The Nature of the Orphan Child

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“I didn’t want to be just another orphan, Mr. Warbucks. I wanted to believe I was special.”

Annie, in ANNIE

Just Somehow Different

“Hobbits really are amazing creatures,” says Gandalf, in J. R. Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but with Frodo the specialness goes beyond that. Aged twelve, Frodo lost his parents in a boating accident and so was adopted by Bilbo Baggins. As with Olivier Twist, there is something that makes Frodo different and it’s this that arguably makes him the one most capable of resisting the Ring’s power.

Sometimes in an orphan tale it is the orphan’s family history that gives them an innate power – this is certainly the case with Luke Skywalker, Superman and Harry Potter – yet there’s also simply something about being an orphan which makes the orphan different. If you have any arguments on that front just ask Batman, James Bond, or Lisbeth Salander from THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO.

It’s well-known in psychology that those without parents or those who lose a parent early in their life often become high achievers, if sometimes selfishly so. It certainly takes perseverance and determination to make it in life when you’ve been left to fend for yourself. But could it also be that if the worst thing that can happen has already happened and you’ve survived it, then isn’t that going to give you a unique kind of inner strength? A ‘Make you or break you’ way of thinking that gives you a sense of difference.

And maybe there’s something else going on too. Maybe it’s that orphans have a deep psychological need to strive to achieve those things their parents never had time to do.  Or maybe it’s that orphans have a sense that life is short and often precarious and so one must pack in as much as possible before that life come to an end, or worse, is snatched unexpectedly from you. Orphans as well live with a constant feeling that nothing should ever be left undone, as they live everyday with what might have been.

But perhaps it’s all much simpler than that. Grief is sometimes described as being like an ocean, an emptiness like no other. Psychologically, that oceanic emptiness needs to be filled with something – fame, fortunes, possessions, success – yet the sad truth is rarely does it ever compensate for that inner sense of loss.

“When you lose your parents as a child, you are indoctrinated into a club, you are taken into life’s severest confidence. You are undeceived.”

Hilary Thayer Hamann

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“For I was indeed a student of human nature, as every orphan and hooker and unwanted kid must be.”

Carol Edgarian


The Street Urchin and the Maverick

There are many tales involving a grim orphanage and poor schooling, but the trickster hero Aladdin never had any education or home, for Aladdin learnt the lessons of life the tough way on the street. The ‘school of hard knocks’, you might say. The story of Aladdin was not part of the original ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, in fact it has no authentic Arabic textual source. The tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba were added to the book LES MILLE ET UNE NUITS by the French translator of Arabian Nights, a man called Antoine Galland, who probably took them from a Syrian storyteller called Hanna Diyab (1688 – c. 1763) who visited Paris in 1709. Anyway, whatever origin of the Aladdin tale, the story itself is universal, for it simply says that life itself can sometimes be your best instructor, especially when it comes to having to use your wits to survive.

What we have in Aladdin is the archetypal plucky rascal orphan of the folklore, for Aladdin is part Hero, part Trickster. Br’er Rabbit in animal folklore could be said to be a kindred spirit. As for nineteenth century counterparts in fiction, well, the Artful Dodger and Huckleberry Finn are both certainly worth a mention.

Dickens’ Artful Dodger is the child but one who acts like an adult and is always described as wearing grown-up clothes which are too big for him. Ultimately, Dodger is caught in possession of a stolen silver snuff box, yet even at his trial he never loses his wit and nerve. “I am an Englishman, ain’t I? Where are my priwileges?” he says to the judge, only the judge has little patience with the incorrigible Artful Dodger and eventually he’s led off by the collar, yet even here, Dodger is still threatening to make a parliamentary business of it with a big grin on his face. Despite his thieving – he would presumably have been sent to a penal colony – Dodger is such an engaging character that if he had found himself in Australia, his twenty-first century cousins might well now be quite proud of the way he gave it to that Pommie judge. The Artful Dodger sequel, THE ARTFUL DODGER DOWNUNDER, certainly has the potential to be a great yarn. Any takers?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is more rascal than thief, though he does hang around with reprobates from the criminal world. ‘Huck’ to his friends, is a boy, he tells us, of about “thirteen or fourteen or along there” years old. Strictly speaking he is not an orphan, but it does seem that the Widow Douglas adopted Huck because he had no mother and his dad, Pap Finn, was the town drunk, and, as a result, was rarely in his life. Finn, for all intents and purposes an orphan, has a difficult time fitting into society, yet Huck’s good nature usually wins people over in the end. And who doesn’t like the lovable rogue?

It’s easy to see how the fatherless child could become the mischievous maverick, a theme that was recently explored in the back story of James T. Kirk in the reboot of STAR TREK (2009). The tale of the estranged or absent father is not the same as the fatherless child, but it’s also possible to see in Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, for example, the classic lost child rebel. Oddly enough, when looking at the many tales of the orphan, the absence of the father figure is not explored as often as the lack of a mother. And the maverick rebel is not as common as other archetypal orphan characters such as Oliver Twist or Jane Eyre. They are certainly characters with popular appeal, so where’s the twenty-first century Huck Finn or Artful Dodger for the contemporary reader?

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”

Said by Huckleberry Finn as he makes the decision to break the law and help a runaway slave in THE ADVENTURE OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain

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“Somewhere over the rainbow, Bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow. Why then, oh why can’t I? If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?”

Sung by Dorothy Gale in THE WIZARD OF OZ
Music by Harold Arlen and Lyrics by ‘Yip’ Harburg

The Runaway

Oliver Twist ran away from the Sowerberrys because of bullying and ill-treatment. The writer Lemn Sissay, who was an orphan himself raised in the care system, observed that “many people in care run away, often several times from different places. Children run away because they don’t feel safe. Most run away because they want to be found by someone who loves them.”  And on that last point isn’t that what THE WIZARD OF OZ is all about? The runaway story is a useful plot for the writer because it immediately opens up the possibility of any kind of adventure, plus chance meetings with the most extraordinary characters along the way, be they child thieves or cowardly lions.


There are several recent novels with the ‘runaway’ theme. In THE RUNAWAYS by Holly Webb it is, as with Miss Gulch’s threat to take Toto from Dorothy, the fear that Molly’s dog is about to be put down that spurs her on to run away from home. In MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli, there is a mysterious boy called Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee who is a runaway orphan with a special gift to run faster than the wind. Again, here there’s a link with THE WIZARD OF OZ because Dorothy Gale isn’t called ‘Gale’ for nothing. BUD, NOT BUDDY, by Christopher Paul Curtis, is an award-winning novel set in Depression hit America of the 1930s, the same period setting as THE WIZARD OF OZ. The book tells the tale of Ben, a ten-year-old Bud motherless boy on the run in search of his father. Ben’s mother never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers advertising Herman E. Calloway and his jazz band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression.

“You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking. You are under the unfortunate impression that just because you run away you have no courage; you’re confusing courage with wisdom.”


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“A man-trained boy would have been badly bruised, for the fall was a good fifteen feet, but Mowgli fell as Baloo had taught him to fall, and landed on his feet.”

THE JUNGLE BOOK, written by Rudyard Kipling

Lost Children of the Wild

Orphans in the storm may be the expression in common use, but let’s not forget those stories of children left or lost in the jungle or the wild. And in many of these tales the children are then raised by animals.

In fact, there are numerous documented cases of children who it is believed were saved by the actions of animals, including a Russian child said to have be raised by a goat, a one year old Argentinean boy who it is claimed was kept alive by wild cats and a Chilean boy who it was discovered had lived in a cave for two years with wild dogs. The most famous case of feral children is probably the 1920s story of the ‘Wolf Children’, named Kamala and Amala, who were found in the jungles of Godamuri in India and who were apparently raised by wolves.

A curious combination of fact and fiction can be found in the complicated history of Misha Defonseca (born Monique de Wael) who wrote SURVING WITH WOLVES, supposedly an autobiographical tale in which Misha claimed she had escaped the Nazis by running away and living with a wolf pack. Her story though was later revealed to be a complete fabrication, but the point here is that many people, for many different reasons, wanted to believe her tale.


But from now on, however, let’s stick to the more honest and straightforward nature of pure fiction. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan tales certainly capture the spirit and heart of the idea of the human of the wild. Tarzan tells the story of the son of a British lord and lady who become marooned on the Atlantic Coast of Africa. When Tarzan’s mother dies and his father is killed by Kerchak, leader of the ape tribe, the infant Tarzan is adopted into the tribe of apes known as the Mangani. And here Tarzan flourishes. Another lost child of the wild is Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s THE JUNGLE BOOK. After his parents lose him as a baby in the Indian jungle during a tiger attack, he is adopted by the Wolf Mother and Father into their pack, where he becomes known as Mowgli (meaning frog) because of his lack of fur and his refusal to sit still.

Is the appeal of these books the wild itself? Or is it the wild in us that we know it deep in there somewhere? Then there is the Thomas Hobbes verses Jean Jacques Rousseau debate. Are we at the mercy, as Hobbes said, of a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”? Or could it be that Man, when free of a world which imposes ideas of sin and concepts of right and wrong, is not savage nor brutal, but noble? Big questions. Curiously, even though in the many of the novels (twenty-four in total) Tarzan leaves his jungle home, in the popular mind Tarzan is always at his most natural in the wild. However, the animals in THE JUNGLE BOOK understand that Mowgli, the ‘man-cub’, ultimately belongs with his own kind.

Of course, even animals, wild or domesticated, themselves have mums and dads, so let us not forget the separation from parents or the death of parents in tales such as THE BALLAD OF THE BELSTONE FOX, BLACK BEAUTY, GREYFRIAR’S BOBBY and the Redwall Abbey novel series. Some animals are adopted, including Curious George whose looked after by the Man in the Yellow Hat in the stories by Margret and Hans Augusto Rey, and Alvin and the Chipmunks whose adoptive human father is David ‘Dave’ Seville. Then of course there are those anthropomorphic Disney movies such as DUMBO and BAMBI, which feature animals experiencing parental loss. And even those who mock the relentless charm of the tales of Beatrix Potter might care to remember that poor Peter Rabbit’s father was caught and put in a pie by Mr McGregor. At least Harry Potter has a grave to visit.

“Your ma ain’t crazy. She’s just broken-hearted.”

Timothy Q. Mouse to Dumbo in Walt Disney’s DUMBO

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“‘I’ll bite,’ he said, ‘if you hit me!’”

Said by the unnamed boy in Charles Dickens’ THE HAUNTED MAN

The Child with No Name

There is often in stories a drive and urge to succeed in orphan characters that you don’t see elsewhere. Pip in GREAT EXPECTATIONS and David Copperfield in DAVID COPPERFIELD, for example. Of course, these children had benefactors – Magwich and, to a degree at least, Aunt Betsy – but Dickens isn’t frightened either of showing the world of the child who truly has nothing and no one. The most famous is perhaps Jo who sweeps the streets near the Chancery court in BLEAK HOUSE, but one of the most vivid can be found in one of Dickens’ lesser known Christmas stories, THE HAUNTED MAN:

A bundle of tatters, held together by a hand, in size and form almost an infant’s, but in its greedy, desperate little clutch, a bad old man’s. A face rounded and smoothed by some half-dozen years, but pinched and twisted by the experiences of a life. Bright eyes, but not youthful. Naked feet, beautiful in their childish delicacy – ugly in the blood and dirt that cracked upon them. A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast. Used, already, to be worried and hunted like a beast, the boy crouched down as he was looked at, and looked back again, and interposed his arm to ward off the expected blow.

“I’ll bite,” he said, “if you hit me!”

The time had been, and not many minutes since, when such a sight as this would have wrung the Chemist’s heart. He looked upon it now, coldly; but with a heavy effort to remember something — he did not know what – he asked the boy what he did there, and whence he came.

“Where’s the woman?” he replied. “I want to find the woman.”


“The woman. Her that brought me here, and set me by the large fire. She was so long gone, that I went to look for her, and lost myself. I don’t want you. I want the woman.”

He made a spring, so suddenly, to get away, that the dull sound of his naked feet upon the floor was near the curtain, when Redlaw caught him by his rags.

“Come! You let me go!” muttered the boy, struggling, and clenching his teeth. “I’ve done nothing to you. Let me go, will you, to the woman!”

“That is not the way. There is a nearer one,” said Redlaw, detaining him, in the same blank effort to remember some association that ought, of right, to bear upon this monstrous object. “What is your name?”

“Got none.”

“Where do you live?

“Live! What’s that?”

“For a child, the loss of a parent is the loss of memory itself.”

Svetlana Alexievich

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‘When I’m stuck with a day that’s gray and lonely
I just stick out my chin and grin, and say, oh
The sun’ll come out tomorrow
So you gotta hang on ‘til tomorrow
Come what may
Tomorrow, tomorrow
I love ya tomorrow
You’re always a day away
Tomorrow, tomorrow
I love ya tomorrow
You’re always a day away’

The song Tomorrow from the musical ANNIE by Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse

Little Orphan Annies

A word here about LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE. And indeed several other orphans Annies. The Annie of Harold Gray’s famous comic strip series took its name from the 1885 poem Little Orphant Annie, by James Whitcomb Riley, which made its debut on August 5, 1924, in the New York Daily News. Young Annie is generous and compassionate, has an intuitive sense of right and wrong and is eternally optimistic. In the orphanage, Annie is routinely mistreated by the matron Miss Asthma, who eventually is replaced by the equally unpleasant Miss Treat. One day, the wealthy but mean-spirited Mrs Warbucks takes Annie into her home on trial. She makes it clear that she does not like Annie, but her husband Oliver, who returns from a business trip, instantly develops a paternal affection for Annie and suggests Annie to address him as ‘Daddy’. It’s a classic Cinderella story in a way. However, like Cinderella, who is gifted a magical night where she experiences the freedom and luxury of a palace, only at midnight has to return to servitude and ashes, Annie too often finds herself sent back to the grim orphanage. In Annie’s case it isn’t a magic spell that suddenly ends, but rather the cold-hearted Mrs Warbucks who, whenever ‘Daddy’ Warbucks is away, sends poor Annie packing. This hugely popular comic strip went on for years and then in 1977 it was given a second life as the Broadway musical ANNIE.

Another orphan Annie is Anne Shirley in ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. In Lucy Montgomery’s tale, Anne was at first unwanted because she wasn’t a boy and so thought unsuitable for life on a farm, but her vivacious yet lovable nature quickly wins over her adoptive family. In fact, Anne is such a fun soul that her chattiness and spirited opinions soon enlivens and enriches the whole close-knit farming community in the fictional town of Avonlea in Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Yet another young heroine with an infectious free spirit can be found in Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna in POLLYANNA (1913), whose very name soon became a byword for the eternally optimistic. And perhaps it’s this positive thinking that’s the clue to the success of all three. Each girl has a sort of contagious buoyancy, a confidence and hopefulness that has the ability to bring change to the world in which these young orphans find themselves and an alteration for the better in most of the people around them. What we have here then is the classic ‘Outsider verses Convention’ story conflict. Will the Outsider bow to the status quo of custom and tradition? Or will the conventional world adapt its way of thinking to that of the new arrival? There aren’t many advantages of coming from an orphanage, but perhaps one is that you are free from certain ways of thinking and seeing the world. And this ‘Outsider Otherness’ can be very powerful in story terms. As Daddy Warbucks, the people of Avonlea and those two middle-aged siblings, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, quickly discover.

“‘Miss Polly actually stamped her foot in irritation. “There you go like the rest,” she shouted. What game? At last Nancy told her all about the story of how the crutches arrived instead of a doll, and how Pollyanna’s father had taught her that there was always something to be glad about. Miss Polly couldn’t believe it. ‘How can someone ever be glad of crutches?’ she demanded to know. ‘Simple’ said Nancy. ‘In Pollyanna’s case, she could be glad she didn’t need them!’”

POLLYANNA, written by Eleanor H. Porter

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“When she left me at the orphanage and didn’t come back, do you know what I thought of? Time travel. I thought that if I could travel back to the day I parted from her, I would never let her go.”

Professor Yoon Tae-yi, in ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won,

Time Travelling Orphans

In the Korean time travel series ALICE (AELLISEU), written by Kim Kyu-Won, there exists The Book of Prophecy. This crucial book is discovered by a woman who later flees to the year 1986 and marries Dr Jang Dong-sik. Unfortunately, his lady dies giving birth to their daughter Yoon Tae-yi, who, in one timeline, later becomes Park Sun-young, mother to Detective Park Jin-gyum, and in yet another dimension the daughter grows up to become Professor Yoon Tae-yi, who the detective recognises as a doppelganger of his mother.

It turns out that The Book of Prophecy is much sought after and one night robbers come to steal the book and Dr Jang is killed, but not before giving his young daughter (Yoon Tae-yi) the crucial final page. Alice Time Agents arrive just in time to save Yoon Tae-yi from the killer, who they disable and neutralise. The Time Agents then take The Book of Prophecy, but without realising the last page is missing and has been hidden away by the young Tae Yi.

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In a flashback it is revealed that Sun-young, one of the Time Agents, also took Tae-yi to live with her and her as yet unborn child.  Sun-young is pregnant by Kwak Si-yang, her fellow Time Agent, but cannot travel in time as radiation could cause harm to the baby. While living with the pregnant Sun-young, the toddler Tae-yi draws a picture that her adoptive mother recognises as having a striking resemblance to those in The Book of Prophecy. Sun-young asks if Tae-yi has read the entire book and Tae-yi confirms she did, only adds that she didn’t really understand it.

Understanding the importance of the book and the fact that there are those out there that would kill to know its contents, Sun-young takes her ‘adopted’ daughter Tae-yi to the Hope Orphanage believing that she would be safer there. For both Sun-young and Tae-yi it is a painful separation.

Anyway, Sun-young’s biological child, Park Jin-gyum, is born sometime later. When he himself grows up, he is adopted into a family where the father is a police officer. The reason for his adoption is that when he was a boy, Park Jin-gyoem experienced the murder of his mother, Sun-young. He did not actually see the actual murderer, but he was with Sun-young in her dying moments. She tells him never to follow anyone he sees who looks like her, but, of course, not knowing then anything about time travel, this only makes Park Jin-gyoem more curious. Park Jin-gyoem vows to find his mother’s murderer and why she was killed. In fact, he in part becomes a detective to discover all he can about the motivation and reason for his mother’s death. It should be added here that Park Jin-gyoem believes has no father, but, as said, his father is in fact one of the Alice Time Agents who saved Yoon Tae-yi.

Both Yoon Tae-yi and Park Jin-gyoem essentially grow up as orphans. In a scene packed with dramatic irony, Yoon Tae-yi, now grown up and a professor, tells the investigating Detective Park Jin-gyoem that the reason she became a scientist was because of her personal history. “My mom is a really good mom,” she says, “but she’s not my biological mother. My biological mom left me at the orphanage and disappeared. Detective, do you remember when you were five? I remember my mom’s scent. Though it was only a day and I don’t even remember her face, I remember her warmth and her scent vividly. When she left me at the orphanage and didn’t come back, do you know what I thought of? Time travel. I thought that if I could travel back to the day I parted from her, I would never let her go. That’s why I became a scientist. I want to go and meet my mom.” But the irony is that Detective Park Jin-gyoem in another time dimension is her son, a son who was there when his own mother, a doppelganger for Yoon Tae-yi herself, was killed. And of course Yoon Tae-yi in another time line is the same Sun-young who took the orphaned daughter – that is herself – to the orphanage, though Yoon Tae-yi was wrong to say that this lady was her actual biological mother.

What we have in ALICE (AELLISEU), is a fascinating exploration through time travel of the wish fulfilment for the orphan child who still longs for his mother. The series has its critics and it does occasionally get lost in a labyrinth of its own complexity. And yet the scenes of connection in the dynamics of that Eternal Triangle that is Mother-Father-Child are very affecting, powerful and moving. For those who have seen the series will know, the picking up a simple scarf and handing it over is a bit of tear jerker.


“Orphaned children are equally deserving of unconditional support and love, the world is much stronger when the vulnerable are also strengthened.”

Wayne Chirisa

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Young Adult Reader Reviews

"One of the things that makes the book so original is the mixture of fantasy, sci-fi, adventure and comedy, so you never know what to expect next… I found the book exciting, entertaining and very, very funny and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to my friends." Year 10

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