The Orphan Collector is an immediately interesting book. Readers are pulled into the story with excellent third person narration, omniscient enough to make one feel the fears of adults and children alike. Young Pia immigrated into the United States with her German parents at the age of four. Now, with the start of World War One and fear mongering public figures, the flames of hatred are ignited towards German people and becomes so extreme that anything German is suspicious; so hamburgers are to be called liberty sandwiches and sauerkraut becomes liberty cabbage.
Pia and her family are learning what immigrants from many countries experienced, that life in the United States is not always easy and sometimes not even better than what they left behind. Jobs are scarce and some people accuse the Irish and Germans of taking away jobs that "real" Americans should have. Pia's mother, unfortunately, was let go from her job at the textile mill for being German, and although the family had been happy that Father had found work in the city and could escape working in a coal mine, the tight city quarters are difficult for Pia. She misses the blue sky of the country as well as the dogs and chickens that ran loose near their house near the mine. The city is crowded with raw sewage in gutters and trash clogged alleys are overrun by big rats. Complicating matters, Pia's father enlisted in the military to prove his loyalty to his new country, leaving his family behind in Philadelphia.
In her neighborhood of immigrants, Pia makes friends with Irish immigrant and school classmate Finn Duffy. This is an area where families like Pia's line their walls with newspapers in a desperate attempt for some insulation from the cold. Neighbors share outhouses and water pumps, and these close quarters help the spread of deadly, so-called "Spanish flu" - Pfeiffer's bacillus, named for the German physician who isolated pneumonia patients and identified the issues in a late 19th century pandemic.
Readers will see similarities to the 2020 Corona Virus situation. Pia and her family know there has been conflicting information; people in Philadelphia had been told the influenza was only in New York and Boston - not their own city, even though there were whispers of dead bodies and overwhelmed hospitals and funeral parlors. Some citizens did not want to wear masks or have to cover their faces. And too, the Board of Health had told inhabitants of Philadelphia that if they "kept their feet dry...ate more onions, and kept their bowels and windows open- they'd be fine." Adults as well as school children hung pouches of onion and garlic around their necks to stay healthy.
Although there is a great deal of history woven through this story, it does not come across as a textbook case study in any way but rather is as fast paced and interesting as any contemporary novel.