As a former U. S. History teacher, there are few things I enjoy more than a gripping historical fiction novel…but therein lies the problem when it comes to reviewing historical fiction: I’m notoriously hard to please. This is particularly true when the book is set during WWII, which happens to be one of my favorite time periods to teach. With that explanation out there, I have to say that I had a hard time reviewing The Forgotten Orphan; I disliked the book intensely for the first 60%, but found the last 40% to be amazingly redeeming. Would I tell a history teacher to stock this in their classroom library, no. But, would I recommend it to someone who enjoys historical romances, yes. Hence my 3.8 rating: if you can accept this book as a romance that just happens to be set during WWII it is very enjoyable, but if you are looking for the type of historical fiction that is steeped in thought-provoking factual back story, this isn’t the book for you.
The heroine of the story, Maisie Reynolds, is a young woman to whom life has been anything but kind. She and her twin brother Jack, were consigned to an orphanage at age 4, and shortly thereafter Jack was adopted. Maisie spent her entire life in the orphanage, being used a source of free labor by the Matron in charge, and feeling that she was never given a real shot at being adopted. She wonders who her mother was, where her brother wound up, and why she has been almost systematically disadvantaged in the adoption process. But through it all, she remains hopeful that she will find love, have children of her own, and build a life of meaning helping others. She longs to be of service doing something meaningful for the war effort, and she gets her chance when two successive orphanage Matrons die during the bombing raids of the Blitz. It is at this point that her relationship with Canadian paratrooper Harry Cameron (Cam) begins to blossom. Cam helps Maisie realize that her dreams of a better life and family of her own could become reality, as long as they both survive the war.
Sounds like a promising basis for a plot right? I thought so too! But although I found Maisie likable enough, I felt like the book spent a bit too much time focusing on her feelings of self pity and almost overpowering goodness in the face of extreme diversity. Maisie is the only character who was wholly fleshed out, but she lacked any real negative qualities, making her hard to connect with. The characters revolving around her were one dimensional, and served a specific purpose to the plot, then faded into the background. The fate of her mother was predictable, as were the reasons for Maisie’s lack of adoption prospects. Her early interactions with Cam felt a little forced and flat to me, but this was more than made up for later on, when they finally had a real spark, brought about by Maisie’s personal tragedies and Cam’s unwavering loyalty.
From a historical standpoint, I felt that the portrayal of the air raids, and people’s varying reactions to them, was done well. The eerie feelings of walking through a bombed out town, waking to the wail of an air raid siren, and being caught out in the middle of a bombing were written with great precision. Maisie’s feeling of being too weary to bother running to shelter because the thought of dying alone in the dark of a cellar evoked a powerful feeling of sympathy. Where I felt a lack of connection to the historical time frame was in the descriptions of the wounded from D-Day that Maisie was helping to nurse, and in her musings on the Holocaust, which seemed almost like a throw-away obligatory mention, rather than something included to bring meaning to the story. However, this was counterbalanced by her understanding of the fact that the U. S. and British retaliatory bombings on Germany were affecting women and children there in the same way that she had been affected by the German raids, and that was a powerful observation.
So to conclude: this story would have been a home run for me if it had included a bit more historical fact to develop the back story of the events in the book, such as on the Blitz, the Allied retaliation, and D-Day. Bonus points could have been had for talking about the economic situation that existed at the time that Masie and Jack were brought to the orphanage, to flesh out the motivations of the adults involved. But, as I said, if you can read this simply as a romance novel that is set in the past, it is a sweet and sensitive story of a girl’s search for family and love, and her ultimate fulfillment.
Photo 1 – Southampton, the setting for most of The Lost Orphan, following a German bombing raid.
Photo 2 – Southampton, preparations for D-Day
Photo 3 – American soldier saying goodbye at Penn Station