It is summer of 1855 in London. Thirteen-year-old Eel is constantly wary of Fisheye Bill Taylor, who is searching for him. Fisheye says that he wants back what rightfully belongs to him. But Eel is desperately trying to save enough money so he won’t have to contend with Fisheye any longer and can keep his secret safe. Thinking that he has securely hidden his savings, Eel’s stash is confiscated and presented to one of the owners of the Lion Brewery, who wrongfully accuses him of stealing from the establishment’s accounts. Eel needs someone to vouch for his integrity, so he asks if he can leave to talk with Mr. Griggs, the town tailor, for whom he has worked in his shop. Eel is overwhelmed when he finds that Mr. Griggs has been struck with the Blue Death, also known as cholera, and is dying. Worse than that, this disease is spreading quickly to other members of Mr. Griggs’s family as well as many others in town.
Eel eventually turns to another employer, Dr. Snow, who is known for his expertise with chloroform. Eel hopes that Dr. Snow can help the Griggs family. Instead, Dr. Snow bombards Eel with questions about how cholera has been affecting his town, and then explains that as much as he would like to help those who are affected by cholera, he cannot since there is no known cure for the infected person. However, he believes he can find the source of the disease, which he suspects is contaminated water taken from the Broad Street pump. Dr. Snow’s theory is contrary to the long-time belief that the cause of cholera is due to miasma, bad air. In order to convince the governance committee, who oversees the town, that the pump handle needs to be removed, Dr. Snow has to come up with evidence to backup his theory, and he only has a week to do it.
Dr. Snow turns to Eel for help since he is familiar with the townspeople and area. Making him an assistant, Eel’s job is to go house-to-house gathering data as to who died and from where each family got their water supply. While making his rounds, Eel runs into a boy who says that he’s been collecting Broad Street water and carting it over to another town. Eel wonders if this may be the evidence that Dr. Snow needs to convince the governance committee. He investigates the place where the water was sent and finds out that the people who drank from that water had died. Ecstatic with his new findings (on the day before the committee meeting), Eel makes his way to Dr. Snow’s place, only to be whisked away by none other than Fisheye Bill Taylor. Now kidnapped, Eel has no idea how he will escape to get the information to Dr. Snow before the meeting, let alone keep from spilling his secret to Fisheye.
Deborah Hopkinson, an acclaimed and multi-awarded author, has a unique gift for taking a small but vital tidbit of history and turning it into a story for young readers to understand and appreciate. In her newest book, THE GREAT TROUBLE, she creates a fictional character, Eel, who narrates the story about real people during a real event that changed the course of medical history. The final pages include a reader’s guide to the story, a timeline of the Broad Street Cholera Epidemic, and plenty of resources for further reading.
Originally posted on Kidsreads.com
Anita Lock, Book Reviewer