Orphan Works

Lately I’ve been reading novels about orphans.  It started with me revisiting a few classics I loved in my childhood, but I soon realized that all the books I was reading featured characters whose parents were killed/missing/dead since before they can remember, and I started making a little list of books like this.  Turns out, there are an awful lot.  Orphaning the main character is a technique often used in children’s literature and coming of age stories, allowing the character- usually a child- to have their story (and adventures, or conflicts with adults) without parental “rules” getting in the way. Lots of classics feature orphans as main characters, but modern literature does too: could you imagine if Harry Potter or the Lemony Snicket characters had parents?

My favorite books in the “orphan genre” tend to go something like this:  There is a frail/sickly/unpleasant/spoiled girl who for some reason or another gets sent away to live with someone new, usually a slightly crazy relative.  This slightly crazy relative has some kind of idea that children need lots of freedom and fresh air, and the orphan gradually becomes a charming, adventurous, healthy character making lots of friends and having a lot of fun.  Think The Secret Garden, Understood Betsy, or Eight Cousins.

Then there are the books that are slightly more adult, featuring a young woman who is probably described as “plain” and maybe works as a governess or something, falls in with a mysterious man with a dark past, and of course falls in love by the end of the novel.  Jane Eyre and one of my all-time favorites, Rebecca, both fit this mold.

Yet another sub-genre would be those works that feature a not-definitely orphaned character, but for whatever reason, they are separated from their parents, and could best be described as spunky.  They’re impossible not to love (even when they have grumpy relatives, as they often do), and usually wind up charming every one in the book and either solving lots of problems or having adventures.  Pippi Longstocking and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm both come to mind.

When it comes to books about boy orphans, I’m a bit less well-read, but I plan on remedying that before too long.  A fairly large portion of Charles Dickens’ oeuvre features orphaned (or abandoned) boys, like Oliver Twist, Bleak House, or David Copperfield.  Mark Twain also wrote some of his most famous works about orphans– The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer surely would have been very different adventures if their parents had been around.

The list of books I came up with started getting too long to write about all of them, but is there a book you remember that featured an orphan (or similar)?



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4 responses to “Orphan Works

  1. lee

    Don’t forget Anne of Green Gables.
    And hand in hand with Secret Garden would be A Little Princess.
    In audio books, a wonderful series about a girl orphan was the Bloody Jack series.
    And Oh my goodness – my favorite YA book of all time was The Book Thief!

  2. There’s The Boxcar Children that I recently read to my daughter. And currently we’re reading The Emerald Atlas, which is about three children who have been shuffled around orphanages for ten years who were separated from their parents when they were very young. There’s also Redwall, about an orphaned mouse who protects the abbey from horrible sea rats.

  3. Interesting post, I guess The Little Princess sort of fits into the orphan catagory. One of my favorited books and the movie was worth waiting for!

  4. For a hilarious “adult orphan” story, one of my all-time favorites is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, written in the 1930s. When Flora Poste’s parents die, rather than get a job, she decides to sponge off relatives in the country while straightening out their messy lives.

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