Orphan Number Eight by Kim van Alkemade - Review

Orphan Number Eight - Kim Van Alkemade

Orphan Number Eight presents a stunning backdrop of the evil horrors unveiled in the early years of medical experimentation with x-rays; devoid of morals, federal regulation, or any semblance of human dignity. How important it is to have fictional accounts of vitally important yet devastating consequences of people in power making immoral decisions over children, no less children cast into orphanages as a result of life's tragic turns.  Who could speak to orphans human rights other than government that is inadequate or has poorly regulated resources? Are we better off today than a century ago?


Radiologic experimentation on orphans was carried out by Dr Mildred Solomon both for the advancement of medical knowledge and, more so, to forward her ambition to make a name for her through historical medical discoveries. Ambition in this novel is interwoven with the struggle of female physicians, as has been known to occur through most of the 20th century, to make their mark while striving to prove that they are worthy of the title, Doctor. Not the least of the struggles, a young orphan, Rachel, who struggles with family, interpersonal, human aesthetic, and sexual identities throughout the novel. Rachel learns to thrive despite the many oppositional forces she encounters.


Rachel forms friends and enemies in the Orphaned Hebrews Home, amongst the staff and her fellow orphans. There are tender moments depicted between Dr Solomon and Rachel, primarily during their interactions in experiments; painting an endearing canvas of the nurturing mother in Mildred, contrasted with a childlike trust imbued by Rachel; all done in the name of “justified” research. As a nurse in her 40's, Rachel later learns that the physical maladies from which she suffers, aesthetically and medically, were the result of experiment; not necessary intervention. Medically speaking, this novel is abundant in accurate descriptions, historical landmark events, and realistic staff-patient interactions; all engrained by and for institutions of medicine.


Rachel befriends Naomi in the Orphanage. Their relationship becomes a focus throughout the book, subtly morphing from childhood sexual experimentation into an unmistakable love relationship. The novel ends (not on the collision of medical conflicts built up by page 376; not on the social ramifications of orphanages on their inhabitants; not on the deadly fallout of adultery on the family unit; nor on the conflict of Jewish funding of institutions engaged in legalized abuse of children) but on the development of a lesbian relationship that is never mentioned on the cover synopsis. It becomes THE focus of this novel, thereby negating the true significance of the horrors of abuse that pervaded New York orphanages in the early 1900's; nor to the honor of the Author’s grandfather, for whom the novel is meant to be 'historical' and personal.


Overall the novel is set in two timelines and presents an interesting read. I recommend it to those with medical backgrounds, as I am a physician and felt the medical descriptions, and therefore the research, to be pretty spot on and captivating. I felt both a letdown for the reader, with respect to the ending, and for those whose suffering was aptly validated by exposure of the greed and egregious mistakes of professionals entrusted to care of children, barren of alternatives to home. I would recommend this novel to anyone who both loves historical fiction and can tolerate derailing of a great story onto separable social agendas.


I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.