Friday, October 30, 2015

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Chasing Secrets is a historical fiction novel about an outbreak of the bubonic plague which began in the city of San Francisco in March, 1900 and continued for a number of years. This novel is set in the year 1900, at the very beginning of the outbreak.

Thirteen-year-old Elizabeth (Lizzie) Kennedy lives in San Francisco with her sixteen-year-old brother, William (Billy) and her father who is a doctor. Lizzie's mother died five years ago from stomach cancer. She attends Miss Barstow's School for Young Women which is a finishing school for young girls. The girls learn how to run a household and how to attract and marry a wealthy man. Unfortunately, they do not study science and math classes stop after the third grade. Lizzie was enrolled in the school on the advice of her Aunt Hortense when she turned eleven. But she hates the dancing, etiquette and entertaining classes and much prefers to accompany her father on his house visits.

Lizzie is driven to and from Miss Barstow's by their Chinese cook, Jing, who also cares for their garden, horses and chickens and their cat. Lizzie has a strong attachment to Jing, who makes a special cake on her birthday. Lizzie's home is next door to her Aunt Hortense and Uncle Karl Sweeting's house which is on Nob Hill. Her aunt and uncle are extremely wealthy as Uncle Karl has made a great deal of money in the sugar business. Unlike her sister, Lizzie's mother married a doctor who often doesn't charge for his visits if people cannot pay.

The novel opens with Lizzie taking the next three days off from school as she accompanies her father on his house calls, something Aunt Hortense doesn't approve of. Their first call is to attend Mrs Jessen who is in labour but discover that her daughter, Caroline is also in need of medical care as she has broken her arm. Lizzie's father assigns her to set Caroline's arm, while he delivers the baby. However, Lizzie find this is easier said than done because Caroline won't let her near. Lizzie realizes that Caroline is frightened for her mother so she works on allaying her fears. Lizzie eventually sets the arm and helps her father deliver the Jessen baby, a healthy boy. When Mr. Jessen, who is a policeman in San Francisco, returns in the morning, he mentions about the enormous number of dead rats found in the walls of a restaurant in the city. Later when Jing picks up Lizzie and her father from the ferry, he tells them that Chinatown is under quarantine for the plague. Dr. Kennedy tells his daughter that there was an outbreak in Hawaii but no confirmed cases in San Francisco. As a result of the quarantine, Aunt Hortense asks Lizzie's father not to take her on any more calls. He agrees to this much to Lizzie's dismay.

Stuck at home with their maid Maggy Doyle, Lizzie decides to investigate the third floor after hearing strange sounds. On the third floor she discovers a Chinese boy who identifies himself as Jing's son, Noah, living in Jing's room. Noah tells Lizzie that he lives in the house unknown to everyone. Noah is worried because his father has not returned and he believes he has been caught in the quarantine when he went to Chinatown to work as a translator. Lizzie promises not to tell anyone about Noah's presence and to help him find his father. When she brings Noah dinner, Lizzie tells him she will ask her Uncle Karl about getting Jing out of the Chinatown quarantine.

That evening when Lizzie visits her uncle's home, she learns that many doctors do not believe the plague has come to San Francisco. Uncle Karl who owns the evening newspaper, the Call, has refused to publish anything about the plague, unlike his rival, Randolph Hearst. Karl believes that Hearst is publishing the reports of the plague so he can sell more newspapers. Uncle Karl tells Lizzie not to worry about Jing but that he will make some calls in the morning.

The next morning Lizzie tells Noah that her Uncle Karl will try to find out about Jing. Lizzie learns that Noah's mother still lives in China giving them something in common - they both miss their mothers. Noah tells her that he was living with his Uncle Han but came to live with Jing before the quarantine set in because his father was afraid he would starve.

Next Lizzie attempts to enlist Billy to take her to Chinatown. Lizzie notes Billy's black eye but he simply tells her he ran into a door. When Billy refuses to help her, Lizzie harnesses their horse, John Henry, and tries to leave without Aunt Hortense noticing. Of course she does, but Billy rescues Lizzy and together the two of them travel to Chinatown. During their drive Lizzie learns that Billy has been fighting but she promises to keep his secret since their father would never approve. At Chinatown, they find the area roped off and guarded by the police. Even Lizzie dropping Karl Sweeting's name doesn't help. As they drive around the area, Lizzie overhears two police mention about "waiting on the monkey". Desperate to find Jing, she asks for Officer Jessen but he too is unable to help.

When they arrive home, Billy and Lizzie discover that Aunt Hortense is moving into the spare room because their father will not be returning until the following week due to a smallpox outbreak. With Aunt Hortense's eagle eye on everything, Lizzie wonders how she will feed Noah and how she will ever manage to locate Jing and bring him home. Her attempts to find Jing lead Lizzie to uncover the truth about the plague in Chinatown and San Francisco and to reveal many secrets both in her family and the city.


Chinatown circa 1900
Chasing Secrets is a well-written historical novel about life in early 1900's San Francisco. Choldenko fills her story with interesting details about what life was like for a young girl from a reasonably well off white family. Well-to-do young girls like Lizzie lived in large, clean homes with servants and good food, had access to what medical treatment existed at that time, and attended dances such as the cotillion (a kind of debutante social event). Although young girls received some schooling, their teen years are spent preparing to run a household. Noah life would have been very different from Lizzie's, partly because he was a boy but also because he was Chinese. He may very well have had just as much difficulty attending college as she would. At the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese were restricted in where they could live in cities including San Francisco, and the general population did not like the Chinese.

In Lizzie Kennedy, Choldenko has crafted a courageous, determined heroine, intent upon forging her own destiny. She is determined to find her family's beloved missing Chinese servant. Without betraying Noah's secret, Lizzie continues to search for his father, Jing, even if it means breaking social conventions of the time. She harnesses the family's horse and buggy, preparing to drive herself to Chinatown until Billy intervenes to help her. When that fails Lizzie even attempts to pass herself off as a nurse to gain access to Chinatown. At the cotillion, Lizzie sneaks into the bar in an effort to learn more about what it happening in Chinatown. Later on she even dresses as a boy and attempts to ride her horse into Chinatown at night to warn Jing and Noah that people are intent upon setting the area on fire.

One of the themes in Chasing Secrets is that of friendship. Through Noah, Lizzie learns the meaning of friendship. At Miss Barstow's, Lizzie has not made many friends. "Now I'm thirteen, and my friends are the cook, the maid, our horse, and my father." When she meets Noah, she confesses to him that she doesn't have any friends because she's different and she seems to say the wrong thing. Noah advises Lizzie to pick out one girl she likes best and to start with her. When Lizzie declares that they are friends now, Noah points out to her that outside her home, they cannot be friends but Lizzie tells him "We decide if we're going to be friends. Not them." Noah helps Lizzie learn to dance and he crafts her a "button-head lion", "so you'll remember to be brave...With everyone. Be your best true self. That's what Baba says." After the quarantine is lifted, Lizzie worries about whether she will ever see Noah again. She considers him her best friend. Eventually Lizzie does make friends at Miss Barstow's by following what Noah told her. She becomes friends with Gemma Trotter and her twin brother, Gus, who it turns out has a crush on Lizzie.

Another prominent theme is the Kennedy children's struggle to forge their own path in life. Lizzie's father wanted his son Billy to become a doctor. Even though Billy shows an aptitude for medicine as evidenced by his ability to stitch his shoulder himself, he wants to be a fighter. It is something he likes to do but his father is horrified. Billy tells his father, "I don't want people to take advantage of me. I need to be able to back up what I say. Otherwise it's just talk." Billy believes his father does not have much respect in the community because he doesn't stand up for himself when people don't pay him for his services. When Dr. Kennedy tells him he doesn't want his son fighting for a living, Billy states, "I'm not going to live my life as 'your son.' I'm going to live it my way. Make my own decisions. Think for myself." One of those decisions is to not get vaccinated against the plague.It is a decision that has profound repercussions for the Kennedy family.

In the same way, Lizzie finds herself at odds with the life her Aunt Hortense wants her to have. She had enrolled Lizzie in the finishing school with the idea that she will eventually marry and manage a household. Aunt Hortense She doesn't like Lizzie accompanying her father on his medical trips. But with the death of Billy things change. Eventually even Aunt Hortense comes to realize that young people want to live as they choose. When Lizzie tells her that she wants to go to college, she is shocked when her aunt agrees. " 'I wanted a different life for you. Your father wanted a different life for Billy. But that didn't work did it? You'll have to' --she can hardly get the words out over the welling in her throat--'live your life your way.' "

The theme of "chasing secrets" is woven throughout the novel. Almost every character is keeping secrets or as Billy states, "Everybody has secrets...even Orange Tom."   Lizzie is keeping Noah's presence in her house a secret as well as her friendship with him which would not be considered appropriate for a girl her age or social status. Billy is keeping his fighting a secret because he knows his father disapproves. Uncle Karl and his friend Peter are keeping secret the efforts of Dr. Kinyoun (who has injected the plague pathogen into a monkey, a rat and two guinea pigs) to prove the presence of bubonic plague in the city. Dr. Roumalade is keeping secret his triaging of patients based on their social status and his unethical use of a vaccine known to kill those already exposed to the bubonic plague. Jing's secret revolves around the existence of Noah and his work in Chinatown, while the Chinese in Chinatown and the city officials are keeping secret the deaths from the plague by hiding the bodies in barrels and sneaking them out of Chinatown.

Fans of historical fiction will enjoy Chasing Secrets. Choldenko captures the atmosphere of San Francisco at the turn of the last century with strong, well developed characters and an exciting mystery.

Choldenko provides her readers with a wonderfully informative Author's Note at the back that provides information on the city of San Francisco, Chinatown, medicine in 1900, the plague and the plague epidemic of 1900 in San Francisco. There is also a map at the front of the novel so readers can understand the setting of the novel.
Dr. Joseph Kinyoun

These websites may provide valuable information on the bubonic plague in San Francisco:

A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: Bubonic Plague Hit San Francisco  

Bubonic Plague in Chinatown from the Library of Congress.

A Forgotten Hero of Public Health Now Remembered  (about Dr. Kinyoun)

Book Details:

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko
New York: Wendy Lamb Books     2015
278 pp.

No comments: