Review: Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Release Date: August 4, 2015
Source of my copy: publisher
San Francisco, 1900. The Gilded Age. A fantastic time to be alive for lots of people . . . but not thirteen-year-old Lizzie Kennedy, stuck at Miss Barstow’s snobby school for girls. Lizzie’s secret passion is science, an unsuitable subject for finishing-school girls. Lizzie lives to go on house calls with her physician father. On those visits to his patients, she discovers a hidden dark side of the city—a side that’s full of secrets, rats, and rumors of the plague.

The newspapers, her powerful uncle, and her beloved papa all deny that the plague has reached San Francisco. So why is the heart of the city under quarantine? Why are angry mobs trying to burn Chinatown to the ground? Why is Noah, the Chinese cook’s son, suddenly making Lizzie question everything she has known to be true? Ignoring the rules of race and class, Lizzie and Noah must put the pieces together in a heart-stopping race to save the people they love.

Chasing Secrets was not quite what I was expecting, but I really enjoyed it anyway. 

I picked up Chasing Secrets because it was set in San Francisco--I took a trip to San Francisco during the summer and I thought it'd be cool to read a novel set in a city I've actually visited. But Chasing Secrets was set in 1900, so it was really interesting and I had a great time trying to place and picture the sites, trying to imagine what they might look like in 1900, in the novel to what I saw when I visited.

From the synopsis, I thought I was getting a story about two kids, Lizzie and Noah, sleuthing all over San Francisco to uncover the truth about the mysterious plague. Not really. Lizzie was a physician's daughter who would rather go with her dad to visit his patients than to go to the girl's school she attends. She had no friends and she wasn't interested in making friends because she thought she didn't have anything in common with the other girls who seemed preoccupied with clothes, going parties and boys. One day, she found out that Chinatown was quarantined and no one would really come out and say why: not her father, or her rich and powerful uncle who owns a newspaper, or her aunt and older brother. At the same time, the Chinese cook, Jing, who works for Lizzie's family goes missing. Lizzie was convinced that he was stuck in the quarantine, especially after she discovers his son Noah secretly hiding in Jing's room.

Then, it kind of turns a bit into A Diary of a Young Girl kind of situation, where she couldn't tell anyone that Noah was hiding in the attic because someone finds out he'll also be put into the quarantine. He couldn't leave the room and this meant she had to find a way to sneak him food and they had to work out a way to get messages to each other without getting caught. So, Noah was stuck in Jing's room while Lizzie went out to figure out the truth about the quarantine. Tensions were high and racial prejudice abound, and Lizzie will question everything she knows and believed in to get to the truth.

Chasing Secrets was no Spy Kids. Everything Lizzie did to try to learn the truth I believed a girl her age and resources really capable of doing, which I really appreciated. Sometimes in books (especially in middle grade and young adults), a young character would be put in situations and how they'd try to solve their problems, what they did and the resources they used, I wouldn't believe they could do. I would really need to suspend my disbelief. But not in this novel. Lizzie acted and thought things through like a 13-year-old would. 

Even though it didn't really have that big detective/mystery element I was expecting, Chasing Secrets
was still an exciting, engaging read. Lizzie got into scrapes as she tried to figure out what was going on mostly by herself. She was a smart, resourceful and determined young lady. She didn't let anyone stop her from getting the truth. She also grew up a lot in the novel, and this was more of a coming of age story more than anything else. I was also curious to see if there really was a plague. I wasn't familiar with the bit of history the story was based on so I thought at first that the quarantine was a cover up for some sort of political intrigued. That was, until I read the author's notes in the end when I was about halfway through finishing the novel (it spoiled me, so if you pick this book up don't read the author's notes util you're done reading the story).

I liked seeing how Lizzie's relationship with her aunt developed throughout the novel. Her aunt seemed like the typical society mama at first, but the more we learn about her we realize there's more to her than meets the eye. I wanted to know more about her and wish there's an adult version in her perspective. Besides the San Francisco setting, Lizzie's relationship with her aunt was my favorite part.

I didn't really feel a strong connection with any of the characters, but I still very much enjoyed the story. Ms. Choldenko's writing was very readable and engaging and I flew through the pages. I'd definitely recommend Chasing Secrets to students fourth grade and above--if I was teaching this particular point in American history, this would be a good novel to have on hand and use it to show students a different historical perspective. It was a fantastic and fun read with a spunky main character, set in an interesting period in history. The best thing about it was that I learned something new in reading this novel. Win!

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