Written by Gennifer Choldenko
(Wendy Lamb Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
⭐︎Starred Review – Booklist
Lizzie Kennedy, 13, lives in a house on her aunt and uncle’s fashionable Nob Hill estate with her widowed father and her brother, Billy, 16, once her best friend, but now surly and secretive. Their beloved servants, Jing and Maggy, also reside with them. A brief prologue gives the readers some insight into Lizzie’s world at the dawn of the 20th century and the ominous developments to come:
“In the Palace Hotel, electric lights blaze as ladies in shimmering gowns
and gentlemen in black waistcoats waltz in a ballroom gilded with gold.
In the bay, a steamer from Honolulu is fumigated, scrubbed, and
smoked … and given entry to the port of San Francisco.
At the dock … rats slip off the ship. They scurry onto the wharf
and climb the sewers to Chinatown …”
Thanks to her aunt and uncle’s wealth, Lizzie is able to live a fairly privileged life. However, her strict and proper Aunt Hortense insists that she attend finishing school. Lizzie is not interested in becoming a society lady. She prefers science to etiquette, and, much to Aunt Hortense’s chagrin, enjoys assisting her doctor father with his house calls.
Stories begin to surface about the large numbers of dead rats found in Chinatown, and soon that community is quarantined. Despite her father’s and her uncle’s insistence that there is no plague and the quarantine is unjustified, Lizzie has her doubts. One day she discovers that Jing, the family’s cook, has smuggled his son Noah out of Chinatown and has secretly hidden him in the servants’ quarters. However Jing is now missing. Did he get caught up in the quarantine … or something worse? Stunned by the discovery that Jing has a secret life, Lizzie promises the frightened boy, Noah, that she’ll help keep his secret and try to find out what has happened to his father.
As dead rats and plague rumors mount, Lizzie boldly attempts to determine the veracity of the plague rumors and secretly undertakes some dangerous trips to Chinatown to find Jing. Her friendship with Noah and her trips to Chinatown, help her realize the gender, racial, and class inequalities which exist in her society. When Lizzie realizes she can’t find Jing on her own and illness strikes close to home, help comes from some surprising quarters.
Like her earlier Newbery award-winning work, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Choldenko’s middle grade novel, Chasing Secrets, is a wonderful coming-of-age-story that blends historical fiction, mystery, and humor, while providing a fascinating glimpse into San Francisco’s colorful past. Complex topics (some sadly similar to today’s concerns) of inequality, medical science, and immunology are made accessible to young readers through Lizzie’s experiences.
The author, a long time resident of the San Francisco Bay area, concludes with a note about the historical background, a chronology of the plague, and notes which provide information for further reading. Visit Choldenko’s website for more information about her work and find a fascinating Writing Timeline and Educator’s Guide for Chasing Secrets too.
Highly recommended for ages 8-12.
- Reviewed by Dornel Cerro