The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel Book Poster Image
Lively novel of London cholera epidemic through kid's eyes.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids will find lots of historical detail about daily life in Victorian London and a real cholera outbreak there in the 1850s, including the symptoms, the impact on the community, the efforts of doctors and scientists to understand the disease, and early public health measures. The book explains techniques of investigation and scientific inquiry; the author's note includes brief biographies of historical figures, a time line of the epidemic, further reading suggestions, and more.

Positive Messages

Strong messages of perseverance, kindness, and using scientific research to improve and save lives.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Eel, a 12-year-old orphan, is loyal, protective of his friends and family, and willing to work hard to help others. He show great perseverance and intellectual curiosity. His loyal neighborhood friends strive to better their circumstances and help their families. Adults run the gamut from villainy to heroic; Dr. Snow, based on a real person, models kindness, generosity, and dedicated pursuit of scientific knowledge for the betterment of people's lives.

Violence

Two minor characters die in the epidemic, as do hundreds of others in the neighborhood. Eel is afraid of his abusive stepfather, but the violence is implied rather than explicit. Eel is knocked unconscious, abducted, bound and gagged, kicked, and beaten with a strap, although there's no detail about the attack and only brief mention of the pain. Mean kid Ned throws a kitten in the river; Eel comes to the rescue. Eel also helps transport dead bodies, which aren't described, and there are descriptions of cholera victims' symptoms and brief mentions of blood and the deaths of Eel's parents.

Sex

Eel kisses Florrie, his best friend, once on the forehead.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Main character Eel lives and works in a brewery. He and other kids drink ginger beer and cider, which may have been alcoholic at the time, but no alcoholic effects are mentioned. Adult friend Jake fell on hard times after developing a gin problem; abusive stepfather Bill mentions going to the pub a couple of times, and, although he's not seen drinking, he's described as drinking gin in the past and probably being drunk. Workers smoke in a park. A villainous adult smells of beer and tobacco, among other unpleasant odors. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Great Trouble offers great historical insight into a cholera epidemic in 1850s London, seen through the eyes of loyal, hardworking, 12-year-old orphan Eel. Death is a frequent topic, and there's some description of sick people. Villains kidnap and beat Eel, and a kitten is in danger before Eel comes to the rescue. One character kissses another on the forehead. Occasional mentions of alcohol are realistic for the times, as is Eel's job in a brewery, but there's no description of characters drinking; villainous characters who consume alcohol don't make it look attractive.

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What's the story?

THE GREAT TROUBLE chronicles 12-year-old Eel's life in 1850s London. Orphaned and on his own, he makes a meager living cleaning up in a brewery and trolling the dirty Thames river for any scrap he can sell. When he's unjustly accused of stealing at the brewery, he's unable to prove his innocence because an epidemic of the blue death -- cholera -- breaks out in his neighborhood. But, thanks to his part-time job tending animals for a prominent London doctor, he's in the right place at the right time to help discover the cause of the epidemic and keep it from spreading further -- if he can keep away from the mean stepfather who wants to drag him into a life of crime.

Is it any good?

In The Great Trouble, author Deborah Hopkinson returns to the successful formula of putting a fictional child hero in the middle of historic events, but it offers little emotional depth. Twelve-year-old Eel is the tried-and-true orphan trying to make the best of a bad situation, but he serves mostly as an apt vehicle for saving the day, with little for the reader to connect with. The many supporting characters, while colorful, lack detail and are defined with broad strokes.

The book delivers historical accuracy, scientific inquiry, and medical information in a lively, engaging, and easy-to-understand way. The overall story will intrigue and entertain many kids, and, even if it's not too memorable, its educational value makes The Great Trouble a worthwhile read.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why historical fiction is so popular. Do you think it's a good way to learn about life in the past?

  • Is cholera still a problem today? What other illnesses can cause epidemics? What can we do to prevent them?

  • What are the "five Ws" that an investigation must answer? What would you like to investigate?

Book details

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