Rachel, age 4, and her brother Sam live with their parents in a tenement in New York. When her mother learns that her husband has gotten a young girl pregnant, she tries to attack him with a kitchen knife. In the violent struggle, the mother is killed and the father, knowing what’s in store for him, takes off, leaving his children alone.
Without other family, Rachel and Sam are taken to a Jewish orphanage, where they become separated — girls on one campus, boys on the other — seeing each other only occasionally. Thus isolated from the last of her family, Rachel tries to find friends and believes she has one in Dr. Mildred Solomon, who is doing research to see if high doses of radiation can cure tonsillitis. Rachel is selected as candidate number eight for the radiation treatments.
The radiation leaves Rachel permanently bald, and therefore wide open for ridicule and sordid abuse by her fellow orphans. When Sam leaves the orphanage for Colorado, Rachel soon follows. Finding no solace there, she heads back to New York to become a nurse.
It is at this point that she first feels the lump. Sure enough, she has cancer — brought on by those early radiation treatments. What’s more, her new, gravely ill patient turns out to be none other than Dr. Solomon.
Revenge and forgiveness vie within Rachel, and the two genuine emotions will provide robust fare for book clubs that appreciate wise historical fiction.
Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade. William Morrow/HarperCollins.