It’s always a treat to read an excellent new novel like Gerlinda, by Emily-Jane Hills Orford. Gerlinda, (Madison VA, Christine Anderson Publishing and Media, www.publishwithcfa.com 2016) is about the importance of having someone who believes in you. Although the central character, Gerlinda, is not technically an orphan, she might as well be. Orford's novel is more pessimistic in outlook, however, than the classic orphan novel Anne of Green Gables.
Set in 1966, the story opens with Gerlinda being taunted by bullies crying "Cooties" as she walks to school. Sleep-deprived and grubby, she feels that "the cat calls were just words, the hunger was a gut pain." Jarred to learn that she shoplifts to feed herself, readers are curious to know the details of her predicament.
By the second page, we learn that Gerlinda's father, nostalgic for his Hitler Youth days, drinks and fights with his wife, keeping the children awake at night and again our curiosity is piqued. Later we learn that he takes his wife's earnings from her cleaning jobs, and has so destroyed her spirit that she has given up providing for the children.
School is often a refuge for children in troubled homes, but not a haven for Gerlinda for a variety of reasons. The one area in which she is respected is in sports. Her athletic ability is a ray of hope in what is essentially a tragic story.
The teachers and administrators seem unable to stop the bullies from verbally abusing Gerlinda. The Grade 8 teacher, Mr. Fernandes, shows good teaching and human relations skills and tries to treat all of his students fairly, but he faces a tough challenge. One of the difficult children is Denise, the ringleader of the girls who taunt Gerlinda. Denise belongs to a religious group that doesn't want its children singing the National Anthem. Instead of absenting herself for the opening exercises, however, the girl sings her favourite popular songs under cover of the Anthem - like "Polka Dot Bikini"! A promising school project - dressing in the costume of one's ancestors' homelands - goes awry and brings down ire from the mayor because of Gerlinda's costume, which she wears innocently in the hope of being a big success.
In this novel, disasters sometimes have silver linings; for instance, Gerlinda's costume fiasco leads her to an almost-saintly fairy godmother figure who enlightens and helps her. Another drastic incident forces Gerlinda's mother to assert herself and seek help for one of the children. Unfortunately, the "silver linings" don't really make up for the awfulness of the "clouds". This is not a criticism of the novel, which is an outstanding example of gritty realism.
Ms. Orford has created intriguing fully-rounded characters. Readers have the satisfaction of concluding for themselves that several of the adults are deplorable human beings. Orford's explanation of the Nazi period in Germany is important information for young readers to know. Wisely, she is not specific as to the exact location in North America where the story takes place. By leaving it unspecified, she shows that bullying and scapegoating can occur in any community. The characters' names indicate a variety of backgrounds and cultures.
Orford dedicates her novel "to a childhood friend, may she rest in peace." Is the novel to some extent based on real events? Is the author "Janet", the one girl in the school who was friendly toward Gerlinda? In any case, readers' hearts will go out to Gerlinda, along with hopes that the next phase of her life is happier. Perhaps we will find out in a sequel. Five stars!