Sally Nichols is a relatively new voice in what is now termed as YA (young adult) fiction. This is her third novel, and I enjoyed it so much I have just ordered the previous two.
This is a perfect book for young teens, say twelve to sixteen. The subject matter is dark and gritty. It does not compromise one jot. It tells the story of Isabel, a fourteen year old girl who lives through the black death in England in 1349. It is Isabel’s first hand account of how the plague comes to her village, and finally her family, and what it means to her.
It is fairly unrelentingly bleak, as you might imagine, but it is gruesome (which children like), compelling (which I like), beautifully written, and rather sad (which I have found most children seem to like, weirdly). It is a real page turner of a book.
I think it might work well for 10 to 11 year olds as a book to be read in class with the teacher as part of a history project. Nicholls has researched her topic thoroughly, and although Isabel is a fictional character, what she goes through is based on historical research and rings true for the period in which the book is set.
Nicholls has appended a short essay at the end of the book in which she discusses her reason for choosing the subject matter. She wanted to write an apocalyptic book, but rather than writing one about the future or the holocaust, she chose the black death of 1349 because of the way it changed the face of England forever. In one year a quarter of the population of Europe was wiped out forever, and the whole social and economic structure of society had to change because of it. It meant the gradual decline of the feudal system and the ownership of serfs and villeins by aristocratic families. It also meant that women were able to become more skilled and enter professions, as there often simply weren’t any men left to do the jobs.
All of these things are addressed in the novel, and are worthy discussion points and ideas for work in class.
Although the book is told from Isabel’s viewpoint, the material is gruesome enough to appeal to boys as well as girls, and Isabel is no weedy, pathetic girl. Her upbringing and what happen to her conspire to make her tough and determined and make her way in the world.