Tuesday, November 12, 2013

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

Deborah Hopkinson knows how to pass on interesting historical facts. While I've read her nonfiction books, this is the first fiction book of hers that I've read and I'm not surprised that I found the story lacking a bit in character development, but full of great facts. Hopkinson presents an interesting study of how an epidemic spreads throughout a community as a medical professional, with the assistant of an orphan, studies patterns and causes in an effort to determine the origin of a disease.

Eel is an orphan in 1854 London who has gotten a job at the Lion Brewey, a lucky break that pulls him away from full-time mudlarking, a type of scavenging for junk from the Thames river to sell to traders. Eel has a secret and must make more money than the average mudlarker. When his stable job is threatened and the townspeople around the Broad Street Water pump get sick with cholera, Eel finds himself helping Dr. John Snow a man who believes previous theories of the disease being air-borne as incorrect. Eel isn't sure he can help Dr. Snow prove his theory but he is willing to help him.

Eel begins the story with a heavy accent while talking to Jake. This gets lost later in the story and he sounds more educated as the story goes on, especially at the end with Dr. Snow who is trying to teach him to think like a scientist in regards to the patterns of cholera in the neighborhood. I thought that perhaps knowing the source of cholera would take too much tension out of the story, but it is more about solving where the original source of the contamination occurred and the process for mapping it out.

The subplot with Eel and his mysterious money was predictable and didn't interest me as much as the main story. It adds to the story as a whole and is necessary but I thought it was too predictable and I wasn't vested in those characters as much as the process for figuring out the disease. I have always found epidemiology fascinating and the manner in which scientists determine what causes an outbreak and its source is a bit of a mystery. This story helps give a glimpse of evidence-based decisions in medicine that lead to improved public health. Normally I am drawn to a story by the characters rather than the nonfiction elements, but that was not the case here.

3 Smileys

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