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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16 Responses

  1. So glad you found a new home!

  2. Hi, Nancy,

    I’m so glad your orphan has been adopted. I still have a long way to go.

    My own mother died at 56 yrs of age of blood cancer. So I felt particularly badly about Linda who was a lovely, generous person. I never earned much money from my Dreamspell books but I really liked the people. Dreamspell writers are a supportive group!

    • So sad for you, Jacquie to have that early death. I can see why Linda’s cancer at the same age was even more of a shock for you. I don’t think any of us earned much money, but money isn’t why most of us write, is it?

  3. I’m happy your book found a new home, and I hope it prospers there. Mine hasn’t yet, but the process has injected new energy into my follow-up novel, so I’m grateful for that. I agree with Jacquie about Dreamspell writers–the chatroom has been inspirational for me. Thanks to all of you!

    • Well, we grow through adversity, don’t we, Nikki? In some ways, that is. Now and then it whacks us on the head and seems to knock us out, but we usually stagger up and carry on. New energy for the new novel–yeah!

  4. Nancy, honoring Linda and L&L Dreamspell helps ease the pain of losing a wonderful friend and publisher. Great to hear news of your book finding a new home.
    Best wishes for continued success.

    • Thanks, Betty. We do grow to love our publishers–especially after we’ve grown to know them. I think you said you’ve found a new publisher for your orphaned books? It’s not easy to do, as we’ve all discovered. Today I must go out and order a set of postcards with the new cover. So many details!

  5. How wonderful that books could carry you through your orphaned beginnings. You’ve repaid the debt over and over with your own books.
    Not for the first time, I’ll soon be borrowing your metaphors, an inspiration for all of our journeys.

    • Oh, I love your borrowings, Camille! I’ll look forward….We writers have to stick together: lending, borrowing, commiserating. (Never mind what Polonius said in Hamlet (“neither a lender nor a borrower be?”) Twas all nonsense. I constantly borrow. Or call it “steal”?

  6. Congratulations to your orphan! Being adopted by the SCBW has to be a good sign. They’re good people.

    • Thanks, Sara. They are a great–and generous–institution. I was lucky to have the grant–under a different title for the book. I called it Tall Girls Don’t Cry. But in the marketing process, discovered another book by that name, and felt I should change it.

  7. Nancy, I’m very glad to learn that your book has found a new publisher. I’ve been lucky, too, in that a local mini-press will soon reissue Damned If You Don’t as an e-book.

    I, too, was attracted to fictional orphans as a child, though, thankfully, that didn’t reflect my own situation. I wonder if those books are so appealing because they give us a taste of the independence we (maybe subconsciously) crave as well as fear.

    • Congratulations on your new publication, too, Anita! I know how much work it is moving to a new press, but important to keep your orphan alive! A very provocative thought re: the appeal of books with orphans. Yes–good! the independence we crave yet fear. Hard to imagine not having at least one parent to grow up with. I know 50-year-olds who feel abandoned when both parents die!

  8. Nancy: Great blog! My cozy A RED, RED ROSE has two orphans who actually fall in love with each other. Great for reader compassion! I am working with The Wild Rose Press to re-issue ROSE. Have submitted prelim galleys (but still awaiting return of signed contract). Good luck to all us “orphans.” Glad to hear you’ve picked up a publisher, too.

    • So happy, Susan, to know you’re now with the Wild Rose Press, and a perfect name, too. I recall your wonderful RED RED ROSE orphans and love that book! I’ll look for your sequel when it comes out. Hope that contract comes soon…just for your peace of mind.

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