Writers have long opened up the horizons for child characters by the simple expedient of killing off their parents. How could Mowgli have been taken in by the wolfpack if his mother and father hadn’t first been eaten by a tiger? From Frodo Baggins to the Baudelaire children, orphanhood is a plot device that has generated an inexhaustible list of characters. Parents simply get in the way. So much so that some characters, like Peter Pan, choose to abandon their parents and run away, choosing orphanhood as the path to adventure.
Mind you, Mowgli didn’t start this trend. Mike Mariani argues that without orphans the novel itself may not have been conceived.
Since it’s such a common trope, it is even possible to write an orphan story today without making it seem hackneyed and trite? Try Kate Hannigan’s The Detective’s Assistant, (Little, Brown, 2015) a middle grade thriller based on the true-life story of Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton’s agent. From the time the Right Reverend deposits young Nell on the doorstep of her Aunt Kitty, the “waif’s last relation in the world,” it’s clear that Nell had better do her best to hold fast to her severe, mysterious aunt. And she does. There is no better detective’s assistant than this determined orphan. She and her aunt solve a series of mysteries in this breathless and rollicking book, wending their way through American history in the process. It’s stroke of genius to combine the orphan role with the narrative voice of a kind of junior Dr. Watson–with spunk.