Reading level - upper middle grade - No real content concerns, there is racism towards Chinese people, however, the main character is supportive)
I really like the storyline of this book. Choldenko took on a story that has not really been discussed - especially through historical fiction. She also crafts a plot that allowed her to examine the time period from several perspectives. The main character, Lizzie, is an upper-class white girl. The servant she is seeking to find, named Jing, is being held in quarantine in Chinatown in San Francisco. Lizzie comes to see the prejudice and paranoia that prevails over the Chinese people because she has a personal connection with Jing (and also finds out that his son, Noah, has been hiding in her attic). She also comes to recognize that the plague (and quarantines that resulted) were often used as a justification for attacks on the Chinese people. The characters are well-drawn and the writing envelops you with detail. With that said, I didn't find the plot spectacularly engaging. I read about half the book in one sitting, and then it took me a couple of weeks to finish the rest.
This is yet another book that discusses a contagious disease and the fear of that disease. I've found that this theme comes up quite often in the books I pick up. I think that (until recently), we've very much forgotten how prevailing the fear of disease was throughout most of history. Diseases were misunderstood, treated incorrectly, blamed on specific ethnicities or groups, and very often deadly. Some of that fear disappeared as science improved and cures and vaccines were developed, yet much of it has returned as we deal with new strains. With each book that I've read, I've been able to place that fear within a historical context. It's been both alarming and enlightening.
From the publisher, “San Francisco, 1900. The Gilded Age. A fantastic time to be alive for lots of people . . . but not thirteen-year-old Lizzie Kennedy, stuck at Miss Barstow’s snobby school for girls. Lizzie’s secret passion is science, an unsuitable subject for finishing-school girls. Lizzie lives to go on house calls with her physician father. On those visits to his patients, she discovers a hidden dark side of the city—a side that’s full of secrets, rats, and rumors of the plague.
The newspapers, her powerful uncle, and her beloved papa all deny that the plague has reached San Francisco. So why is the heart of the city under quarantine? Why are angry mobs trying to burn Chinatown to the ground? Why is Noah, the Chinese cook’s son, suddenly making Lizzie question everything she has known to be true? Ignoring the rules of race and class, Lizzie and Noah must put the pieces together in a heart-stopping race to save the people they love.”