CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 21. . . .February 4, 2011.
The Orphan Rescue.
Anne Dublin. Illustrated by Qin Leng.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2010.
124 pp., pbk., $8.95.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Diana Lynn Wilkes.
This children’s novel describes the heart-wrenching situation of an impoverished Jewish family struggling to survive in the small town of Sosnowiec, Poland, in 1937. In the author’s note, Anne Dublin reveals that this family story happened to her cousins and was told to her by her father many years ago. This is her retelling of a distressing but sadly not that uncommon occurrence in a critical period in history, the years just prior to the Second World War.
“Where are you going?” asked Miriam. “We have to get back to the factory.”
“I have to pay for our food.”
“Oh,” said Miriam. “Please hurry. We have to find David.”
Two women came into the restaurant and sat down near Miriam. One of them began to speak. “Kalina, I’m glad we came here for a change, instead of eating at the factory.”
“Me too, Stella.”
“The new boy,” Stella asked, “what’s his name again?”
“David,” Kalina said.
Miriam’s heart skipped a beat.
“Right. David,” said Stella. “Where did he come from?”
“They say he’s an orphan. A lot of those young kids who come to work are orphans.”
Miriam clenched her fists. He’s not an orphan, she thought. Not while he has me.
“That Mr. Sharf is a real operator,” Stella said. “He always finds these little kids and makes them do the most dangerous work.”
Miriam gasped. Who was this Mr. Sharf? And what was the dangerous work he was making David do?
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Kalina.
“Nothing,” Stella agreed. “We’ll lose our lousy jobs if we say anything.”
“But it’s not right,” Kalina said. “I’ll try to be nice to him when we go back.”
“Let’s forget it for now. Where’s the waitress?” said Stella. “I’m hungry.”
As soon as Ben came back, Miriam told him what she had learned. There wasn’t a moment to lose.
Historical novels for children are most effective when the situation described in the book can be generalized or extrapolated to reveal a current or familiar experience. The average privileged child of today, reading The Orphan Rescue would have very little experience with the situation in this story. This offers a great opportunity to learn. In Dublin’s notes, she comments on the fact that many children around the world are currently experiencing situations like the one these characters found themselves in and worse. Sadly, this is very true. Yes, the past has some sad tales, and they can be interesting, but why present a seventy year old story to children about poverty and desperate measures when there are similar current and relevant stories of even more urgent natures happening right now all around the world? Children do need to know about the desperate lives of other children in order to put their own lives in perspective and possibly make a difference through altruistic projects. Therefore, we should offer them current stories not sentimental family stories that have little connection with the present day. For example, Deborah Ellis writes excellent stories about children in various parts of the world struggling to survive and to help one another. Today.
History and current events aside, The Orphan Rescue is an adventure story with likeable (and villainous!) characters. Miriam and her younger brother David are spunky and easily relatable. After their parents die, the siblings are left with their sick and elderly grandparents who are unable to care for them. Twelve-year-old Miriam is taken out of school to work for the village butcher at a job she detests in order to bring home some money for the family. But for seven-year-old David, it is much worse. He is taken to the Jewish Orphanage where he will be taken care of in exchange for doing chores after classes. Promises are made that he will be clothed and fed well. It is a heart-breaking decision for the family but a necessary, temporary solution. However, when David is secretly “sold” to a factory owner to do dangerous work because of his diminutive size, Miriam, along with an unlikely friend, fights with all she has to rescue him from the slavery. The ending is hopeful, and all the problems are neatly resolved so that they can all live together again.
The children in the novel are resourceful, creative and display development of character. The adults, on the other hand, are almost all despicable. Most of the adults are men, and they are deceptive, exploitive, and manipulative. Chapter six has particularly sinister foreboding as David is woken up in the middle of the night to be the focus of a “deal” between men for him to do a “job” because he is small and has no parents. The “purchasing” man is creepy, fat, and quite repulsive. It’s hard not to think about human trafficking and sexual exploitation even though David “only” ends up working at a factory. Unfortunately, the grandparents are not as sympathetic as you might hope either. The grandmother is especially unkind as she “raised her hand,” “pushed Miriam forward,” “grabbed Miriam by the shoulders,” and says to David, “You are a boy who makes trouble.” It’s difficult to understand why she would be so harsh with her grandchildren but not so difficult to understand why Miriam deceives her grandmother.
There are many references to making a plan as Miriam and her friend Ben try to rescue David. Because the plan is never actually discussed, the reader has no sense of how the children figure things out. They seem to act rather impulsively until the final act in which they pull the fire alarm, lie to authorities, pick locks, and rummage through personal drawers to steal a discovered letter. When an unknown man interrupts Miriam’s theft, she inexplicably chooses to trust him (not her grandparents or employers) with the letter and information concerning why she is there. Luckily, he turns out to be the right one to take action and solve the problem. Once again Miriam’s questionable actions reap her success. Is this a good message to present to children?
The Jewish references are frequent, but the reader is left wanting more. For example, Miriam is concerned about Kosher food, but the change in menu does not explain it—a missed opportunity for those unfamiliar with Jewish traditions. The Sabbath may also be unfamiliar to some readers. If mentioned, it would be good to illustrate it further.
Another detail that is presented early in the story as an important fact about David—his gifted drawing skills—does not play a role in the rescue or conclusion of the story. It may be a fact of the character in the original story, but it doesn’t add to this story, and its presence is misleading and, therefore, irrelevant.
An endearing feature of The Orphan Rescue is the love the siblings have for each other. It is this love that propels the story and ensures the rescue. It is terrible to imagine sending a child away because a family cannot support him, and it is clear in this story that the family’s decision is only made in the direst of circumstances. David’s discussion with fellow residents at the orphanage about what it means to be an orphan and whether or not he is one is a very poignant aspect of this story. How can you be an orphan if you still have family? David is convinced that he is not an orphan, and Miriam proves him right!
The illustrations that are scattered throughout the novel add the perfect tone to the story. Qin Leng has captured the waif-like quality of the children along with the menacing adults and surroundings with simple pen and ink drawings. They are effective and support the writing.
The writing style is appropriate for the younger end of this age group. However, there is an over use of adjectives and adverbs that offers a “telling” rather than “showing” style of writing that feels forced. There are far too many cliché phrases, such as “pounced on her like a cat on a mouse,” “David’s face, pale as the moon,” “Miriam felt the tears welling in her eyes,” and “I wish I could wake up from this bad dream.” The other disappointment is the weak, formal dialogue that does not sound authentic especially for a former time period.
Although the story is based on facts from seventy years ago and involves children solving a challenging problem, their methods are sometimes questionable, and the ending wraps up the loose ends all too conveniently. It is a sweet story but misses the mark on a number of important points.
Recommended with reservations.
Diana Lynn Wilkes has taught grades Kindergarten to grade 7 and visual arts for grades 8 – 10. She holds a Bachelor of Education degree from Simon Fraser University and a Master of Arts degree in Children’s Literature from the University of British Columbia. She writes and paints from her homes in Surrey, BC, and Nelson, New Zealand.
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