Sunday, August 9, 2015

Arc review: Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko. 280. p. Wendy Lamb Books/ Random House Children's Books, August 4, 2015. 9780307975775. (arc courtesy of the author)

Motherless thirteen-year-old Lizzie Kennedy loves nothing more than to accompany her physician father on house calls. In fact, she is determined to become a physician despite the fact that, in the early 1900s, female physicians were rare and girls of Lizzie's social class went to finishing schools, came out in society and married suitable boys. She lives with her father, beloved brother, Billy, Jing the cook and Maggie the housemaid on the grounds of her aunt and uncle's Nob Hill estate. Thanks to Aunt Hortense, she attends the odious Miss Barstow's School for Girls each day and counts the hours until she can return to the refuge of Jing's kitchen and watch for another chance to slip out with her father, who seems to appreciate her calm demeanor and steady hands in emergencies. 

Amid plague rumors, Chinatown is put in quarantine and when Jing fails to return home one night, Lizzie fears that he's stuck in Chinatown and is determined to find him and help him escape. She's not quite sure how to do this though and enlists Billy's aid. Surprisingly, he refuses; so she sets out on her own with nearly disastrous results. When she discovers Jing's son Noah hiding in his room, a son she never knew Jing had, Lizzie begins to question how well she really knows her cook. Through Noah, she learns more about how the Chinese population of San Francisco live and deal with the prevalent racism. 

As the rumors swirl, newspapers, including her own uncle's paper deny the epidemic. Lizzie finds some unlikely allies in her search to get to the bottom of this mystery. 

The San Francisco setting is particularly vivid, especially the juxtaposition of high society life and the poverty of Chinatown. Characters are well-drawn as well, with Lizzie being particularly appealing. There's humor, heightening suspense, and tragedy. While this is a work of historical fiction, thoughtful readers will make modern day connections to persistent problems of race, class, sexism and access to health care. 

I usually have trouble enticing my students to try historical fiction. Gennifer Choldenko makes my job easy. My students and I adore her Al Capone trilogy. Her fans should take to this one as easily. Give Chasing Secrets to fans of mystery as well. This is a must-purchase and 2015 favorite.

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