Can you imagine a Holocaust-related story that features circus performers? Can you imagine the Nazi régime, 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.