Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson

Image from

Random House, 2013

August 28, 1854 seemed like a normal day in London to 13 year old Eel. As always he had to keep his secret well hidden, dodge the villainous Fisheye Bill, and work hard to earn his keep as a message boy at a pub. But a new problem makes itself known on that hot Monday. The first resident of Broad Street dies of the Blue Death, otherwise known as cholera, and so begins the epidemic that takes the lives of over 600 people. Orphaned Eel feels powerless to help his friends and neighbors, until he shares his worries with the esteemed Dr. Snow. The doctor has an unpopular theory that cholera is spread through contaminated water, rather than through the air. Using his powers of observation, reasoning, and intelligence Eel helps the doctor investigate the epidemic, find important clues, and uncover the truth. But can Eel and Dr. Snow come up with enough proof in time to save lives?

Based on real events, this well researched story makes for a compelling, as well as educational, read. Hopkinson’s non-fiction background is evident in her tone and style of writing. Her descriptions are precise, painting an accurate and detailed depiction of the time period. Readers will walk away with a great deal of knowledge of the events before, during, and after the epidemic. Extensive notes at the back of the book include more information on the real life people and events that inspired the story. This includes short biographies of historical figures used as characters in the book, as well as a timeline of the progress of the epidemic. Hopkinson also provides a list of recommended books and websites for young readers. The characters, many of them based on real people, are believable and relatable. This is especially true for Eel, who is a sensitive, observant, and responsible protagonist. The symptoms of cholera are accurately described, but never in a graphic manner. Additionally, even though many of Eel’s friends die, the story does not become depressing, nor does it dwell on the subject of death too deeply. This is a great fiction recommendation for kids who prefer non-fiction or for those interested in science and medicine.  

Listen to a bit of the audio book and find yourself intrigued by the Great Trouble.  

*Make a map of your house, school, or neighborhood like Florrie and Eel do in the book. Count the number of steps as the unit of measurement.

*Check out the educator’s guide produced by Random House for activities and discussion questions. 

*More books (both fiction and non-fiction) by Hopkinson:
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks
The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Age 10+ / Grade 5+


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