On Fictional Orphans and Orphaned Books

Ever since I read The Secret Garden, I’ve been captivated by orphans.  Perhaps it was because my arrival shocked my 40ish mother fifteen years after the birth of my elder sister, that I often felt like an orphan. Stuck away in a girl’s school after my father’s untimely death, I fully related to fictional Mary Lennox, whose parents died of cholera in India and who felt herself unloved, a veritable “untouchable.”  After that I couldn’t get enough of books about orphans. Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin I became Topsy,  oppressed by cruel owners (and for me an overbearing headmistress). I was the abused gypsy lad Heathcliff in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  I wept through Dickens’s Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.  I pitied Hugo’s ugly bellringer Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and mourned his unrequited love for the gorgeous Esmeralda. (I tried to match Heathcliff with gypsy Esmeralda, but it wasn’t to be.

I saw the Little Orphan Annie musical a dozen times, took my young grandkids to see Harry Potter films, and discovered that Harry was an orphan. So were Tom Sawyer, Superman, and the lovable hobbit Frodo Baggins, whose author, J.A.R. Tolkien was himself abandoned . I read and reread Jane Eyre, my favorite orphan of all, who had to make her own decisions about work and marriage–liberating in one sense, but a path filled with dragons until she met Mr. Rochester. Even then,  she didn’t find her true self until after his blindness.

For most of these fictional orphans (excepting Heathcliff, who ended up rich and miserable), there was a happy ending, a redemption of sorts. Oliver Twist finds peace through a long lost aunt and his savior Mr. Brownlow.  Annie has her benefactor, Daddy Warbucks, and a magical garden awakens Mary to the world, and transforms her life.

Orphans joined my own family through my spouse, who had adopted two girls: one a frail three-month-old from India who arrived in a wicker basket (which she has saved)–the other from a local orphanage, who discovered her birth mother one night in a Rutland, Vermont bar. She now boasts four mothers and one father (my spouse) to celebrate birthdays with.

I’ve written orphans into my mystery novels, too. In The Nightmare, my fictional Dulcie, a self-styled “non servant” was abandoned in the parish of St Giles, and “bred to Labour, Industry, and Religion.” In the same book, a bluestocking adopts a mischievous child from an orphanage I happened upon while researching the 18th-century.  And in my latest mystery, Broken Strings, my puppeteer sleuth gives a home to three troubled foster kids, who inadvertently help her resolve a murder.

Now I find myself with an orphaned middle grade novel, Walking into the Wild. One of my two publishers died tragically, aged 56, of an aggressive brain cancer. Her shocked partner felt she couldn’t handle the business part alone (royalties, orders, book design), thereby sending dozens of our books into limbo. But she kindly offered editorial contacts, returned book files, and kept a chatroom of our loyal authors going, that we might mourn together and offer advice/solutions. Through small press publishers and self-publishing, our orphans have slow-ly, painstakingly, like Annie and Oliver, begun to find welcoming homes.  My novel (written with the help of a grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers), has merged with a mini-press children’s book publisher under a new imprint and with sparkling cover art. In a few weeks, like a burning bush, it will bloom–e-book and print–in full autumn color.

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