One hundred years ago, during the final days of the First World War, a microscopic menace attacked humanity on a global scale: the Spanish Influenza. The conditions of the war (overcrowding and global troop movements) hastened the rapid spread of this disease. Because of the lack of reliable healthcare and sanitary practices in the public-at-large, this disease quickly escalated into a public health crisis.
The novel, The Orphan Collector, by Ellen Marie Wiseman, takes place during these difficult times. The Great War is raging, and anti-German sentiment abounds in the States. Many German immigrants, desperate to prove their loyalty to their adopted home, enlist in the armed forces and take up arms against their birth country. Pia Lange’s father is one of these men, leaving behind a wife, 13-year-old Pia, and twin baby boys in a squalid apartment in an impoverished section of Philadelphia.
About a year after Mr. Lang enlists, the war begins winding down. Unfortunately, a new enemy has reared its invisible head: the Spanish Flu. During the autumn of 1918, hundreds of thousands of Americans died from this disease. The city of Philadelphia was hit the hardest, with nearly 12,000 dead and thousands of children orphaned.
Pia and her infant brothers are among these parentless children. Desperate to keep her family fed, Pia must leave her brothers unattended to scavenge for food. Unfortunately, when she returns, the boys are gone, and Pia is placed in the orphanage. Now, Pia must gain her freedom from the system and locate her lost brothers.
The Orphan Collector is both compelling and disturbing. Although this tale took place a century ago, it feels eerily familiar with its underlying prejudice and widespread pandemic. Heart-wrenching and heart-stirring, The Orphan Collector is exceptionally well-written. As such, I highly recommend this novel to all.