The Orphanmaster is the first novel by non-fiction writer, Jean Zimmerman. Set in 1663-1664, Manhattan Island is still called New Amsterdam, a Dutch settlement that is on the verge of an English invasion. The town’s orphans have been going missing and a fever of hysteria has begun to take over its residents. It is amongst this panic that we meet our heroine and hero, Blandine, an independent tradeswoman and former orphan, and Drummond, an English spy who has landed in New Amsterdam on covert business, and who soon falls in love with Blandine.
As Blandine and Drummond begin investigating the disappearances, the residents look for scapegoats to explain the kidnappings. Blame shifts from one entity to the next, from the Indian spirit of the Witika, to accusing Blandine of being a witch, to the Orphanmaster, a man who has been entrusted with the safety of these orphans.
Though the teaser jacket info lured me in for a great murder mystery, as I finished the novel I felt as though I had been slightly misled. The jacket prepares the reader for a mystery style thriller, yet the novel does not allow for the reader to uncover clues. Though the plot of The Orphanmaster is unique and intriguing, I was never able to become engrossed in the story or feel for any of the characters. My difficulty in becoming immersed in this book was due to the amount of extraneous information it contains and the lack of action.
First, the amount of information being presented to the reader is astronomical, and from the beginning of the novel, the reader is bombarded with this information and left to sift through it without knowing what elements are truly significant to the storyline. The novel begins with a prologue that does not make sense to the reader until the conclusion of the book. This prologue contains some of the most vivid and detailed descriptions of the entire novel, yet we the reader are confused by its significance beyond giving the simple motivation for Drummond to be present in New Amsterdam. Our inquisitive minds keep returning to it, trying to piece together its true significance, only to be left puzzled.
There are also several pages dedicated to an incident where Blandine escaped an assault by native Indians when she was a child. This passage does set up several details of the story, such as establishing Blandine’s strength, showing her friendship with the African community, and reiterates that tension between the Dutch settlers and the Indians. The problem lies in the fact that none of these points are important enough to the storyline to justify the amount of space given to the story, and each of these ideas is addressed in other places in the novel, as well.
This abundance of information presents a twofold problem for the reader; first, we are wasting mental energy on trying to figure out each character and event’s place within the story. Secondly, we are then never given the insight that allows us to get deep inside our main characters. Though we are told a great deal about each of the characters, we never get into their psyches, and we never get in deep enough to feel for or identify with them. Though we follow both Blandine and Drummond throughout the whole novel, it’s difficult to feel a connection to either of them. I didn’t cheer for Blandine’s victories nor did I ever fear for her safety. I didn’t melt inside when Drummond and Blandine fell in love, and I didn’t sit at the edge of my seat when he was being lead to the gallows. I simply just wanted to see how everything worked itself out in the end.
In addition to the extensive character backgrounds, there are several characters that have multiple paragraphs and pages dedicated to them, yet they add little to the storyline.
The second issue, the lack of action, is even more disappointing. There are several sections where the reader is lead up to the action and the story cuts out at the precise moment we have been waiting for. The lack of climax is ultimately frustrating. Midway through the novel we are given a scene where we are shown a kidnapping. A young boy, Anse, is taken into the woods where he sees two other orphans who have been kidnapped. As I read this section, I was so excited to finally see the horrors that have been surrounding the kidnappings.
The reader is just as scared as Anse, and is willing to believe that, “The beast strode out from the forest and walked directly into the fire! Standing upright amid the embers, a hundred feet tall!” It is at this moment that Zimmerman has us captivated, yet not for long. Anse flees into the woods and the narrative suddenly cuts to “Late the next afternoon”. This was the moment that Zimmerman could have had the readers terrified, yet we were dropped.
My final qualm with this novel is the lack of identification with the characters, and the end is simply too neatly tied up to feel satisfied. That said, there are several elements that Zimmerman executed exquisitely that are worthy of mention.
Although I could not identify with most of the characters, there are some excellent examples of characterization. One example is the minor character of Tibb Dunbar, an independent orphan who appears sporadically throughout the novel and oftentimes represents the entire orphan population. His character was created with the perfect amount of detail and personality. We know just enough about him to identify him and set him apart from other characters, but there is limited detail about him, allowing us to believe that he was an individual whom we needn’t invest in. He was able to illuminate the characters and events around him and provide insight into the world which he represented without distracting us.
If I was not reading The Orphanmaster for a review, I would have put it down because it never hooked me. It is a story that has great potential and that made it that much more disappointing when I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the story. If there was just a bit more focus and less extraneous information, it would have allowed for other, more relevant scenes to be drawn out, and this book would have been stellar.