Author: Julie Chibbaro
Publisher: Atheneum, 2011
Pages: 293 p
When I was first contacted to review this book I was a little hesitant. I'm not a big fan of historical fiction. There are exceptions, but for the most part I'm a fantasy/science fiction gal. But the author is coming to a local book festival so I thought I'd give it a chance.
I'm so glad I did.
Prudence is a young Jewish girl living in New York City in the early 1900s. She attends a part time finishing school so that she can aspire to be a secretary or a book keeper, more "proper" careers for women than her mother's job as a midwife. She assists her mother with births and longs to do something more with her mind than take dictation and type notes. Her school allows students to take jobs in the afternoons and urges them to seek secretarial positions. Prudence applies for one at the Department of Health and Sanitation and her keen mind and interest in science and medicine make her an attractive addition to their team. She's hired not as a secretary, but as an assistant to a Sanitation Engineer investigating the causes of diseases and why they spread. Prudence winds up leaving her school and working full time for the office hunting the source of recent typhoid outbreaks--Typhoid Mary.
The novel is written in diary format and told from Prudence's point of view. Chibbaro lets the historical setting come through in Prudence's speech and actions without being preachy. While Prudence is aware of the women's lib movement, she has no idea that women can go to medical school and be doctors. She dreams of contributing to society in a big meaningful way--fighting death on the scientific level--and is amazed that her dream can be reality and not just fantasy.
The investigation of Typhoid Mary and how they connect the dots between her and various typhoid outbreaks is fascinating. The story reads like a suspenseful scientific mystery. Prudence plays a large role in discovering the connection between the healthy Irish cook Mary and the typhoid afflicted communities.
There are side plots as well--Prudence's missing father, forbidden office romance, changing friendships, and growing up--but the main story of the investigation is the most engrossing. There's nothing in here not appropriate for middle school students. This is a good choice for those historical fiction reports. An author's note explains which characters were based on real people and which were invented and how the author changed the timeframe to suit the fictional story (what took place over the course of years is condensed to just months). Fans of historical fiction will not be disappointed.
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