Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Gennifer Choldenko is terrific at using historical details to create a strong setting that is easy to visualize. She nails it in her latest book set in San Francisco during a plague outbreak at the turn of the century. Thirteen-year-old Lizzie wants to be a doctor but girls are not in that profession in the 1900s. Still, she follows her father, who is a doctor, on rounds and knows more than the average teen about diseases. Her obsession with science and medicine make her spout big words with peers at boarding school, and one reason she is rejected by them. She adores her big brother, Billy, but lately he is such a grouch she can't even connect with him. It isn't until she meets Noah, a Chinese American, hiding from a quarantine that she discovers a true friend.

While I thought the start showed the characters as somewhat stereotyped, as the story progresses they become more complex and interesting. A strong female character charges through a plot with nice twists, unusual pranks, and predictable spots that make this entertaining. Our grade 5 curriculum has a unit on immigration that this would support as well. A good library acquisition.

Themes involve prejudices and lack of choices. Lizzie is a girl who wants a career that is not available to her. Noah, a Chinese boy, wants the same opportunities as whites such as going to college. Billy, Lizzie's brother, doesn't want to be a doctor, the career his dad has set before him. He wants to be an athlete. The characters try to find their identity in a world that they can't conform to and the result is disastrous and freeing. In a subplot Lizzie learns to make friends at her school where she has been isolated and rejected by adults and students. When a popular girl decides she likes her, Lizzie learns the complexities of friendships.

This part of the novel bothered me a bit as Lizzie seems a bit too out there with her relationships for someone that smart. I've been reading quite a few books this year where the girls that love science are isolated, nerdy misfits and it is beginning to feel cliched. This type of character has shown up in the books: The Thing About Jellyfish, Circus Mirandus, and The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate. The book also seems to try to do too much. Lizzie gets attacked by male adults that want to do her physical harm and the next minute she's stopping a mob. The trauma of that is glossed over and I get she's being portrayed as a hero, but it gets pretty unbelievable at that point. What is believable is Lizzie's in-your-face girl disregard for authority because she is lacking in social cues and inhibitions.

Lizzie makes up some humorous limericks and when she gets back at the snobby older boy with the help of Gemma and her brother, it makes for good fodder. Lizzie also evolves into a more interesting character when she meets Noah. She sounds less like an encyclopedia. Aunt Hortense slowly becomes less villainous and more complex in character and Lizzie's naivety at the beginning has changed completely by the end when she's dealing with the quack doctor. 

Writing historical fiction would require a ton of research. Even when I'm writing book reviews I'm researching facts. It is part of the fun of reading historical fiction. I appreciate Gennifer Choldenko's notes at the end. Make sure you read them. One question I had that was not in the notes concerned the word, "Doh je," that is used in the novel (instead of Mandarin word for thank you, "xiexie"), when Lizzie meets the boy, Noah, from Chinatown. "Doh je" is Cantonese for "thank you." The Chinese word appears many times in the narrative. I would not have guessed that Chinatown's predominate language was Cantonese, but many of the immigrants came from a province in mainland China that spoke it. Enjoy reading, "pung yau."

4 Smileys

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