Quick, how many kidlit orphans can you name? Go ahead–I’ll be here after you finish your list.
A lot, right? Anne Shirley (and just about all of Montgomery’s heroines), Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox, Rebecca (of Sunnybrook Farm), Pollyanna, Judy from Daddy-Long-Legs and on and on. Then, throw in the kids that have a parent absent for all or most of the book–the March sisters, the Melendys, the Five Little Peppers and on and on. Suddenly, it seems like a household with two parents is rare indeed in this fictional world.
I can certainly see the appeal for an author–no parents really opens up the dramatic possibilities for a character. I remember being completely enchanted with The Boxcar Children–setting up house in a boxcar? And it’s not like this is a plot device that has faded in recent years. Harry Potter might possibly be the most famous orphan ever.
But for children living in the 19th century, losing a parent to death was a very real possibility. In 1900, the average life expectancy was 48 (lower if you weren’t white.). About half of all young people lost at least one parent before they reached 21. Leading causes of death included influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. And for women, childbirth was up there as well. Anne Shirley’s story may have hit really close to home for her first readers, and yet she was immediately a best-seller. Many of these stories endure, even though today children are far more likely to lose a parent to divorce than death. In some ways, this doesn’t make sense–the idea of losing a parent is terrifying. Why would anyone want to read about such a thing for fun?
Perhaps part of the appeal of these orphan stories is that most of these stories have happy endings. The kids find homes, whether with long-lost relatives or strangers. They have sparkling personalities that makes them lovable. They have adventures that readers with a secure home can barely imagine.
I recently met another beloved orphan in Adopted Jane by Helen Fern Daringer. This is a book that I hadn’t heard of but came highly recommended. When I added it to my goodreads shelf, there were all sorts of people that said “Oh, I love this book!” Jane is an older orphan (you know the type–a good girl, but no longer young and no longer cute and less likely to be adopted). She has a remarkable summer where she gets to visit two different homes–her first experience in a “real” home. And then, both families offer to adopt her and she gets to choose a forever home.
Jane is delightful. She’s a hard worker and desperate to be polite and do the right thing. She’s not one of those orphans that gets into constant trouble; rather, she’s a little girl that people just naturally love. And she learns to love too. One of my favorite little exchanges in the book is this bit at the end:
“You must write a letter to thank Mr. and Mrs. Scott for their kind offer.”
“Oh, and to say I love them.” In all her life Jane had never spoken out loud about loving anybody, but now the word sounded right and natural.
Adopted Jane is a classic orphan tale. Jane is convinced that this is her only chance to see what the world is like outside of the James Ballard Home. And she sees so much–parties, friends, an elopement. And she realizes that maybe she should try to go to college. When she returns to the orphanage, it’s with new eyes. But she’s still afraid to hope for the best. She asks to be allowed to earn so money. The matron says:
“You’re a sensible girl, Jane. You wouldn’t squander the money like some.”
“Oh, no, ma’am,” Jane agreed eagerly. “I want to save it for–” She checked herself just in time. She had almost said for college. Matron would not approve of college; she would call it “highfalutin folderol.
At this point, the happy ending hasn’t come yet. Jane is still an orphan, though now she has dreams. With that perfect happy ending, the reader is assured that Jane will get everything her heart desires.
I don’t anticipate orphan tales–or tales of absent parents–will ever go away. As kids grow, they want to stretch their boundaries. What would I do if I just had me? Could I make my way? But these stories are safe. By the time the book is closed, they are no longer alone in the world. And that is satisfying indeed.