Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

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

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

Deborah Hopkinson
Historical Fiction
For ages 10 and up
Random House, 2013   ISBN: 978-0375848186

Ever since the death of his mother, Eel has had a hard time surviving. For a time he was a mudlark, a child who searched the mud flats of the river Thames for clothing, rope, pieces of coal or anything else that he could sell for a few pennies. Now he has a better life working for the owners of the Lion Brewery, for a tailor called Mr. Griggs, and for a local doctor called Dr. Snow. He gets to sleep in the brewery cellar where it is dry and safe, and has regular meals. Best of all, he earns enough that he can pay a local woman to take care of something for him, something that he holds dear.

   It is late summer and all is going well until the nephew of one of the brewery owners finds Eel’s stash of money. Eel is accused of stealing the money and when he goes to Mr. Grigg’s home to get him to vouch for him, he is told that Mr. Griggs is terribly sick. When Eel visits his friend he sees that poor Mr. Grigg’s face has a blue tinge and he knows then that his friend has “the blue death,” which is another name for cholera.

   Soon the cholera has struck down other people living on Broad Street and the disease is so dreadful that most of the sick die soon after they contract it. Mr. Griggs dies, and soon other members of his household are ill. The cholera spreads and Eel, in desperation, goes to see Dr. Snow to ask for his help.

   Dr. Snow has worked for many years on finding ways to send people into a deep sleep so that they can be operated on. He is in great demand because of his ability to safely work with chloroform so that patients don’t experience pain while undergoing a medical or dental procedure. What Eel doesn’t know is that Dr. Snow also has an interest in studying cholera transmission. Most people believe that one gets cholera from a “miasma,” filthy air that tends to be found in poor districts of the city where people live closely packed together. Eel soon learns that Dr. Snow thinks that the cholera is in the water, but he has not been able to prove his hypothesis.

   Eel is greatly disappointed when Dr. Snow explains that he cannot help Eel’s sick friends, but when he Dr. Snow asks for his help to prove his theory, Eel is eager to do what he can. Somehow Eel and the doctor have to find a way to definitively prove that the Broad Street water pump is the source of the cholera infection.

   In this beautifully written and exciting title of historical fiction, Deborah Hopkins weaves together the story of a young homeless boy with the story of real Cholera epidemic that killed hundreds of people in London in late August, 1854. Some of the characters in the tale were real people who worked hard to find out how cholera was transmitted.

   An author’s note at the back of the book provides readers with information about the cholera epidemic. Among other things, readers will find out which of the characters in the story were real, and which were made up by the author.