Orphan protagonists have a prominent role in storytelling, and I understand why. You may discover an underdog rising from the phoenix ashes (hello, Harry Potter), a circumstantial alliance of like-minded misfits (hello, Lost Boys of Peter Pan), or a good-over-evil triumph (hello, Matilda). It is our natural inclination to cheer alongside a protagonist that defies the odds and perseveres despite the often fraught nature of their past. It does leave me wondering though if, for lack of better word, we tend to glorify the experience. Don’t get me wrong, I was just as excited when Annie found her wealthy patron Warbucks, and when the Pevensie children of Narnia became royalty. Yet today I strove to look for stories that dove a bit deeper into the experience from a historical context, while still maintaining that potent power of hope.
I couldn’t possibly write this post without the OG orphan tale of Dicken’s Oliver Twist. Written precisely with the intention to expose the treatment of London’s orphans in the 1830s, the social commentary teaches me something new with each re-read. Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train introduced me to a piece of American history that I had never known. It is about a young Irish immigrant who loses her family in New York City and is put on the aptly named ‘orphan trains’ that ran through Minnesota in the late 1800s. Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck is a beautifully composed story that jumps between the early 1920s and the ‘World’s Fair’ of the 1960s, as a young boy named Ben and a older women named Rose find their histories aligning in an unexpected way. Finally, I could never leave out Anne of Green Gables, whose protagonist was inspired by L.M. Montgomery’s interest in the once-popular ‘formula Ann orphan stories’ of Canada.
And though my context was historical, one thing is clear – these stories are timeless.