The Orphan Collector

Written by Ellen Marie Wiseman
Review by Bryan Dumas

Thirteen-year-old Pia Lange follows her mother through the throngs of Philadelphians gathering for the 1918 Liberty Loan Parade, unaware that the lethal Spanish flu is in their midst. Shortly after the parade, Pia, at home in her squalid tenement with her mother and twin brothers, comes face to face with death. After her mother dies from the flu, Pia sets out to find food for her brothers, but she falls ill herself. What follows is Pia’s struggle to survive the flu, her new orphan life in a wretched orphanage, and final salvation working in the home of the kind Hudson family. But Pia has two secrets: She is forever tormented by the loss of her brothers, which she blames on herself, and she has a sixth sense of illness in others when she touches them.

Bernice Groves longs for death after her son succumbs to the flu. A neighbor to Pia, she is curious why Pia leaves the house alone. When she pays the Lange apartment a visit, she finds the twins in a small cubby beside their dead mother. Taking the boys is so easy for Bernice, and what follows is a dark journey into xenophobia and ruthlessness.

Wiseman’s writing is superb, and her descriptions of life during the Spanish Flu epidemic are chilling. In Pia, Wiseman has created a character that will draw in readers with her courage and resilience. In Bernice, we find the darker side of American attitudes toward immigrants prevalent during the early 1900s. She is a truly despicable character, yet horrifyingly beguiling. Well-researched and impossible to put down, this is an emotional tug-of-war played out brilliantly on the pages and in readers’ hearts.