My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from the public library
The ground in Chicago was always damp, so the city officials had decided to raise the level of the streets. Old buildings and foundations, which couldn’t be lifted, were empty. It wasn’t long before a man named Roger Plant and his wife claimed ownership of the deserted foundations along Wells Street and rented out the vacant cellar rooms to all sorts of criminals and tramps.
When 12-year-old Poppy wakes up coughing in the early hours of September 30th, 1871, all she sees before her is a grim future in Chicago’s “underworld”. Abandoned by her mother years before, she was taken in by Ma Brennan and her “School for Girls” to learn the fine art of picking pockets. But later that day, a chance meeting with the son of a jeweler marks the beginning of some major changes for Poppy.
Justin Butterworth is sick of living in the shadow of his older brother, Charlie, and desperate to prove himself responsible enough to do more in the family jewelry shop than just sweep the floors. Poppy isn’t like any girl he’s ever known, but when she runs into him (literally), it’s the start of a friendship.
Over the next week, both Poppy and Justin deal with challenges, but all the day-to-day matters fade in importance when fire runs through the city.
In alternating chapters, Harlow describes events from Poppy’s and Justin’s point of view. Usually, these accounts overlap, so when the reader reaches the end of one chapter, the beginning of the next chapter jumps back a few hours. This drags out the narrative a bit, especially in the early chapters, when the very different lives of the two characters are revealed; impatient readers may wonder just when the big fire is actually going to start. The drama and suspense of the interwoven stories pulls the reader along, though. A comforting epilogue lets the reader know how things turn out, and an Afterword by the author notes which of the characters are entirely fictional and which are based on historical figures. Recommend to third- to sixth-grade historical fiction fans.