggle to become a whole human being, able to work, love, and even to forgive, absorbed me from start to finish. I’m always fascinated by stories inspired by little-known historical events, and Orphan #8 is moving and well-written. Kim van Alkemade was kind enough to answer my questions about the book and her career.
I read with interest the information on your website about how your family history inspired you to write Orphan #8. What made you decide to write the story as fiction, rather than narrative nonfiction?
There is a lot of my family history in Orphan #8 and I had considered narrative nonfiction for that story, but once I read about the X-ray treatments on the eight children I knew I wanted to imagine what life would have been like for one of these children. By weaving together bits of family history and research, I was able to create an imaginary story that had a compelling narrative arc.
For you, what is the line between fact and fiction? How much liberty do you think a writer of historical fiction can take with historical fact?
The line is: fact is fact, fiction is fiction. Orphan #8 is inspired by true events, but it is not a true story. I made up every character, the settings, the situations, all the dialogue (except for some of the things Dr. Hess says). Even the characters based on my family members are fictional creations. Yes, I incorporated a lot of research, and the main situation of a female orphanage doctor giving X-ray treatments to eight children did happen—but this novel is absolutely fiction. I include as much fact as possible, however, from how much a train ticket from New York to Denver would cost to how doctors treated breast cancer in the 1950s, because I want readers to have an authentic experience. The great thing about historical fiction is that it’s not a dissertation. I can take liberties. I can invent some things. I’m not sure what it’s like for the reader, but I suspect some things that seem very factual I actually made up (like how to make a wig) and other things that seem totally made up are factual (the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society).
What audience, if any, did you have in mind as you were writing the book? (I see the book as having crossover appeal to teenagers who are interested in exploring historical fiction.)
I think Orphan #8 is a great book for mature young adults or new adult readers. There are a couple of sexy moments, and the novel deals with some heavy subjects, so I’d have to say I had an adult audience in mind as I wrote. On the other hand, Rachel is a child or a teenager for half of the book, so I think younger readers could really relate to her.
The term “orphanage” seems quaint now; indeed, most of today’s “orphans” are placed in foster homes, with the goal being family reunification. What is your opinion of how contemporary social service agencies handle children who have no parents or whose parents are unwilling or unable to care for them, compared with the institutional care provided 100 years ago?
In the novel, Rachel considers this very question. Even during the years in which Orphan #8 is set, the large institutional orphanages were falling out of fashion as foster care and group homes were on the rise. The philosophy behind the huge orphanages was that children of poor immigrants were probably better off away from their parents and relatives (if they had them) because the institution could provide a clean, healthy environment that promoted Americanization. In many ways, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum really saved my family. It gave my grandpa and his brothers a stable, predictable home and because my great-grandma worked there, it kept my family together. I’m not sure what alternative my great-grandma had at that time.
Orphan #8 was published as a paperback original. How did your publisher come to this decision, and what effect do you think it will have on the success of the book?
I’m not sure how William Morrow came to this decision,but that was the plan from early on. I’m really pleased about it. Though personally I purchase many hardcover new releases, the price can be steep especially compared to an e-book, so I think paperback is the best of both worlds.
Congratulations on the selection of Orphan #8 as an Indie Next Pick! Do you have a favorite bookstore where you enjoy browsing, and if you do, what makes it special?
In Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where I live, our local independent bookstore is Whistlestop Bookshop. I walked in there about a week after I’d gotten the offer for my novel, and the owner, Jeff Wood, said, “I hear we’re going to be selling your book soon.” “How did you hear that?” I asked. “Your mom was in and told me.” That’s a pretty good illustration of the role our local indie bookstore plays in our community! It really is special because everyone who works there knows the customers, it seems that everyone in town knows Jeff, and most of the time when I go in I run into someone I know.
As you undoubtedly know, a whole new phase of a writer’s life begins when the book is published. How do you feel about that? Are you looking forward to promoting the book, which involves writing and public speaking?
Well, I’m a teacher so I’m used to standing in front of people and talking, but I did want my book events to be more entertaining than a lecture, so this summer I took an improv comedy class and it was so much fun! I shed a lot of inhibitions and am thinking of ways to incorporate what I learned when I give readings. I’m really grateful to have this opportunity so even though I was very anxious about social media at the beginning, I’ve learned to embrace it because I want to do my part to promote the book. This morning I was on live television for the first time ever doing a three-minute spot about the book, and I had a good time!
Which contemporary authors (in particular, authors of historical fiction) do you most enjoy reading? When friends ask you for recommendations, what are your “go-to” suggestions?
Recently I’ve read historical fiction by Amy Bloom, Alice Hoffman, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Bernice McFadden, Nina Revoyr, Sarah Waters, David Leavitt and Laird Hunt. I still revere Mary Renault’s historical novels about Alexander the Great—my favorite is The Persian Boy.
Which books and authors have helped you develop into the writer you are today?
I re-read Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow to get up my courage to try historical fiction, and as I was preparing to do my rewrite of Orphan #8 I re-read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder to figure out how she paced the plot and Bel Canto to see how she managed the point-of-view. I also read all three of Donna Tartt’s novels in one month just as The Goldfinch was coming out. She gave me the courage to use the novel to express ideas that were important to me—and to write longer sentences.
I’m sure readers would like to hear more about your career as an English professor. Could you tell us a little about your academic interests and your favorite courses to teach? Are you part of a writers’ group? How do you balance your writing life with your academic responsibilities?
Well, as an undergraduate I was a double-major in English and History, and writing historical fiction has turned out to be a perfect blend of those life-long interests. I teach creative nonfiction, which is what my previous publications have been, as well as composition and technical writing. I enjoy the creativity and autonomy of planning a class. I do have a writer’s group that meets every month and my friends and colleagues are very generous in reading my early drafts. It really comes down to setting a goal for every day. When I am rough drafting, I do a word count, aiming for 1000 words a day. Once I start revising, it’s an hour every morning. I check it off on my calendar. I miss some days, of course, but then I feel crappy so I get back to work.
If we could have a glimpse of your personal library, what would it look like? How is it organized?
I just have everything alphabetical by author, unless it’s a biography. On each shelf, the books I’ve read are upright and the ones I haven’t read yet are on their side. I have the nonfiction and the fiction and the young adult all missed together. When my daughter was in school I read everything she read, so I have a lot of great young adult books. I keep all the picture books on the lowest shelf together so when I have very young visitors they can choose for themselves.
Orphan #8 has is a perfect choice for book clubs. Have you participated in a book club, either as a member or a facilitator? How do you think book groups will respond to your novel?
I am in a book club that meets at my house every other month. We’re an eclectic mix in terms of religion and background and nationality, and we read a diverse selection of contemporary fiction. My group let me practice on them by reading Orphan #8 but most of our discussion ended up being about my family because my mom is in the group, and it was her dad who grew up in the orphanage. From reading blog posts about the novel, I see there are so many ways to respond to it, I think groups will have a lot to talk about!
For reviews of Orphan #8, please visit TLC Book Tours.