At The Sign Of The Sugared Plum by Mary Hooper is the first of two books about a girl called Hannah and her experiences of the great plague of 1665 and the great fire of London of 1666.
Hannah is a bright young woman whose reasonably well off family live in Chertsey outside London. Her sister, who runs a sweet meats shop in London, writes to ask if Hannah can be spared from helping at home to go and work with her in her shop, which is beginning to do well. Hannah is eager to escape from the rural dreariness of home into the life of the big city, and the start of the book sees her making her first entry into London.
The story is told from Hannah’s point of view, and we experience all the sights and smells of London under Charles II from the point of view of a naive young girl. This viewpoint works very well in the book, as it allows the author to show the reader what life was like without being patronising. We learn about life in the city as Hannah learns it.
Unfortunately for Hannah, as she arrives, so does the plague.
At first there are only rumours that it is abroad, but as time passes, the plague becomes more and more real, and more and more frightening until Hannah and her sister find themselves right in the thick of things, and it begins to affect them personally, from the lack of business, to the loss of friends, and the ever worrying presence of the threat of infection.
The book is very well written, and clearly (from the glossary and notes at the back of the book) well researched. The characters are beautifully drawn and the tension gathers nicely as the plague takes hold in the city. There is a terrific twist as to how Hannah and her sister manage to escape infection, and although the story ends in a neat, self contained way, there was a hint as to the possibility of a sequel, so I was delighted to find that Hannah’s story does continue in the book: ‘Petals in the Ashes’.
The book is marketed for a teen/YA audience, but I would happily recommend it to children of eight and upwards, as the love story in the book is entirely innocuous, and the descriptions of the plague are no worse than a child would read in horrible histories. Difficult words are explained in a glossary at the back, along with a few brief pages describing the history of the plague in London at the time.
The book would probably appeal to girls slightly more than boys given that Hannah finds a boyfriend, and works in a sweetshop, and her other key friendships in the book are with women and girls. On the other hand, the plague element makes this more appealing to boys, and I would think that were it not for the clearly romantically appealing cover of the book, it might be suitable for both boys and girls.
It is short enough to make an excellent guided reading text in the classroom were you to be doing this topic with children.