Good historical fiction is hard to find, but it’s probably even harder to write. Newbery Honor winner Gennifer Choldenko’s ability to research obscure yet intriguing topics is uncanny, and as she did with the popular Al Capone trilogy, she turns a tough topic into a high-interest read with Chasing Secrets.
Thirteen-year-old Lizzie Kennedy is stuck in a snooty girls’ school in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, but she feels free and competent when she accompanies her physician father on house calls, affording her the opportunity to show her knowledge and independence. But soon everything she knows—or thinks she knows—is challenged: The bubonic plague has led to part of the city being quarantined; many are threatening to burn Chinatown to the ground; and her family’s beloved Chinese cook is missing. Even worse, no one believes her fears. Her father and her powerful uncle, a newspaperman, deny the outbreak, and her older brother, Billy, is too distracted to help. Lizzie befriends the cook’s son, Noah, and together they hatch surreptitious, daring plans to connect the dots of the medical mystery plaguing their city and their families.
Lizzie unabashedly takes on the problems of the world, reminiscent of Sophia in Avi’s Sophia’s War. Choldenko’s research is exhaustive, weaving little-known details into the narrative, as well as into the author’s note, chronology and endnotes. Themes of friendship, race relations and deception—with diseased rats thrown in for good measure and accuracy—mesh together to create a compelling work of historical fiction.