Praise for The Orphan Collector by Ellen Marie Wiseman

A novel that is eerily similar to the current pandemic but worth the read

While I was worried that reading about the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic would be difficult given our current pandemic, Wiseman reveals to us the inner thoughts of her characters to make them more relatable, thus creating a compelling story. Pia Lange is a thirteen year old girl who quickly faces a harsh reality when the Spanish Flu hits Philadelphia. After losing her two baby brothers, the novel follows her long and arduous journey as she searches for them. Pia finds herself alone in a hospital, in a bleak and dreary orphanage, and in the warm home of Dr. and Mrs. Hudson until she eventually reunites with her brothers. The book takes the perspective of Pia and her neighbor Bernice, and gives us a glimpse of the anti-immigrant sentiment, the griping plight of those recently orphaned, and the desperation that many faced when they lost their homes and their loved ones.

Overall, I had a hard time putting The Orphan Collector down. Wiseman crafts a dramatic story and uses just enough suspense at the end of each chapter to make you want to keep reading. You end up rooting for Pia after all she has been through with the flu, living in an orphanage, and more. The final chapters and ending gave me goosebumps and left me feeling emotional and incredibly grateful. There is much to learn from the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and Wiseman doesn’t shy away from portraying its harsh effects on Philadelphia’s residents. Nevertheless, the story is incredibly touching and worth the read.

Discussion questions and parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic

The book makes you think about how we have dealt with the current COVID-19 pandemic in relation to how we dealt with the flu in the past. The discussion questions at the end of the novel mention how in Philadelphia, doctors pushed for the Liberty Loan Parade (where the book first starts), to be cancelled because of concerns that crowds of people would spread the flu. They tried convincing reporters to write about this, but to no avail. Despite warning, the large parade was still held and over the next six weeks, more than 12,000 citizens had died. The discussion question then asks, “How much of a difference would it have made if those stories had been printed in the newspaper? Do you think people would have stayed home or gone to the parade anyway?”

Reading this question almost made me feel ashamed of how back in March, there was some media coverage about COVID-19 but we didn’t realize the effects or the severity until it was already too late. While colleges did move to online classes, each college’s spring break was a different week in March, making it hard to prevent millions of students from traveling both domestically and internationally. Going back to this question, it definitely would have helped if those newspapers had published those stories, and I doubt people would have collectively listened to health advisories unless they were mandated or there were formal sanctions or bans.

Another question was “Though the disease knew no gender, racial, or ethnic boundaries, Philadelphia’s immigrant poor suffered the worst, with the largest loss of life happening in the slums and tenement districts. Why do you think that was? What issues do you think contributed to it? Do you think any of those issues continue to impact people living today?”

Reading this sounded eerily familiar, because currently, black and Latino Americans are more likely to get infected with COVID-19 and more likely to die from the virus. This is explained in part by black Americans having preexisting conditions at a greater rate that predispose them to contracting the virus, as well as less access to health insurance and having jobs that prevent them from working remotely. It is astonishing how much public health can intersect with race and the socioeconomic gradient.

The last discussion question I’ll touch on includes some pretty interesting facts:

“In 1918, St. Louis, Missouri, immediately closed schools, movie theaters, and banned public gatherings. Their death toll ended up being one-eighth of the losses in Philadelphia due to the Spanish flu.” -To me this just reminded me of New Zealand and their leadership’s ability to deal with the virus and prevent its spread.

“Many people blamed the 1918 pandemic on Germans, claiming they were spreading poison clouds, or that Bayer, a German-owned company, had infected their aspirin”. This reminded me of the discrimination that many Asian Americans continue to face ever since the start of the pandemic.

“In San Francisco, people without masks were fined five dollars and were called “mask slackers.” Now this seemed like a pretty neat idea and good way to encourage people to wear masks when in public to prevent infection.

Hats off to Ellen Marie Wiseman for creating such a realistic and heartwarming story that impacts readers emotionally and makes them truly reflect on our current situation.

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