My blog this week is my review of a book published in September by Knopf Books for Young Readers: The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by award-winning children's author Deborah Hopkinson.
Page-Turning Adventure with a Medical Twist
Thirteen-year-old Eel is a mudlark in Victorian London. Mudlarks were orphans who rummaged in the filthy mud of the Thames River for objects they could sell for a few coins to keep themselves alive from day to day. Deborah Hopkinson knows how to write a page-turning adventure story with characters you can believe in and a young hero who touches your heart. And she knows how to weave historical fact into her tale to enrich it and make the world she is portraying come alive. She shows the misery of the working poor in a filthy, unforgiving Victorian London, and Eel’s struggle to stay alive, but she doesn’t overburden young readers with so many heartrending details that they might stop reading. Eel tells his fast-paced story in a matter-of-fact voice that describes the awful living conditions of the poor without making the book too somber to read and without dampening the excitement of his adventurous and often dangerous life. And every chapter has a cliffhanger ending. You find yourself quickly warming to the empathetic mudlark hero and cheering him on when he faces a new difficulty.
Eel has run away from his cruel stepfather. He is resourceful and earns small amounts of money by doing whatever he can including working at a brewery, filtering river mud, and taking care of Dr. John Snow’s laboratory animals. He needs the money, not just to keep himself alive but also because of a heartrending secret that that he must keep at all costs.
Dr. Snow is one of the real-life characters seamlessly woven into the story. During the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, John Snow discovered that water was the carrier of the cholera bacteria. His study of the cause and effect of the cholera epidemic laid the foundation for the science of epidemiology.
Eel’s intelligence impresses Dr. Snow, who asks the boy to help him investigate the cause of the cholera epidemic. And from that point on, Eel’s life changes dramatically.
The Great Trouble is a great read for older middle-graders (ages ten and up). My one small criticism is that Eel is sometimes given vocabulary that sounds too sophisticated for a thirteen-year-old with little schooling. But the story's depth and momentum swept aside that concern and drew me into its intriguing and credible microcosm of fiction and fact: fast-paced adventure, mystery, edge-of-seat drama, and fascinating medical history. And I'm sure it will magnetize younger readers too.
Next week Deborah Hopkinson will be my interview guest.