So I rented this ebook from our library last night, and read the whole thing in one sitting. I didn’t exactly realize that it was aimed at young adult readers — I just saw that it referenced the cholera outbreak on Broad Street in 1854, which I had just read a great book about called The Ghost Map, which focused on Dr. John Snow and his investigation of the Broad Street water pump (the author of The Great Trouble actually mentions at the end of her book that she was inspired by The Ghost Map). Still, it entertained this 29 year old and provided an interesting perspective to a public health crisis and a doctor’s drive to prove his colleagues wrong.
The Great Trouble is a fictionalized version of the cholera outbreak, and Dr. Snow’s efforts to prove that cholera was being spread by the water of the Broad Street pump — not through the “bad air”, as the long-standing miasma theory claimed. Hopkinson tells the story from the perspective of a 13-year old orphan named Eel. He works as a mudlark — someone who searches the banks of the Thames for little bits of things to sell. He also works for Dr. John Snow, cleaning the cages of the animals that he experiments on, and is quite enamored of the doctor and his knowledge. When cholera, also known as the Blue Death, breaks out in his neighborhood, Eel helps Snow with his investigation by going door to door and speaking to those with sick and dead family members, trying to find out the 4 Ws: who’s sick, when they got sick, where they might have contracted it, and why.
There’s a subplot involving a secret that Eel is trying to keep from some bad guy who has been chasing him down. That all seemed pretty unnecessary to the plot. The real story here is how Snow performs his investigation, and how Eel helps (he knows the neighborhood inside and out, and families are more willing to speak to him than some fancy doctor). Following Eel around, we also get an excellent view of life in the 1850s in London (hint: it’s not pretty).