Kim van Alkemade has written several articles in magazines that have been described as "creative non-fiction", whatever that may be. While researching her family genealogy, she came across a reference to a Medical Journal article that shocked her and she felt compelled to tell the story, but in a fictionalized novel. Some of the people in this book are actually real. Some are actually her relatives. While the girl, Rachel Rabinowitz and her brother Sam are works of fiction, what happens to Rachel, is not. This is an important book that raises questions about science and its practice, and whether you can forsake justified vengeance and forgive the unforgivable.
In 1919 the Jewish family, the Rabinowitzs, which consists of: Harry, the father who works in a shirtwaist factory, who is saving for the chance to have his own contractor business, goes to Society meetings to make contacts, and is hoping to move his family up to the nicer neighborhood of Harlem; Visha, his wife, who wants another child and dreams of moving out of their three room tenement, where she looks after two boarders and the two children, Rachel, four (who is known for her temper tantrums that only her brother can seem to stop) and Sam, six, who just started school. When Harry forgets his lunch, Visha and Rachel go to the factory, which Harry has forbidden them to do. When they return home, an angry Italian mother and her eighteen-year-old daughter show up at her house telling her that Harry, who met the girl at work, has been courting her daughter and has gotten her pregnant. Its hard to tell which ticks her off more: that her daughter is pregnant by a man already married or that he is really Jewish. Visha realizes that he has lied to her. There is no money being saved up. When he returns home, the two get into a fight and Harry accidently cuts Visha's neck, in front of the two children. While she bleeds to death on the floor, Harry quickly packs up and runs away.
The children end up going to social services, where a nice woman is determined to find a foster home for them. Unfortunately, the two will have to be split up for now due to their ages, until she can find a home. Sam goes to the Hebrews Orphanage Home and Rachel goes to the Infant Hebrew Home. When she gets there, the social worker is told that Rachel will have to spend a month in isolation to make sure she does not have any diseases. This was 1919. Many of the diseases that we have vaccines for now, could kill children back then. A month later when the social worker returns with the news that a nice Jewish couple in Harlem is willing to take them both, she finds that Rachel now has both measles and conjunctivitis and will not be well enough to be taken in by this couple any time soon, so she looks for another placement for the couple. The Infant Home would be seen as perhaps, hellish, to those of us today, and I have to admit it rather is. The nurses do not believe in touching the babies. Dr. Hess (a real person, who was the son-in-law of Strauss, the founder of Macy's, which is where the Home gets its money for fancy equipment) runs experiments on the children. He sees them as better than lab rats, in that they are actual human subjects whose situations, such as home life, background, diet, etc...are the same and therefore variables can be controlled, which is a rarity in scientific research. Rachel's life changes when she meets Dr. Mildred Solomon a female doctor, an oddity of the time, who is there to do her residency and wants to run her own experiment, get published, establish herself, and get out of there.
This book goes back and forth between Rachel's past growing up and her present as a nurse in the Hebrews Home for the elderly. Rachel has many secrets. One is that she is a lesbian whose partner is away in Miami, for some unknown reason. When Dr. Solomon arrives on her floor, the hospice ward, terminally ill with bone cancer, she recognizes her and talks to her and finds out that she was a doctor at the Infant Home when she was there. She has always wondered what disease she had that necessitated some form of treatment. When she goes to the Medical Library she uncovers the horror of what happened in the Home and to her. She was "material # 8". She also discovers that because of that she is in grave danger of developing a serious disease that could kill her.
After leaving the Infant Home almost two years later, Rachel goes to the Hebrews Orphan Home, where she meets Mrs. Berger at reception, who works there while her son, Vic, is housed there. Vic's best friend just happens to be Rachel's brother Sam. While finally reunited, Sam has become hardened by his years in the Home where the bells ring constantly for every possible thing and the orphans respond like Pavlov's dogs sensing exactly when the bell is going to ring and making sure they are where they are supposed to be so they don't get slapped by the monitor (an orphan who is in charge of level and is usually two years older) or worse. There are 1000 kids in the home [my alma mater Catawba College, in Salisbury, NC, only had a little over 800 students and much more space],which is a large castle that takes up a whole city block in New York City. The book has a photograph of it. It may seem really bad, but actually, a state home is so much worse. At least here they receive dental care, medical care, three meals a day, and decent clothes and shoes to wear.
Sam, determined to look after his sister, bribes one of her monitors, Naomi, to look after her. Naomi gives her an "acceptable" nickname, because its better to pick what others call you then to have them call you something worse. Naomi is good to her and treats her almost like a friend and its not just because Sam bribes her. The years pass and more things happen in Rachel's life, some good and some bad. [Reviewer's Note: a character in this book, Amelia, is given special treatment because she has long, beautiful red hair. I, too, have always have had long red hair, but I have not received special treatment for it. From fifth grade to middle school, I was teased for it, until I took a hardback book, corner-side pointed out, punched Scott Baker in the stomach with it. Guys wanted to date blondes, not red-heads. In college, I discovered men who felt differently, and I admit, that now, I am a bit vain about my hair. But I have never forgot the teasing or the seeming obsession by the world for blondes]
This is an incredible book. Is Dr. Solomon a Dr. Mengele? She thinks a bit like him, but what she does (and Dr. Hess for that matter), while inexcusable, are nothing compared to what Mengele did. Rachel wants an apology, but it does not seem that she is going to get it. She is given an opportunity to work the night shift where its just her and one other nurse and she has already been holding back on the amount of morphine she has been giving Solomon for days. Now she is in control. She has the power. She can cause Solomon to suffer and then kill her for what she has done to her. But is Rachel capable of such an act? Can she really do this? The question you find yourself asking is what would you do. And the answer is not an easy one.
I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell