The Orphan Collector

by Ellen Marie Wiseman

“While the dead backed up at mortuaries and pressed into undertakers’ living quarters, hospital morgues overflowed into corridors, corpses at the city morgue spilled into the street, and Pia struggled to keep herself and her brothers alive in the dim, cramped rooms of their apartment on Skunk Alley. before making the decision to leave, she had suffered eight days of increasing anxiety, with no idea when – or if – it would be safe to go out again. She did her best to make sure the meager supplies would last as long as possible by rationing the Mellin’s Infant Food and adding spoonsful of porridge, soft boiled eggs, cooked potatoes, and masked carrots to the boys’ diet.”

Ratings & Reviews

Book Grade: A-

The Orphan Collector was one of those books that stuck with me long after I finished it. Yes, it seems like an odd choice to read a book about a pandemic while in the midst of a modern crisis, but it was a great fit. It was fascinating to learn about the old remedies that people believed would ward off the Spanish flu (I even learned that the name Spanish flu was a misnomer based on what certain nations would allow newspapers to publish). It was intriguing to watch the city of Philadelphia serve as a backdrop to the tensions brought about by the flu – Pia and Bernice lived in the same city and were both impacted, but their lives unfolded so very differently because of their distinct circumstances.

While this book absolutely had sad moments, and Pia’s desperation is palpable as she searches for her brothers and yearns for answers from Nurse Wallis and the nuns in the orphanage, she retains hope and it was rewarding to watch her grow into a strong, determined young woman. I learned so much from reading this piece of historical fiction and was reminded that some issues and forms of cruelty never really go away. This book was a quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed the plot, although once I realized the origins of the title, I was frustrated and heartbroken. The one obstacle I found was that at times it seemed like I was being rushed through pivotal scenes while at other times the narrative was slow and took a while to unfold. The Orphan Collector’s storytelling style did not detract from the story overall, but it was unexpected for such a gripping novel.

Movie Rating: PG

The Orphan Collector is a work of compelling historical fiction that is especially fitting given our modern situation. As such, there are some pretty gruesome descriptions of characters who fall ill or bodies that line the streets. Additionally, when Pia is sent to the orphanage, she encounters neglect, violence, and abuse at the hands of the wayward nuns. Both of these might be disturbing and hard to process, especially given our modern situation, but they are essential to the plot of this story. There is a bit of swearing, but it is fairly minor and most of the language is tempered because the story was set in the early part of the 20th century when such behavior was not generally accepted.

This book is appropriate for teens or adults – especially considering that Pia is a young teenager herself – and there is little objectionable material that might deter readers.

Would I Buy This for My Library: Yes

The Orphan Collector was an addictive novel – I had to know if Pia would ever find her brothers and if Nurse Wallis would ever be held accountable for her selfish actions. I believe that fans of historical fiction will be drawn to the book for the very same reasons, but, like me, will be fascinated by the historical details peppered throughout. The cover is reminiscent of a number of other covers in the historical fiction genre and may get lost in a sea of similarly themed books, so be prepared to suggest this to readers more than you might have to with true YA historical fiction books, but have confidence that fans of the genre will be grateful for your encouraging suggestion.

Summary:

The Spanish flu that ravaged the nation in 1918 struck Philadelphia particularly hard; focusing on that city and two very different residents, The Orphan Collector is at once a timeless historical tale and a timely reminder of our own present pandemic.

Beginning with the story of Pia Lange, a young girl who immigrated from Germany during a time of increasing bias, The Orphan Collector unfolds as the Spanish flu begins to spread. Pia, living in squalor in the South Philadelphia row houses is helping her mother to raise her infant twin brothers while her father is serving as a soldier in the European war effort. Life is hard enough before Pia’s classmates begin to perish and the city begins to lock down. Pia feels this particularly acutely – within a few weeks of the flu taking over the city, her own mother passes suddenly, leaving her to care for her brothers. Fearing that they will all starve if she doesn’t obtain more food, and that they will be evicted from their apartment if anyone realizes that her mother has died, Pia hides her brothers and sneaks out to get food. Unfortunately she never makes it home and after battling illness, Pia winds up in an orphanage.

As soon as Pia leaves her apartment, Bernice, a nosy and biased neighbor sneaks to their apartment and kidnaps the twins, passing them off as her own after her own infant son passed from the flu. Through devious deception, Bernice adopts the identity of a traveling nurse. Originally trying to just con people out of money to cover her living expenses, Bernice changes her plans and takes on a one-woman mission to carry out a personal vendetta against the very poorest of Philadelphia’s citizens.

The intersection of the paths of these two women brings heartache for Pia who deals with abuse, neglect, and relocation thanks to Nurse Wallis and the vicious nuns at the orphanage. In spite of all that she must overcome, Pia spends years searching for her brothers and hoping to be reunited with her father when he comes back from war. The journey to find the truth is addictive, especially when it comes to comparing the Spanish flu fears with our own Covid hysteria.

Book Talk Questions:

  1. How are some of the precautions to avoid getting sick similar to those of our modern covid pandemic? What was different and why did these older methods surprise you?
  2. What does Bernice do to the visiting nurse who comes to her apartment? What is her rationale for taking the twins?
  3. Pia is incredibly sensitive to touch. How is this a burden for her, but how does it come to be beneficial for her later?
  4. When Nurse Wallis comes to visit the children at the orphanage, she sees Finn. Why does she recognize him and what do we later find she did to him out of fear of being discovered?
  5. Pia becomes determined that Nurse Wallis knows where her brothers might be. What causes her to suspect this? What confirms her suspicions later with Mrs. Hudson? How is Pia able to visit Nurse Wallis’ apartment?
  6. What does Pia learn about the fate of her brothers and her father?

A Perfect Read for Fans Of…

  • The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman
  • The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
  • Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
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