Orphan #8

Orphan #8

A Novel

Book - 2015
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A stunning debut novel in the vein of Sarah Waters' historical fiction and inspired by true events, it tells the fascinating story of a woman who must choose between revenge and mercy when she encounters the doctor who subjected her to dangerous medical experiments in a New York City Jewish orphanage. In 1919, Rachel Rabinowitz is a vivacious four-year-old living with her family in a crowded tenement on New York City's Lower Eastside. When tragedy strikes, Rachel is separated from her brother Sam and sent to a Jewish orphanage where Dr. Mildred Solomon is conducting medical research. Subjected to X-ray treatments that leave her disfigured, Rachel suffers years of cruel harassment from the other orphans. But when she turns fifteen, she runs away to Colorado hoping to find the brother she lost and discovers a family she never knew she had. Though Rachel believes she's shut out her painful childhood memories, years later she is confronted with her dark past when she becomes a nurse at Manhattan's Old Hebrews Home and her patient is none other than the elderly, cancer-stricken Dr. Solomon. Rachel becomes obsessed with making Dr. Solomon acknowledge, and pay for, her wrongdoing. But each passing hour Rachel spends with the old doctor reveal to Rachel the complexities of her own nature. She realizes that a person's fate--to be one who inflicts harm or one who heals--is not always set in stone. Lush in historical detail, rich in atmosphere and based on true events, Orphan #8 is a powerful, affecting novel of the unexpected choices we are compelled to make that can shape our destinies.
Publisher: New York, William Morrow Paperbacks,, 2015.
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780062338303
Characteristics: 381 pages ; 19 cm.
Alternative Title: Orphan number eight


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Dec 07, 2018

This was such a good book! Following Rachel's life and all the trauma she went through was heartbreaking, but captivating. The only thing I didn't like about it was the abrupt ending. I highly recommend this book.

Jun 15, 2018

I have mixed feelings about this book. It was interesting to learn about the Jewish orphanages of the past, however, I felt like the addition of the lesbian aspect was unnecessary and did not add anything to the story. The flaws in the main character were not easy to accept, albeit realistic. At the end, there were some unanswered questions - it seemed the author got tired of the story and just stopped writing. However, I was ready for it to end too!

Jun 05, 2017

I enjoyed this book. There are a lot of things that I did not know about-the Hebrew Homes for various needs-orphans, consumptives (suffering from tuberculosis), hospitals. Rachel's story is well told from the various times in her life and although it is not an enjoyable story (no happy endings here!) the parts that were fascinating to me involved the way the orphans were cared for..experimental actions not withstanding! They were isolated when they were ill so the other children were not exposed to infectious diseases, they had dental and medical care and their education was insured. Higher education was encouraged and assistance was often provided. Way different from the Dickensian orphanages and I think, from the "children's homes" of the time. The Jewish community took care of its own!

Apr 26, 2017

Agree with previous 2 comments.......started off strongly, but quickly became repetitive, and went on to long......tried to include current topics eg lesbianism and euthanasia, that did not necessarily add to the story.....Plus finished with questions still unanswered eg why did she never learn that her father killed her mother?......did she actually have breast cancer?
I was disappointed and would not recommend to serious readers.

Sep 07, 2016

Agree with the previous comment. Although the background story was eye opening, the plot was extremely predictable after the opening events. If you are a serious reader you will be sorely disappointed with the writing.

This plot has so much potential but the author's writing skills are not up to he task. Some ersatz radicalism in depicting the protagonist as a lesbian, but this does not add to the plot either way, I am not sure what the point of bringing in her sexual preference was. The dialogue was trite and seemed to be aimed at an audience with a grade 10 reading level.

May 04, 2016

29/9 - This is very interesting, but a bit hard to read, thinking about doctors literally experimenting on disadvantaged children because it's interesting and because they can (due to the lack of a need for parental consent for orphans) is disturbing for me. The damage these X-rays do to the children, in the short and long term is horrifying to read about. While this is a fictional story, it reads very much like a descendant's account of their family member's real life experience. It doesn't feel like the author imagined it in her head.

While the subject matter is of great interest and emotional impact, the writing is a bit hit and miss. The writing in the 'child-aged Rachel' chapters are quite different-sounding in maturity level. It's almost like those chapters are written by a different author. I understand the need for a different 'voice' for the 3rd person chapters, but why does the 'voice' need to sound like it was written by a teenager? That is irritating, but won't put me off finishing the book. To be continued...


2/10 - I lost a bit of respect and sympathy for Rachel when she betrayed Naomi. I know she has a terrible fate awaiting her, but I was very surprised when Naomi turned out to be the 'she/her' that Rachel was trying to get a hold of and anxiously waiting to have return. I expected the betrayal would mean Naomi wouldn't want to see or speak to Rachel ever again (I don't think I would). My grandma went through something similar to Rachel's experience. When she was in her early twenties she volunteered in a hospital, nursing patients with tuberculosis and to make sure that the nurses didn't contract TB themselves they had X-rays of their lungs done every few weeks to check for signs of the disease. Thirty yeas later she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy, and there was no such thing as reconstructive surgery in the fifties. She lived the rest of her life with no breasts, a small amount of padding (kind of like an insertable shoulder pad) used to fill out a bra to give her a facsimile of her pre-surgery shape. Ten years pass and she's diagnosed with ovarian cancer and has a complete hysterectomy. Another ten and she's diagnosed with bone cancer and goes through numerous rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she battled the cancer for the rest of her life. Thank goodness cancer treatments have become far more advanced and targeted these days and thank goodness doctors now realise how dangerous unnecessary X-rays can be.

With a book that's a combination of historical fiction and a memoir of her grandfather's time spent in an orphanage (recreated through the secondary character of Vic, a friend to Rachel and her brother Sam), van Alkemade has told a very interesting, and unique story that didn't go how I was expecting it to. Just like van Alkemade said in the 'extras' at the back of the book, as soon as you mention Jewish children and doctors experimenting on them most people's thoughts jump to WWII and the Nazis, mine certainly did. So, with this not really having anything to do with the Nazis (despite what Rachel tried to accuse Dr Solomon of), it wasn't the war/concentration camp book I was expecting it to be. I really enjoyed the story even though some of the writing sounded needlessly immature. As I said in my review for Black Rabbit Hall, I usually tend to like books that switch back and forth between one time and another, using the time separation to create mystery in the plot. I will definitely look out for more by Kim van Alkemade at the library.

Jan 29, 2016

This is a well written and disturbing story of our past. Experiments on children and the consequences are disturbing. The author has produced a credible and compassionate story based on real experiences from history. Not for the sensitive reader.

Aug 29, 2015

I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting when I started reading Kim van Alkemade's "Orphan #8l" , but I can tell you that this author's debut novel surpassed any expectations I had! A historical fiction piece spanning the early to mid 1900s, this is the story of the world of New York City's Jewish orphanages.

This book is inspired by true events which had me very intrigued. It wasn't until reading this book and afterwards, doing some very light online research I had no idea this world of orphaned Jews and medical experiments in early 1900 even existed.

Rachel is an easy character to love and I was immediately engaged in her character. This book alternated between Rachel's childhood past and her current situation. In her current situation she comes to a huge realization that her disfigurement is not some side effect of medical procedure that she needed as a very young child, but rather an experiment on her once perfectly healthy body. She was used merely for research. She was given the name "Number 8" in the study and upon her realization she decides this is the cause of her hard life.

Now a nurse on The Fifth, a hospital floor for the terminally sick and dying at Manhattan's Old Hebrews Home, she discovers she must care for a dying patient that was the cause of all this- the doctor who performed this horrific experiment. She is forced to relive her past and dissect every major moment of her life. She is torn between the ethics of being a nurse and the revenge from a patient where the medical experiment went horribly wrong. From sadness and hatred, to strength and independence, this book takes the reader through a wide range of emotions.

As the story flip flops between past and present the reader slowly gets the full picture of Rachel's life. How she came to be in this situation of carrying for her former doctor. How what this doctor did shaped Rachel's entire life and set forth a sequence of hardships, heartaches and triumphs. Though her past is horrific and sad, she slowly realizes that she wouldn't be the person she is today had it not been for this ghastly doctor.

This book also tells us about the relationship between Rachel and her older brother, Sam. How losing their parents, being separated as orphans, and how being reunited after Rachel is disfigured sets off feelings and emotions that two siblings normally don't have to deal with. The sibling relationship is strained but at the same time is so strong. They are both frustrated and searching for meaning in their lives. They are trying to find their purpose in this world both together and alone.

The author's note tells us that this book is based on the experiences of her grandfather and her mother. It takes a harsh look at the horrible conditions and treatments of orphans in 1920s NYC. The loss of culture a child looses when orphaned. The treatment of women who chose to live outside the realm of "normal" life. So many emotions are brought about in this writing.

I highly recommend checking out the author's website and reading through the true stories posted that inspired her to write such a stunning book.

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes of this book:

“To Sam I said, “Sometimes I ask myself if there's any limit to the harm that people can do to each other.”
“No”, he said. “There's no limit.”

I give this book 5 stars. I hope you love it too.

Age Suitability

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DanglingConversations thinks this title is suitable for between the ages of 14 and 30

Aug 01, 2016

ecarr1212 thinks this title is suitable for 18 years and over


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Aug 01, 2016

Sexual Content: Homosexual sex scene towards the end


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Aug 29, 2015

“To Sam I said, “Sometimes I ask myself if there's any limit to the harm that people can do to each other.”
“No”, he said. “There's no limit.”


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