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The Orphan Collector: A Heroic Novel of Survival During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic
by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Published: 2020-08-04T00:0
Paperback : 304 pages
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Instant New York Times Bestseller

From the internationally bestselling author of What She Left Behind comes a gripping and powerful tale of upheaval—a heartbreaking saga of resilience and hope perfect for fans of Beatriz Williams and Kristin Hannah—set in Philadelphia during the ...

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Introduction

Instant New York Times Bestseller

From the internationally bestselling author of What She Left Behind comes a gripping and powerful tale of upheaval—a heartbreaking saga of resilience and hope perfect for fans of Beatriz Williams and Kristin Hannah—set in Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak—the deadly pandemic that went on to infect one-third of the world’s population…

“Readers will not be able to help making comparisons to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how little has changed since 1918. Wiseman has written a touching tale of loss, survival, and perseverance with some light fantastical elements. Highly recommended.” —Booklist

“An immersive historical tale with chilling twists and turns. Beautifully told and richly imagined.” —Stephanie Dray, New York Times bestselling author of America’s First Daughter

In the fall of 1918, thirteen-year-old German immigrant Pia Lange longs to be far from Philadelphia’s overcrowded slums and the anti-immigrant sentiment that compelled her father to enlist in the U.S. Army. But as her city celebrates the end of war, an even more urgent threat arrives: the Spanish flu. Funeral crepe and quarantine signs appear on doors as victims drop dead in the streets and desperate survivors wear white masks to ward off illness. When food runs out in the cramped tenement she calls home, Pia must venture alone into the quarantined city in search of supplies, leaving her baby brothers behind.

Bernice Groves has become lost in grief and bitterness since her baby died from the Spanish flu. Watching Pia leave her brothers alone, Bernice makes a shocking, life-altering decision. It becomes her sinister mission to tear families apart when they’re at their most vulnerable, planning to transform the city’s orphans and immigrant children into what she feels are “true Americans.”

Waking in a makeshift hospital days after collapsing in the street, Pia is frantic to return home. Instead, she is taken to St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum – the first step in a long and arduous journey. As Bernice plots to keep the truth hidden at any cost in the months and years that follow, Pia must confront her own shame and fear, risking everything to see justice – and love – triumph at last. Powerful, harrowing, and ultimately exultant, The Orphan Collector is a story of love, resilience, and the lengths we will go to protect those who need us most.

“Wiseman’s writing is superb, and her descriptions of life during the Spanish Flu epidemic are chilling. Well-researched and impossible to put down, this is an emotional tug-of-war played out brilliantly on the pages and in readers’ hearts.” —The Historical Novels Review, EDITOR’S CHOICE

“Wiseman’s depiction of the horrifying spread of the Spanish flu is eerily reminiscent of the present day and resonates with realistic depictions of suffering, particularly among the poorer immigrant population.” —Publishers Weekly (Boxed Review)

“Reading the novel in the time of COVID-19 adds an even greater resonance, and horror, to the description of the fatal spread of that 1918 flu.” —Kirkus Review

“An emotional roller coaster…I felt Pia’s strength, courage, guilt, and grief come through the pages clear as day.” —The Seattle Book Review

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Discussion Questions

Questions from the author - added by Pauline



1. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed more people than any other illness in recorded history, including the 14th century’s Black Death and AIDS in the 20th century. Taking an estimated 100 million lives, it was a horror that turned victims bluish-black then drowned them with their own body fluids. A person would be fine one minute, then incapacitated and delirious the next, with fever rising to 104-106 degrees. Death was quick, savage, and terrifying.

Yet 1918 is called the “Year of Forgotten Death” because the Spanish Flu was so rarely discussed or even remembered in the 100 years after. Why do you think that is? When did you first learn about the 1918 pandemic?

2. During the time of the Spanish flu, people used all kinds of folk remedies to protect themselves from illness and help cure disease, many of which we now consider useless and even dangerous. Along with tying garlic around their necks, eating extra onions, and sucking on sugar cubes soaked in kerosene, they took formaldehyde tablets, morphine, laudanum, chloride of lime, and gave whiskey and Mrs. Windsor’s Soothing Syrup to babies and children, despite the fact that it contained morphine, alcohol, and ammonia. The American Medical Association called the syrup a “baby killer” in 1911, but it wasn’t removed from the market until 1930.


Can you think of any other strange things people did in the past to cure or protect themselves from illness? Are there any folk or natural remedies that you think work?


3. During WWI, President Wilson’s Committee on Public Information and the Sedition Act passed by Congress both limited writing or publishing anything negative about the country. Posters asked the public to “report the man who spreads pessimistic stories.” To maintain morale and hide additional loss of life from their enemies, wartime censors in 1918 curtailed reports of influenza and mortality in Germany, Britain, France, and the United States. But the newspapers were free to report the epidemic's effects in Spain, creating the false impression that Spain was especially hard hit, and leading to the nickname Spanish flu.

In 2020, as the world became aware of the COVID-19 pandemic, did you notice any similar patterns in communication? How were things different from the way they were in 1918?

4. In Philadelphia, doctors pushed for the Liberty Loan parade on September 28, 1918 to be canceled because they were concerned that the crowds of people would spread the flu. They convinced reporters to write stories about the danger, but editors refused to run them, or to print any letters from the doctors. Consequently, despite their earlier warning to avoid crowds, the city’s public health officials allowed the largest parade in Philadelphia’s history to proceed. Two days later, the epidemic had spread, and over the following six weeks, more than 12,000 citizens of Philadelphia died. How much of a difference do you think it would 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?


5. Have you ever heard of or met anyone with Pia’s ability to sense illness in others? Would you want to be able to tell when other people are sick before they know it themselves? Why or why not?

6. 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?

7. Do you think Pia should feel so guilty about losing her brothers? Do you think it would have been helpful if she had told the nuns at St. Vincent’s what happened? Should she have told Dr. and Mrs. Hudson sooner?

8. Disguised as a nurse, Bernice does a lot of horrible things to the immigrants in Philadelphia. What do you think is her worst crime? Do you think she paid for what she did?

9. How did you feel about Bernice when you first met her? When did your perception of her change? How and why did it change?



10. Comparing what happened in 1918 to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it’s important to remember some 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.
* 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.
* To fight the Spanish flu, medical professionals advised patients to take up to 30 grams of aspirin per day, a dose now known to be toxic. It’s now believed that many of the October deaths were actually caused or hastened by aspirin poisoning.
* In San Francisco, people without masks were fined $5.00 and were called “mask slackers.”
* The New York City health commissioner in 1918 tried to slow the transmission of the flu by ordering businesses to open and close on staggered shifts to avoid overcrowding on the subways.

How do you compare each of these facts with what you’ve heard, observed, and/or experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic? What lessons, if any, do you think we’ve learned?


11. When the highly contagious second wave of Spanish flu hit some cities, the medical communities were not prepared. Hospitals quickly became overcrowded and were forced to turn thousands of sick and dying patients away. However – as during the COVID-19 pandemic – countless nurses and medical students stepped up to help. Parish houses and armories were turned into makeshift infirmaries, and with the shortage of medical staff due to the war, volunteers were called from medical and nursing schools. The brave nurses of the Visiting Nurse Society of Philadelphia went into homes to reach those who couldn’t make it to hospitals. And again, like today, a number of medical professionals gave with their lives.

What stories have you read or heard about the selflessness and heroism of today’s healthcare workers? What differences do you see between the healthcare workers in 1918 and those taking care of COVID-19 patients, especially concerning the proper medical equipment and protective gear? Do you think you would be brave enough to help take care of someone with the virus? Why or why not?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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It’s 1918, and the Spanish flu is running rampant. Family members are passing away right in front of their loved ones' eyes, food is scarce, and the living conditions in the tenement and s... (read more)

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