From Cinderella to James Bond, through Moll Flanders and Tom Sawyer, there is something about an orphan that draws storytellers from all over the world, no matter what the time, place, or genre. A character who has lost their parents before the story even starts might make us feel bad for them. We just have to feel bad for someone who has lost their parents. But there are also other things to think about. There is something very appealing about a character who is self-explanatory and self-created from both the point of view of the writer and the point of view of the reader. You don’t have to read about all of her predecessors to figure out who she is. There is also the fact that there is a built-in “quest,” whether this is looking for long-lost parents or trying to figure out who you are and what you want in life. For one thing, people who go out on their own don’t have the family structures that keep most people safe and/or confined.
The Orphan of Salt Winds
My main character, Virginia, would need to use this tradition. I knew this even before I had the title for the book, and even though I didn’t have a title for the book yet. Virginia is a ten-year-old orphan who is alone in a confusing and difficult adult world when the book starts. Having been raised in a children’s home without the protection of family love, she can’t take anything for granted. She sees her new home, Salt Winds, in a way that is both anxiously perceptive and childishly distorted: a great way to write.
Writing about Virginia made me want to look for books that used the point of view of an orphan more. Here are some of my favorite things.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Soon after Jun Do was born in a North Korean orphanage, his mother was taken away and never seen again. As a result, Jun Do gets punished, starved, and overworked just like the other orphans. His father isn’t able or willing to show favoritism. This is a dark, sarcastic book about what happens when love is banned and a totalitarian regime tries to take over the place of family.
Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay
In a book called Red Dust Road, Jackie Kay tells the story of her search for her birth parents. Because both of Jackie’s parents are still alive, you might say this isn’t an orphan story. The book starts with Jackie meeting her father for the first time in Abuja, Nigeria, and she meets her Scottish mother later in the book. A lot of orphan stories deal with these kinds of questions: Who am I and what does “identity” even mean? I think this one is close enough because it deals with all of them. I belong where I am and why. Who or what can be used to describe me?
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
They are all clones made by the government for its own purposes. Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth are the three main characters in this book. “Guardians” keep an eye on and protect the three at Hailsham, a dark English boarding school. The story follows them as they grow up and learn more about who, what, and why they are. It’s a heartbreaking book that’s both beautiful and chilling. It’s about a society where the relationship between a parent and child isn’t important or valued.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
During the Victorian era, no one could write a heartbreaking orphan story like Charles Dickens. David is already without a father when the story starts. He enjoys a few years of happiness as a child before his mother makes a bad decision and marries again. David’s sadistic stepfather has to be one of the most disgusting characters in books. It’s possible that you and I know which side we’re on, though. People enjoy David’s story when he is happy with his mother. His vulnerability makes us want to protect him when he is alone and facing Mr. Murdstone. “Yes!” we all say when he turns on his abuser and bites him. It’s a small victory for our hero, even though it’s dangerous.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre, like David Copperfield, grows up in a world that isn’t fair. This angers both Aunt Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst as well as everyone else who sees it. It also makes her strong and self-reliant, which is good, because these are things she will need to use a lot in her story. Jane Eyre, who manages to start a new life not only once but several times in the novel, makes us want to do the same. “I’m not a bird, and no net can catch me,” Jane famously and amazingly says. In real life, who can say that? If you were raised by your parents, you don’t have that kind of freedom.
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables is a fun book for kids. The Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, Ballet Shoes, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and James and the Giant Peach are all stories about rebirth and growth. She and everyone else will be better off because of Anne’s move to Avonlea. There is no such thing as normal in the eyes of an 11-year-old who has just been adopted. This is a great way to tell a story.
It was the first time I read Anne of Green Gables in a long time. The color and character of the story had stayed with me over time, even though the specifics had faded. I didn’t know, for example, how strange and dark my own book was like Montgomery’s first chapters. In both books, an orphaned girl is taken in by a couple who don’t have any children. Her new father brings her home. In the beginning, she likes him a lot, but her relationship with her new mother is a little rocky. In the neighborhood, she doesn’t quite fit in. I don’t know. What will happen to them all?
Florence and Giles by John Harding
They work well together. Having a doll or clown or nursery rhyme or empty swing is creepier than having a child who is both innocent and evil meet up like notes in a tasty chord. It’s easy for an orphan in a book to play a creepy child because he or she is always mysterious. She came from where? This is how it works: What has she been given, and when will that inheritance be shown to the world. What does she think about? She knows what we don’t know. She is who? I love Florence, but I’m also afraid of her. How could anyone not love her voice? A lot of people start to like Florence because she is lonely and doesn’t have anyone to play with. She doesn’t belong in the box marked “sweetness and light.” In the end, she is a person who is hard to understand.