Orphan Eleven combines historical events and a timeless theme to craft an engrossing story of orphans running away to join the circus!
Orphan Eleven by Gennifer Chodenko. Random House (Wendy Lamb), 2020, 302 pages including author note.
Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 10-14
“None of us gets long on this lush and lovely planet. Don’t relinquish any of your precious life to whoever it is who has hurt you.”
At eleven years old, Lucy Sauve has seen a lot of hurt. She barely remembers her deceased papa, and then Mama married a man who talked a better game than he played. When Mama contracted TB, Lucy was sent away to an orphanage, “just until” the situation improved. But Mama never got better, and now Lucy’s only hope is that her grown sister Dilly will come for her. But Dilly might not know where she is, and might not even care. Meanwhile, there are plenty of things not to like about the Riverport, Iowa, Home for Friendless Children, but worst of all are the university people who are conducting speech experiments. Lucy has become so traumatized by these experiments that now she hasn’t talked for months.
One day, opportunity knocks: while doing outside chores, with the matron temporarily distracted, Lucy runs away. And not alone: clever Rico, sullen Doris, and kind-hearted Eugene run with her. They are barely acquaintances, but soon make a pact to head for Chicago (where Rico has friends, and where Dilly might be). After a few close calls with the law and the matrons, their escape leads them to Saachi’s Circus Spectacular, where an erudite dwarf called Jabo inducts them into the OOFO (Order of Fine Orphans) and sets them up as apprentices to the Big Top.
The author captures a time (early twentieth century) when kids dreamed of running off to join the circus. It’s not a common ambition today, but readers will be fascinated by the sweaty-but-glittery world of traveling performers who’s stock in trade is amazement. Lucy is a stalwart character surrounded by other memorable figures. Characters have more than one side; even the unlikable Doris has her redeeming moments. The pace is brisk and the tone is lightly brushed with just enough 1930s vernacular and detail to communicate a sense of the time. Lucy’s elective muteness is the result of actual “scientific” experiments conducted on orphans at that time, here used as a cornerstone of the plot. It’s something she must overcome, but the ending should satisfy any reader.
Overall rating: 4.25 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Artistic/literary value: 4.5
Also at Redeemed Reader
- Author Choldenko is best known for her Alcatraz series, beginning with the Newbery-honored Al Capone Does My Shirts. We reviewed the final volume, Al Capone Throws Me a Curve.
- Orphans are classic characters in children’s literature! For a couple of recent examples, see our reviews of The Orphan Band of Springdale and The Orphan and the Mouse. And from our archives, a starred review of The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers.
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