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La Rue: 'Orphan Collector' is brilliant historical fiction

La Rue: 'Orphan Collector' is brilliant historical fiction

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This month’s Book Report features three new novels about people each facing a serious crisis. Each author has written characters that we can empathize with and care about.

Ellen Marie Wiseman’s “The Orphan Collector” is set in 1918 Philadelphia, during the Spanish flu pandemic. Thirteen-year-old Pia lives with her German immigrant family — mom and twin baby brothers — while her father is away fighting for his new country in Europe in World War I in the U.S. Army.

The war has just ended, and thousands of people attend a celebratory parade, including Pia, her mother and brothers. Soon, people all over Philadelphia are dying from the pandemic Spanish flu. It is a gruesome death, and people fear seeing the black fabric tied to doors indicating a death there.

Pia is left to care for her baby brothers, but soon the food runs out and she must venture outside to find supplies. When she faints and comes to in the hospital, it is days later and Pia is panicked about her brothers.

Unbeknownst to Pia, her neighbor Bernice sees her leave and hears the babies crying. Bernice is bereft after losing her beloved baby boy to the flu, and makes a decision that will define her and Pia’s life going forward.

Pia ends up in an orphanage, filled with children who have lost their parents to the flu. Even though she is trapped, she cannot stop searching for clues as to what happened to her brothers.

Diane La Rue

Diane La Rue

Bernice meanwhile has come upon an idea. Angered at the immigrant families she believes responsible for the deadly flu, Bernice uses the children in orphanages to fulfill a greedy plan. When Bernice and Pia’s paths cross, can Pia discover what happened to her brothers?

“The Orphan Collector” is a brilliantly written, riveting piece of historical fiction. Every detail feels so authentic. You will find yourself dropped right into 1918 Philadelphia, and feel like you are right alongside Pia as she never gives up her quest to find her brothers. Fans of Christina Baker Kline’s “The Orphan Train” and Lisa Wingate’s “Before We Were Yours” should put this next on their reading list.

Helen Cullen’s “The Dazzling Truth” takes place on an Irish island near Galway, where Murtagh and Maeve are raising their four children. From the moment Murtagh saw Maeve at Trinity College, he was smitten.

Maeve was from America, studying acting. Murtagh made ceramic pottery, and they both loved art. He was given the opportunity to apprentice with a famous potter, and Maeve gave up her dreams to follow him and raise their family on the island.

Maeve also suffered from severe depression and anxiety. She would spend days, sometimes weeks in bed, and nights wandering the countryside. As her children got older, they didn’t understand what was happening, as it was never discussed openly.

The story moves back and forth in time so we get to see Murtagh and Maeve’s courtship, and the lives of the children as they grow older. You care for each of the characters, as we see how Maeve’s illness affects them. When tragedy strikes, your heart will break for all of them. It is an emotionally powerful novel.

In Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, “With Or Without You,” the main characters deal with a physical illness. Stella is a 42-year-old nurse who longs to settle down and have a child with her longtime love Simon, a rocker who has one last chance to make it in the music business with his bandmates.

When Stella falls into a coma, it upends both their worlds, as well the life of Libby, her best friend, a doctor who is caring for Stella. Libby becomes close to Simon as they bond together working and hoping for Stella’s recovery. Simon also becomes close to Stella’s mother, who moves in with him. Their relationship is so touching.

We see the story through Stella’s eyes as she is in the coma, and Simon who gives up his last chance for stardom to stay by her side. When Stella awakes, her world is completely different. She has a new artistic ability that eventually brings her the fame that Simon had once hoped would be his.

Caroline Leavitt excels at writing characters facing a crisis not of their doing, and this is her best book yet.

If you want to get lost in a good book that makes you feel something for the characters and take you out of your everyday sameness, each one of these three is a great choice.

Diane La Rue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and blogs about books at You can follow her on Twitter @bookchickdi, and she can be emailed at


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