Rachel Rabinowitz is four years old in 1919. When her mother dies and her father disappears, she and her brother, Sam, are placed in New York’s Orphaned Hebrews Home. While there, Rachel becomes a subject in medical experiments performed by Dr. Mildred Solomon, a radiologist studying the potential uses of X‑rays. Dr. Solomon is more concerned about establishing her reputation in medical research than she is about the welfare of the children in the home.
In 1954, Rachel is grown up and working as a nurse in the hospice wing of the Old Hebrews Home. Her new patient is Dr. Solomon, and Rachel realizes that the tables have turned: Dr. Solomon, in severe pain as she dies from bone cancer, is now under her control. Will Rachel choose forgiveness or revenge?
This complex story unfolds in chapters that flash back to Rachel’s childhood along with accounts of events in her adult life. The book raises compelling ethical questions about medical research and examines complex family relationships. It is based on historical documents that the author discovered while doing family research at the Center for Jewish History; her great-grandmother worked at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and her grandfather grew up there. Some of this primary source material is included in an appendix to the novel.
Readers will learn a great deal about American Jewish history while reading this book. In addition to experiencing life at the orphanage, they will visit Coney Island, Chicago, and Leadville Colorado. They will also learn about medical research, cancer treatments, and the sexism and discrimination against Jews and homosexuals in the early part of the twentieth century. The history and the ethical issues raised in the story make this an excellent choice for book groups as well as individual readers.