Eerily timely period piece that pulls at your heart.

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smangela112 Avatar


I was eager to read this book as Wiseman's What She Left Behind was such a lasting novel. This equally met the mark. Wiseman has a way of just completely breaking your heart in her novels. Especially in the time of Covid-19, learning about the disastrous and tragic struggles of the 1918 Influenza epidemic was timely, relevant, and eye-opening.

In a time when we readers may be feeling depressed or frustrated with the current state of detention we seem to be struggling with, this is a slap-in-the-face reminder that things could be much, much worse. Reading, in detail, about how people died of this flu was graphic and rather unsettling. When we read about Bernice and her poor sweet baby, I had to skim over quite a few pages as I sat reading next to my own infant. But I like that Wiseman doesn't shy away from details.

She doesn't paint a cute picture of an orphanage or gloss over mistreatment of children and immigrants. She doesn't make light of grief and how it can wreck a person. I felt this attention gave true homage to the plight of this country during the epidemic and also due respect to the prejudice and racism immigrants felt then (and I'm sure still unfortunately experience today).

In this book we get to know Pia Lange, a 13-year-old German immigrant. She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the outbreak of the influenza epidemic. Much to our immediate dismay, Pia's mother, succumbs to the flu leaving behind not only Pia, but also twin 4-month-old boys. Pia cares for them the best she can while she lives in constant fear of her or her brothers catching the flu. After a few weeks, she has no choice but to venture out on her own to find food or else she and her brothers will starve.

Our other perspective throughout the book is that of Bernice Groves a grieving woman whose just lost her husband and her baby, one to the war and one to the flu. She has hate in her heart for immigrants and anyone who doesn't fit her definition of an American. She watches out her window contemplating suicide as Pia darts out from across the street in her search for food. Bernice is captivated by Pia and her mind goes down a rabbit hole of what may be going on in Pia's family that a child would be sent out and risk infection. Compelled, Bernice finds herself knocking on the apartment door and hears the sound of babies crying. Infuriated that Pia would abandon her young brothers, Bernice steals the children.

One bad turn after another leaves Pia in an orphanage, grieving for her mother, aching for her brothers and father. Pia and Bernice's paths keep crossing, problematic for Bernice who is harboring Pia's brothers. Worse, Bernice spirals further into hatred as she escalates into stealing and displacing more and more immigrant children. Bernice is fueled by one thing only, evil.

You'll see just how Pia and Bernice's stories ultimately play out by the end of the novel. I felt the emotional highs and lows were well worth the ultimate result.

Having only read Wiseman's What She Left Behind, I am interested to read some of her other novels for comparison. I feel that she is capable of fully immersing her readers not only into her character's lives, but also the atmosphere they're living in. I did draw some similarities between The Orphan Collector and What She Left Behind. First, there were several mentions of insane asylums, admittance used as a threat. Second, the orphanage and the asylum from What She Left Behind both kept the protagonist against their will. And both institutions were lead by less than ideal people. People in positions of power in places such as orphanages or asylums you would hope would be compassionate and care about and for the people inhabiting them; however, it appears that wasn't the case.

It was especially interesting to read Bernice's point of view because Wiseman was able to utterly capture the narcissistic nature of this hateful person. Bernice never sees that she is doing unfathomable things. She thinks she's bettering the country and even further, has deluded herself into thinking she's helping these children by separating them from their parents.