By Amelia Tarallo
Hometown Weekly Staff
It is unlikely that Ellen Marie Wiseman knew that her book, “The Orphan Collector,” would relate to current events on the scale that it does. Released on July 28, the book has become a monumental hit, both for it’s well-written and well- researched story, but also because of its current relatability. On Tuesday, August 25, library patrons logged on to Zoom to hear Wiseman speak on the book and ask questions about the story. The talk was the second in the Westwood Library’s author series being conducted via Zoom.
Wiseman, who tends to write historical fiction novels, began the talk by providing an in-depth introductory presentation on the history behind “The Orphan Collector.” The book takes place in 1918 Philadelphia, the hardest-hit American city during the Spanish Flu Pandemic. Pia, a teenage German immigrant, faces the onslaught of anti-German sentiment and the loss of her mother, all while navigating through a highly infected city. As she seeks out supplies for her and her infant brothers, she is completely oblivious to the plan being cooked up by a neighboring resident.
“The inspiration for 'The Orphan Collector' came to me when a reader, a retired nurse, asked me if I had ever heard of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918,” began Wiseman. She had, but as she researched, she realized the monumental size of the pandemic, which infected over 28 percent of the US population. Inspired by their conversation, Wiseman researched the Spanish Flu, the visiting nurses of Philadelphia, health protocols, the orphans of the pandemic and more, resulting in her latest book.
There are some astounding similarities between the current pandemic and that of 1918 - citizens ignoring health officials, overflowing morgues, the shutting down of businesses and services, and more. “When I finished 'The Orphan Collector,' I never imagined that we would be living through another pandemic, of course. I finished it in January of 2019, and I thought immigration would be the most talked-about aspect of the book at the time when I was writing it," explained Wiseman. "And it still is a problem here, with the way that our government is treating immigrants and some of the things that are happening down at the border. The protagonist of this story was kind of my way of venting my frustration with the way immigrants were being treated, and the way that some of our fellow citizens thought that that was okay without really understanding what was going on.”
Following her introduction, attendees were welcomed to ask questions. Instantly, a plethora of attendees wanted to speak. “I’m not a big reader, but I've got to tell you, I could not put this book down,” said one attendee.
Another attendee asked if Wiseman was working on anything at the moment. “I’m working on my sixth book. It is partially set in Willowbrook School on Staten Island,” Wiseman answered. Wiseman took a minute to explain that the Willowbrook School was an institution for mentally challenged children with a horrific reputation.
One attendee pointed out that Wiseman’s books often focus on dark times in history and asked how she was able to find the happy endings and resolutions. “I do like dark subjects," the author replied. "I think that I like them partially because it makes me more grateful that I’m not living through them. I hope that it makes people more grateful. I hope that it gives people strength to see that people can survive these horrible, horrible things. I think that’s why I try to come up with happy endings, semi-bittersweet happy endings. You want to see a character in a book triumph over what they’ve gone through. I don’t want anyone to be left feeling hopeless, because I think hope is all we have sometimes - to look forward to better days, even though life can be really, really dark sometimes.”
As the United States continues to battle the pandemic and a plethora of ongoing social issues, Wiseman's ending is one we need to read, perhaps more than even before. If anything, “The Orphan Collector,” can remind us all that better days are ahead - we just have to get through this to see them.