There are times when books move us, but we can’t put our finger on exactly what it is that sets it apart. The Orphan Singer, by Emily Arnold McCully, is one such book. Even more interesting is that the story is based on real Venetian institutions that cared for orphaned girls while giving them amazing musical educations.
The Orphan Singer tells of a family in 18th century Venice with a musically gifted son, Antonio Dolci. He loves to sing and has the voice of an angel but his family cannot afford vocal training due to their extreme poverty. When their newborn daughter, Nina, shows signs of musical prodigy as well, they lament keeping her from her destiny. A brilliant, but tragic idea comes in the form of “abandoning” her to the “ospedalo,” an orphanage that also boasted a superb music conservatory.
The young girl, renamed Caterina by the ospedalo, grows and is an outstanding singer. While her voice is angelic, her behavior is problematic, causing friction with the instructors. The pain of the Dolcis’ sacrifice eases somewhat as they eventually attend concerts performed by the ospedalo’s chorus and befriend their growing daughter, never informing her of their bond. When the family doesn’t appear one day because Antonio is deathly ill, she realizes how important they are to her and sneaks out to him. When Caterina’s voice proves the elixir that heals Antonio, she knows that their bond can only be one of family.
Caterina knows that she should be kicked out of the chorus for sneaking out, but fortunately, the teacher who opens the door upon her return is kind and understands why she went. That kindness is paid back tenfold as it teaches Caterina to lead with kindness and teach all of the younger girls.
Both J and I really enjoyed this book. The illustrations pull you back to Venice in the 1800s. The rich colors in the clothes of those with money versus the drab clothing of those without is an example of the simple, but important details. This is a true to life story of a society that treasured music and artistic talent. Filled with beautiful artwork and fascinating details, this book is a masterpiece.