Here is a story: The hydrogen bomb was released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Miles away, a Japanese fisherman brushed the mysterious flakes from his sleeves and continued working his nets. It was only when he returned to land that the dying started. Unaware that one day it will have terrible significance in her life, Rachel Rabinowitz remembers this story. After a family tragedy in 1918, Rachel is separated from her brother, Sam, and sent to the Jewish Infants Orphanage in Manhattan, only one among many in the institution, her memories of that time dim and unspoken. Years later, in 1954, Rachel is a trained nurse employed at Manhattanís Old Hebrew Home, where a new patient has just arrived. It is Dr. Mildred Solomon, the author of experimental X-ray research conducted at the orphanage where Rachel was designated Orphan #8.
Intrigued by the idea that her new patient is the very woman who conducted the X-ray studies on her, Rachel researches Solomonís published medical articles, shocked to learn of the extent to which children have been used in the name of science. Though the journal articles are terse and academic, the details stimulate long-repressed memories of the horrors she endured under Solomonís direction, a little girl at the mercy of strangers meant to give her shelter. The physical effects she has suffered take on a new and terrible reality. Rachel recalls the tale of the Japanese fisherman, suddenly awash with unfamiliar feelings, drawn back into the dark labyrinth of her childhood. Now Rachel is the caretaker of a patient who has done her great harm, her deep and newly festering scars only assuaged by thoughts of demanding Solomon admit her culpability.
Van Alkemade has written a stirring, beautifully detailed novel about atrocities perpetrated on innocent children by those tasked with their care, institutions given rein to conduct scientific studies on healthy subjects. That such outrages should be tolerated in America, even in the name of research, is counterintuitive to a democracy, but true nevertheless. Rachel
is only one of many, with no one to speak for her. Helpless, lonely, and without affection, Rachel endures her early experiences, eventually reunited with Sam in another institution but forever altered by the bizarre circumstances that not only direct the course of her life but put her in a position to confront the woman who so cruelly used her. It is a terrible and powerful dilemma.
This quiet little novel is filled with the anguish and uncertainty of self-identity, belonging, and acceptance of lifeís harsh terms without succumbing to the bitterness. Once orphaned and at the mercy of others, Rachelís struggles not only set the course of her future but demand an extraordinary adaptation to circumstances. In spite of hardships, Rachel evolves and matures, accepts the consequences of her limited choices and becomes a contributing member of society--flawed, but infused with a hopeful spirit. The journey of Rachel Rabinowitz is a tangled web, to be sure, but so deftly told that this character triumphs, fearlessly claiming her futurewhatever it may be.
Child cast into unexpected chaos, or woman ahead of her time by virtue of her life choices, Rachel is an exceptional protagonist with compassion, a survivor capable of deciding whether to exact revenge or extend mercy, whether to strike a blow for Orphan #8 or claim a life once forfeit to fate.