The Orphan’s Tale

By – November 30, 2016

Can you imag­ine a Holo­caust-relat­ed sto­ry that fea­tures cir­cus per­form­ers? Can you imag­ine the Nazi regime, as it spreads across Europe, tol­er­at­ing these vagabond enter­tain­ers? His­tor­i­cal facts sup­port Jenoff’s imag­i­na­tive sto­ry of hid­den Jews, vul­ner­a­ble women, younger and old­er lovers, twist­ing loy­al­ties, and valiant spir­its in The Orphan’s Tale, a col­or­ful and mov­ing dual narrative.

Jenoff tells her tale through two alter­nat­ing char­ac­ters whose sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences bring out the best and the worst in each. Noa is a trou­bled teenag­er whose preg­nan­cy leads to her par­ents cast­ing her out. She seeks a means to sup­port her­self, and longs for the child she is forced to give up. Noa looks the per­fect Aryan, but her baby does not. Her jour­ney leads to the dis­cov­ery of a box­car filled with infants. One of the babies seems famil­iar to her. She takes him in her arms and can’t let go of it. After she dis­cov­ers that the tiny boy is cir­cum­cised, Noa finds a hid­ing place in a milk deliv­ery truck and takes the baby with her.

Astrid is clos­ing in on forty years old. She is an accom­plished cir­cus aeri­al­ist who starred in her Jew­ish family’s cir­cus for many years, then mar­ried a Ger­man offi­cer. She and Erich shared a great pas­sion, but it could not out­live the pres­sures put upon him as a Nazi func­tionary. He turns against her, and she flees home to find that her family’s cir­cus has gone under but that their gen­tile friend Herr Neuhoff has been able to keep his cir­cus going. He offers her a place.

Noa’s des­per­ate flight takes her into the cir­cus quar­ters, and she is soon trained to be part of the act in which Astrid is the star. Astrid, who has lost a child, becomes pro­tec­tive of Noa and the boy Noa pass­es off as her young brother.

The two women become emo­tion­al­ly depen­dent upon one anoth­er, their var­i­ous needs odd­ly met in a rela­tion­ship that is often stormy. They are at the cen­ter of a large cast of char­ac­ters, cir­cus folks and towns­peo­ple, against whom Pam Jenoff defines them and enlarges them.

Jenoff offers a rich­ly detailed exam­i­na­tion of how a cir­cus com­mu­ni­ty oper­ates as it trav­els from town to town, belong­ing nowhere and every­where. The wan­der­ing cir­cus, though it has an itin­er­ary, is always vul­ner­a­ble. It seems a kind of par­a­digm for the wan­der­ing Jew in dis­tant his­to­ry and in the unfold­ing present. Sev­er­al Jew­ish char­ac­ters are part of the cir­cus, hav­ing found in it a place to hide.

Acts of car­ing and courage inter­twine with those of hos­til­i­ty and cow­ardice against the men­ac­ing back­drop of Nazi occu­pied Europe in this high­ly orig­i­nal book. Jenoff has woven a bril­liant tapes­try of tones and types that suc­ceeds in explor­ing and allow­ing read­ers to feel, through its lumi­nous­ly drawn nar­rat­ing char­ac­ters, the true mean­ing of righteousness.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.