Orphans in literature

I’m noticing another theme in literature, some of which I alluded to in the previous blog about pandemics: orphans in literature.

Recent books play this out, such as “The orphan collector,” “Orphan train,” and “This tender land.”

In “The orphan collector” by Ellen Marie Wiseman, which takes place in Philadelphia during the 1918 flu epidemic, the title character doesn’t technically “collect” only orphans, but finds children whom she can lure with a promise of a good meal. From there the are adopted into homes which the collector deems more fit for parenting (i.e., non-immigrant). Many of the true orphans end up in St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum, and some of those do go out west on an “orphan train,” where they end up adopted in families, for better or for worse.

Orphan train,” by Christine Baker Klein, tells the story of one of these orphans, Vivian Daly, a young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City who is put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

This tender land” by William Kent Krueger follows the adventures of a group of (mostly) orphans who have escaped from the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota to find their own idea of what home means.

Then there are some classic 19th century tales of orphans. Charles Dickens seems to specialize in orphan tales with characters such as Pip in Great expectations, David Copperfield, Sydney Carton in A tale of two cities, Martin Chuzzlewit, Nell Trent in The Old Curiosity Shop, Esther Summerson in Bleak House, and Oliver Twist.  More to my liking are some wonderful female orphans in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic tales. In “A little princess,” Sara Crew finds herself orphaned and relegated to an attic in Miss Minchin’s boarding school for girls in London, and from there finds a magical world in an adjoining attic. In “The secret garden” Mary Lennox finds not a magical attic, but a “secret garden,” and like Sara, also finds a new family.  

One of my favorite classic books about orphans is “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte, where Jane spends her girlhood at Gateshead Hall with despicable relatives, and then Lowood Institution, a charity school for girls, before going off to find her true love and family (although with a few dramatic bumps along the way).

There must be something about orphans that makes for great literature – maybe as a way to create happy endings for sympathetic and loveable characters.

For more information on orphans in literature see: