Title: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff
Genre: Historical, fiction
Length: 352 pages
A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan’s Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival
Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.
Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.
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I run my finger over my wedding band, which I had put on once more as I’d left Berlin so as to attract less attention while traveling.
“So where will you go?” Herr Neuhoff asks. I do not answer. “You should leave Germany,” he adds gently. Leaving.
It was the thing that no one talked about anymore, the door that had closed. I’d heard Mama suggest it once years earlier, before things had gotten bad. Then the idea had seemed laughable—we were Germans and our circus had been here for centuries. In hindsight it was the only option, but none of us had been wise enough to take it because no one knew how bad things would become. And now that chance was gone. “Or you could join us,” Herr Neuhoff adds.
“Join you?” The surprise in my voice borders on rude.
He nods. “Our circus. I am missing an aerialist since Angelina broke her hip.” I stare at him, disbelieving. Though the seasonal workers and even performers might transfer between circuses, one circus family working for another is unheard of— I can no more imagine myself part of the Circus Neuhoff than a leopard changing its spots. The suggestion makes sense, though—and the way he phrases it does not sound as if he is offering me charity, but rather that I would be filling a need.
Still, my spine stiffens. “I couldn’t possibly.” To stay here would mean being beholden to Herr Neuhoff, another man. After Erich, I will never do that again.
“Really, you’d be doing me a huge service.” His voice is sincere. I am more than just a spare performer. Having a Klemt join his circus, well, that would be something, at least to the older folks who remembered our act at its heyday. With my name and reputation as an aerialist, I am like a collectible, an item to be had.
“I’m a Jew,” I say. To employ me now would be a crime. Why would he take on such danger?
“I’m aware.” His mustache twitches with amusement. “You are Zirkus Volk,” he adds quietly. That transcends all else.
Still my doubts linger. “You have SS living next door now, don’t you? It will be so dangerous.”
He waves his hand, as if this is of no consequence. “We’ll change your name.” But my name is what he wants—the very thing that makes me most valuable to him. “Astrid,” he pronounces.
“Astrid,” I repeat, trying it on for size. Close to Ingrid, but not the same. And it sounds Scandinavian, vaguely exotic—perfect for the circus. “Astrid Sorrell.”
His eyebrows rise. “Wasn’t that your husband’s surname?”
For a second, I falter, surprised that he had known. Then I nod. Erich had taken everything from me but that. He would never know.
“Plus, I could use your good sense about the business,” he adds. “It’s only me and Emmet.” Herr Neuhoff had been dealt a cruel blow. In the circus, large families are the norm; ours had four brothers, each more handsome and talented than the next. But Herr Neuhoff’s wife had died birthing Emmet and he had not remarried, leaving him alone with just one shiftless heir who had neither the talent to perform nor the head to run the business. Instead, Emmet spent his time gambling in the cities on tour and ogling the dancing girls. I shudder to think what might become of this circus when his father is gone.
“So you’ll stay?” Herr Neuhoff asks. I consider the question. Our two families had not always gotten along. My coming here today had been a change. We were rivals, more so than allies—until now.
I want to say no, to get on a train and keep searching for my family. I’ve had enough of depending on others. But Herr Neuhoff’s eyes are soft; he takes no joy in the misfortune that has befallen my family and is only trying to help. I can already hear the music of the orchestra, and the ache to perform, buried so deep I’d almost forgotten, rises sharply within me. A second chance.
Pam Jenoff is the author of several novels, including the international bestseller The Kommandant’s Girl, which also earned her a Quill Award nomination. Pam lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school.
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