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The Orphan's Tale

Pam Jenoff

A story about how a lasting friendship developed, during World War II, between two women from very different backgrounds and both of whom have hidden secrets. This historical novel with Holocaust and circus themes is at once heartbreaking, heartwarming and enlightening. It is, we learn from the Author’s note, inspired by true events and offers a window into circus life with especially graphic descriptions of trapeze training between learner and mentor. It is narrated, in alternate chapters, by these two women and gives a fascinating insight into how small circuses were encouraged to travel through the countryside during the war with the purpose of keeping spirits up. This circus was different in that the owner had the courage and compassion to risk harbouring Jews within his team.

Noa, a Dutch sixteen-year old becomes pregnant to a German soldier and is disowned by her father, finding refuge in a home for unmarried mothers. She has her baby which is immediately taken away for adoption. She escapes; finds food and shelter of a kind by cleaning a small German railway station. One bitterly cold, snowy evening she hears noises coming from a box-car parked on the lines. Managing to find an opening she discovers many Jewish babies, some still alive and makes an impulsive decision to rescue one. Fleeing into the forest she collapses some distance away and is rescued by a man belonging to a circus troupe quartered nearby.

Astrid, an aerialist with superb trapeze skills is given the responsibility of training Noa to this work if she and the baby are to remain with the circus. She, a Jew, grew up in the troupe but left to marry. When her husband divorced her because of her race she returned to circus life. Initially the two women are antagonistic but as Noa overcomes her fear of the trapeze and Astrid responds to her efforts friendship and trust develop between them.

This is an emotional tale of courage and survival and reveals many insights into the lives of circus performers. Reading it was a sharing of the desperation, sadness and loss of both of these strong women but resilience and hope was always evident. A compelling, sad, hopeful and fulfilling book. Recommended.



Reviewed by Isabel Weenink