The Orphan’s Daughter

By – January 13, 2021

Jan Cherubin’s debut nov­el tells the sto­ry of a father and daugh­ter strug­gling to come to terms with each other.

Clyde Aronson’s life has been shaped by his expe­ri­ences in the Yonkers, NY, Hebrew Nation­al Orphan Home. Clyde was placed there by his moth­er as a sev­en-year-old — along with his five-year-old broth­er — after their father aban­doned the fam­i­ly in the 1920s. The bru­tal hard­ships Clyde lived through made him tough and calculating.

His daugh­ter, Joan­na, pro­vides much of the book’s nar­ra­tion. She paints her father as a high­ly intel­li­gent and respect­ed Eng­lish teacher, as well as a charis­mat­ic and col­or­ful fig­ure, but ulti­mate­ly lack­ing as a father. Her sad­ness is appar­ent when she says he was always deaf to her needs,” and cre­at­ed a bar­ri­er that was always up” between them. Their rela­tion­ship begins to change when Joan­na, now in her ear­ly thir­ties, comes to stay with Clyde — and his sec­ond wife — and care for him when he becomes seri­ous­ly ill.

Look­ing back, Clyde feels proud that he and his first wife gave Joan­na and her old­er sis­ter what he con­sid­ers an ide­al upbring­ing in 1950s and 1960s sub­ur­ban Bal­ti­more. At times it was, but under the sur­face lurked a trou­bled mar­riage, exten­sive wom­an­iz­ing, and benign neglect. These fis­sures in their home life impact­ed rela­tion­ships among fam­i­ly, friends, and col­leagues. Joan­na recounts numer­ous inci­dents over the years that point towards unin­volved par­ents. These behav­iors were jux­ta­posed against fun times grow­ing up in sub­ur­bia, var­i­ous intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits, and a year in Ire­land when Clyde won a Ful­bright Schol­ar­ship. This tumul­tuous fam­i­ly dynam­ic leads Joan­na to con­stant­ly ques­tion­ing her choic­es and desires.

The threads of Joan­na and Clyde’s sto­ries are beau­ti­ful­ly woven togeth­er by Joanna’s voice, which is at once hon­est and humor­ous, and offers a painful chron­i­cle of her jour­ney. Her nar­ra­tion is inter­spersed by chap­ters enti­tled, Tuck­a­hoe,” which are Clyde’s mem­oir of his life in the orphan­age. His voice sear­ing­ly describes the reg­i­ment­ed, harsh, and lone­ly times he expe­ri­enced at the Home; Clyde promis­es Joan­na she can have this man­u­script when he dies. Like­wise, the occa­sion­al inclu­sion of Clyde and Evie’s WWII love let­ters enrich­es the couple’s back­sto­ry and sheds light on their char­ac­ters’ moral­i­ty and passions.The nar­ra­tive unfolds flu­id­ly with well-paced unveil­ing and keep­ing of secrets, that accom­pa­nies sus­pense and var­i­ous oth­er sur­pris­es through­out the nar­ra­tive. Along with dark­ness, betray­al, and strife there’s also the promise of change, hope, and love.

The Orphan’s Daugh­ter is a poet­ic and engag­ing nov­el. Cheru­bin adept­ly cap­tures her many flawed char­ac­ters with nuance, human­i­ty, and insight, as well as col­or­ful­ly encap­su­lat­ing each decade with exten­sive details. The author’s father actu­al­ly spent his child­hood in an orphan­age and pos­sessed many of the same qual­i­ties as his fic­tion­al coun­ter­part. Cheru­bin also deals with many oth­er themes, includ­ing fem­i­nist issues, sib­ling love and rival­ry, divorce, polit­i­cal caus­es, and Jew­ish cul­ture in this reflec­tive, engross­ing, and heart­felt book.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Jan Cherubin

  1. The Orphan’s Daugh­ter has two nar­ra­tors — Joan­na Aron­son, and her father Clyde Aron­son, who tells the sto­ry of his life in the Hebrew Nation­al Orphan Home. In what way does the orphan­age sto­ry inter­sect with Joanna’s story?

  2. Clyde and Evie are non-believ­ers — Clyde says he’s an exis­ten­tial­ist and Evie still clings to Marx­ist ideals. Yet they send their chil­dren to Bal­ti­more Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tion for Sun­day school. Why? The Aron­sons’ Jew­ish­ness is ref­er­enced in almost every chap­ter. If not reli­gious belief, what gives each of these char­ac­ters such a strong Jew­ish identity?

  3. When Clyde wakes up in ter­ri­ble pain, Bren­da insists he’s fak­ing. Clyde says the trou­ble with Bren­da is that she’s a shik­sa. A Jew­ish wife would dote on him. Why does he reduce his rela­tion­ship with Bren­da to a stereo­type? Is Clyde hope­less­ly out of touch? Is there valid­i­ty to his claim? What does Joan­na say?

  4. The author’s father lived at the Hebrew Nation­al Orphan Home from 1924 – 34. The Home had its own farm, syn­a­gogue, school, and news­pa­per. Her father called it a Gar­den of Eden. But it also had severe pun­ish­ments. (In 1936, reforms were made by a pro­gres­sive super­in­ten­dant.) Do you think the HNOH pro­vid­ed a good upbring­ing for poor Jew­ish chil­dren? Does it seem bet­ter or worse than the fos­ter care sys­tem we have now?

  5. In the nov­el, an inher­i­tance means more than mon­ey. What does the inher­i­tance sym­bol­ize for each of the main characters?

  6. Clyde has a larg­er-than-life per­son­al­i­ty. When you’re with him you feel like you’re in the cen­ter of the uni­verse. This is an irre­sistible trait. Does it make up for his flaws?

  7. Joanna’s love for her father is fierce. Yet Clyde at times shows a reck­less dis­re­gard for Joanna’s well­be­ing. Why is she so loy­al to him?

  8. At the swim­ming club, Clyde asks Joan­na to for­give him for what hap­pened on the camp­ing trip. Are his sins for­giv­able? Would you for­give a par­ent for this kind of betray­al? Would Joan­na be bet­ter off if she cut ties with her father once she was out of the house? Is it pos­si­ble for adult chil­dren to tru­ly for­give their parents?

  9. Do you believe Clyde and Evie should have stayed togeth­er? Does Evie bear any respon­si­bil­i­ty for the breakup of their marriage?

  10. Evie saves the let­ters Clyde wrote her dur­ing WWII, while Clyde los­es Evie’s let­ters to him. It’s not inten­tion­al, but the loss is an exam­ple of how women are left out of his­to­ry. What are some oth­er sub­tle and not-so-sub­tle instances of women being mar­gin­al­ized in The Orphan’s Daugh­ter or in your own experience?

  11. Why does it take so long for the doc­tors to fig­ure out what dis­ease Clyde is suf­fer­ing from? Is their inep­ti­tude believable?

  12. Why doesn’t Joan­na ask her moth­er to split the $20,000 with Bren­da, so that Joan­na can final­ly get her stuff? Giv­ing up $10,000 would not be life-chang­ing for Evie, and Bren­da has a valid point of view. What would you do in that circumstance?

  13. The Orphan’s Daugh­ter opens with this line: I broke into the house I grew up in to steal back my child­hood.” Do you think Joan­na suc­cess­ful­ly takes pos­ses­sion of her his­to­ry by the end of the novel?

  14. Joan­na com­mits a felony when she breaks into the house, vio­lat­ing Brenda’s pri­va­cy. Should she be punished?

  15. Clyde tells his daugh­ters the years they were in ele­men­tary school were the hap­pi­est time of his life. Joan­na tells Clyde the year the fam­i­ly spent abroad was trans­for­ma­tion­al for her. Each state­ment is a gift to the oth­er. The way we reflect on the past and share it with fam­i­ly and friends is a path toward for­give­ness and redemp­tion. Do you believe these gifts are adequate?

  16. What does it mean to hang onto the past? How can reliv­ing the past lead to per­son­al growth? How does it hin­der per­son­al growth?

  17. The Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward ran a week­ly fea­ture, The Gallery of Miss­ing Hus­bands.” Are you sur­prised so many Jew­ish men desert­ed their fam­i­lies in 1920s America?

  18. Clyde has a close extend­ed fam­i­ly, yet no one is will­ing to take in Clyde and his broth­er. Is this under­stand­able? Is it for­giv­able? Do you believe Clyde’s moth­er was a ter­ri­ble per­son for putting him in an insti­tu­tion? Why does Clyde call her a saint?