Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Under the Ashes

Under the Ashes

Cindy Rankin
Historical Fiction
For ages 9 to 12
Albert Whitman & Company, 2016   ISBN: 978-0807536353

Littlebeth Morgan is almost twelve years old and the grownups in her life, especially her grandmother, think that she is too wild, too boyish, and not ladylike enough. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that she is not ladylike at all. She can outrun the boys, is not afraid to admit that she is intelligent, and even corrects the teacher, Miss Hobson, when she makes mistakes at school.

Not long ago Littlebeth took a group of her classmates to visit the place where the James brothers used to hang out, and she did this without asking permission or letting anyone know where the children were going. Needless to say, when the children got home their parents were furious and Littlebeth is now something of a persona non grata. None of the other children are allowed to consort with her any more, and Littlebeth’s parents and grandmother are furious with her.

Then Littlebeth saves her little brother from a rattlesnake. One would think that her family would be delighted by her courageous and selfless act, but instead they are furious. Her actions were risky and she did not behave the way a girl is supposed to behave. This outrage on top of the field trip debacle are just too much and it is decided that Littlebeth will go to San Francisco to stay with her Aunt Sally. The hope is that her aunt, and the teachers in a new school, will be able to turn her into a demure and ladylike young woman.

When Littlebeth gets to the big city she soon learns that her aunt is a rather chilly person. Aunt Sally’s neighbor, Mr. Steinberg, is quite the opposite. Not only is he kind and welcoming, but he is generous and takes Littlebeth and her aunt to watch the great opera singer, Enrico Caruso, perform. Littlebeth comes to understand that Mr. Steinberg and Aunt Sally are very fond of one another, but a relationship between them is out of the question because Mr. Steinberg is Jewish and Aunt Sally is a Christian. As she lies in bed that night Littlebeth cannot help thinking about “how unfair love could be.”

In the dawn hours Littlebeth is woken up when the room she is sleeping in starts shaking. When she tries to get to her aunt’s bedroom in the apartment she discovers that her aunt’s room has collapsed and her aunt is presumably buried in the rubble that has fallen into the street. By some miracle Mr. Steinberg is still in one piece and he and Lilibeth are able to escape from the collapsing building. They then set about trying to find Aunt Sally and by yet another miracle they do find her, though she was clearly badly wounded when she fell.

Fires start to break out in the city and everywhere they look the three survivors see chaos, danger, and uncertainty. They decide to head for the Ferry Building. Perhaps they can get a ferry there that will take them to safety. Then Mr. Steinberg is hit by an automobile, of all things. The driver, a doctor, decides to take Mr. Steinberg and Aunt Sally to his hospital and off he goes with his patients. Leaving Littlebeth behind.

Littlebeth has no idea which hospital to go to and now she is all alone in a devastated city. Determinedly she follows the path the doctor’s automobile took. Littlebeth’s family let her go when they sent her to the city, but she was not going to let Aunt Sally and Mr. Steinberg go. On Littlebeth walks, her throat dry, her legs aching, until she hears a familiar voice. Poor worn out Littlebeth falls into Enrico Caruso’s arms.

Though the famous opera singer is determined to get out of the city and on a train that will take him back to New York City, Caruso ends up agreeing to take Littlebeth to the hospitals to try to find Aunt Sally and Mr. Steinberg. What follows is an adventure unlike any other, and as it unfolds Littlebeth learns a great deal about love, friendship, and courage.

In this wonderful story readers will encounter a character who immediately earns our respect and affection. Littlebeth is such a likeable girl and we cannot help feeling more than a little upset on her behalf because she is being punished simply for being who she is. We witness the terrible things she experiences as she tries to find her aunt in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and hope that in the end she will get to safety.