Books: On Their Own ORPHANS: REAL AND IMAGINARY

by Eileen Simpson Weidenfeld & Nicolson 259 pages; $16.95

What does Art Buchwald have in common with Leo Tolstoy? Samuel Taylor Coleridge with Mary McCarthy? Not to mention Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Tarzan, Superman and Little Orphan Annie. Right: they all lost parents at an early age and had to confront the world more or less on their own.

It is a hard fate at the best of times, and the best of times have been rare. In imperial Rome, orphans were commonly sold into slavery or simply killed off. Although the Roman Catholic Church forbade infanticide, Pope Innocent III was dismayed by the number of children's bodies he saw...