Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Published by Mira on February 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan's Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival .
Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.
Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.
In The Orphan’s Tale, as the season (and the book) winds down to its conclusion, one of the characters prophetically says with a sneer, “Next year? The circus is dying.” In this story of two women who find shelter and redemption in one of the few circuses allowed to limp across Europe under the Nazis, the irony is that they all think of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey as their well-funded and well-attended competition across the Atlantic. Now in 2017, their circus is dying too.
But the story in The Orphan’s Tale brings together the unsung history of the circuses across Europe under the Nazi regime with a moving tale of sacrifice, friendship and survival about two women who find themselves thrown together in death-defying circumstances. Not just their beautiful but deadly act on the “flying trapeze”, but also their hiding in plain sight from the Nazis.
Astrid is a Jew. Her family used to be the owners of one of the most successful traveling circuses in Europe. But that was before the Nazis took everything, including their lives. Astrid is the last survivor, hiding amongst the performers of a rival circus, doing the only thing that makes her feel alive – flying.
Noa is also rescued by the circus. As a young Dutchwoman who looks like the Aryan ideal, she should have been safe. But her parents threw her out when her brief fling with a Nazi soldier resulted in pregnancy. The “home” for unwed mothers took her baby. She is alone, bereft, and eking out a bare living cleaning the train station, when the Nazis leave a boxcar of infants unattended at the station. Most of the babies have died of exposure, but a despairing Noa finds one little one still alive. A boy, and all too obviously Jewish, telling her everything she needs to know about the dead babies in the boxcar. She rescues him, and runs, seeing in this child his resemblance to her own missing baby.
But to hide in the circus, Noa must have a part of the performance. And the circus needs another aerialist. Against Astrid’s wishes and recommendation, she is stuck with training the tyro to perform, and has barely six weeks to cram a lifetime of training into the very reluctant flyer.
They are not friends. At first they are reluctant teacher and equally reluctant student. At times they are rivals. But the nature of their act means that above all, they must learn to trust each other. Or they will die. Or their secrets will be revealed, and they will die. And the circus will die with them, their fellow performers imprisoned or executed as collaborators.
But as Noa becomes part of the circus, she comes to love the world in which she has found herself. And, against all odds, she has come to see Astrid as the big sister she never had. And just as Astrid has cared for both Noa and the little boy she named Theo, sometimes in spite of herself, so Noa comes to take care of Astrid as her world, and the circus it encompasses, fall apart.
In the end, all they have is each other. And it’s just barely enough.
Escape Rating A-: The Orphan’s Tale is a story within a story. At the very beginning, it is the modern day, as an old woman takes great pains to visit a museum which has put her old circus wagon on display. The story itself is her recounting of her life in that wagon, Astrid and Noa and Theo, and the world of the circus under the Nazis.
We return at the end to that same elderly lady, and discover how it all turned out. In this case, it’s a marvelous way to tell the important bits, while leaving out the more mundane aspects of her post-war survival. When we find out what happened, we understand everything about the lady, the circus, and the world she left behind.
In the author’s postscript, we learn just how much of the story is based on pieces of fact, and it is well-worth reading. As the book proceeds, so much of the background feels true that it is almost a relief to learn that a great deal of it was true. Astrid and Noa did not exist, but the circus at this time was as portrayed. And unfortunately, the boxcar of dead babies is also based on historical fact.
But the story here is the story of women’s friendships, in spite of opposition or enmity, and how those friendships can flourish under the harshest of circumstances. Astrid and Noa do not always like each other, and they begin with very little in common. At the same time, they are both hiding such similar secrets that they must begin to trust each other. The story here is the flowering of that trust.
It is also the story of the circus, both the mundane and back-breaking work of putting it all together, and the uplifting effect of bringing a small taste of not just normality, but of a bit of escape, to people who have otherwise been beaten down into the deepest rut of bare survival. Although the circumstances of time and place are very different, this part of the story has the same feel as Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The circus goes on, even in this depth of adversity, because survival is insufficient.