alexandra alger


Favorite Fictional Orphans

I’m creating a character who’s parentless, a modern-day orphan. Her role models aren’t actual, real orphans (I don’t know any of those, a fortunate thing) but the long line of memorable fictional ones.

As a child I always cleaved to the orphans. Not because they’re free of parental constraints–just the opposite! I got heart palpitations at the thought of complete freedom from parents (no doubt because my parents were insanely controlling). That’s why I had to keep reading. I had to make sure these poor orphans were going to be all right.

Who are my favorite orphans? I know I’m forgetting a few, but this is a good start. In no particular order:

James, James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl (as if there is any doubt who authored this). I wanted to reach into the book and hug James—and then adopt him. Who could not root for James, whose parents die in a freakish accident and who is forced to live with his horrible (if deliciously horrible) aunts before having the most extraordinary adventure (practically) in all of children’s literature?

Anne, Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. I loved Anne’s hot temper, being a hot-tempered redhead myself (and not recognizing a tired cliche). I loved her soulfulness, and her way with words. Of course, Gilbert kept me reading, too. Lucy Maud was clever to give Anne such an appealing antagonist.

Mary, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet). I didn’t like Mary, or this book, for many years. Mary was such a sourpuss! In that heartless way of children, I refused to give her break for being an orphan and alone in a strange, nearly empty house (these English and the way they ignored children!). But she grew on me, especially when she straightened out her whiny, self-pitying cousin, Colin.

Silvia and Bonnie, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. Bonnie isn’t an orphan at first, but for most of the book her parents are missing and presumed dead, so as far as I was concerned, this was the story of two plucky orphans. What these two have to endure! When Bonnie’s parents go on a long trip, they leave the girls in the hands of a cousin, who turns out to be an imposter, an evil woman who takes over the house and sends the girls to an orphanage. How are the girls to escape—and to where? I read breathlessly.

Bod, The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Bod, short for Nobody, is anything but. He’s the kind of boy a girl can’t help liking—the kind of boy who would try to figure out a way to provide a headstone for a witch who was both drowned and burned. He has all kinds of ograveyard skills, like Fading and Dreamwalking, and is clever enough to take down the man who killed his parents. Which reminds me of someone else….

Harry Potter, of course, the most famous orphan of all time (sorry, Oliver Twist and Huck Finn). He’s the only character on this list whose quest is rooted in the brutal murder of his parents. He learns more about his dead parents than most orphans do, and with knowledge comes pain and regret. James and Lily Potter may be the only fictional parents whose loss I actively mourned.

My character will come to mourn hers, but she’ll also find unexpected joy. I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

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