Title: Chasing Secrets
Author: Gennifer Choldenko
Publisher: Wendy Lambe Books (Penguin Random House)
Release Date: August 4, 2015
Newbery Honor–winning author Gennifer Choldenko deftly combines humor, tragedy, fascinating historical detail, and a medical mystery in this exuberant new novel.
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.
One of the best things about writing for kids is I get to read books I love to read and that fascinate my characters. I picked up a nonfiction book about rats partly for Jimmy Mattaman from the Al Capone books and partly because I’m partial to quirky facts. While reading Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, I discovered there was a plague outbreak in San Francisco in 1900. I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay area most of my adult life, and I’d never heard of a plague outbreak here, so I immediately became interested.
That night, I began my initial research. But the more I found out about the plague in San Francisco, the more terrified I became. Each source contradicted the previous one and I had no idea what to believe. Then, too, the medical aspects intimidated me. I’m not a doctor, and I’m certainly not a medical historian. How would I know what was true?
Soon my fears got the better of me and I put the project on hold.
A year or two later, I happened to be in the San Francisco History Center fact-checking Al Capone Does My Homework when I came upon The Barbary Plague by Marilyn Chase. Marilyn Chase is a reporter who covers health care and medicine for the Wall Street Journal. She had the research chops to cull the truth out of what seemed to me to be one unreliable source after another. With The Barbary Plague as my higher authority, I dug in.
The first order of business was to research the plague. One issue that made my research so difficult was the conspiracy that existed to keep facts of the outbreak out of the press. Even without that, though, newspaper articles in 1900 were notoriously unreliable. The most interesting parts of the newspapers were the ads, the editorials, and the columns. These helped me understand the zeitgeist of the times. And frankly, some of what I read broke my heart. The anti-Chinese sentiment, the cruelty, and the patronization made me absolutely insane. Of course I knew the Chinese were treated terribly in 1900, but it’s one thing to know it and another thing to read about it up close and personal. This was especially heartbreaking as my daughter is Chinese, so I take anti-Asian bigotry very personally.
From there I began to branch out into research about Chinatown, the Chinese, women, railroad barons, and Comstock millionaires. I researched medical practices in 1900. What was known? What wasn’t? Then I tried to sort out the differing medical opinions; doctors during that time had different beliefs based on where, when, or if (!) they’d attended medical school. Germ theory, for example, was a new idea, and many doctors did not believe in it.
I read a number of memoirs about the daughters of doctors who sometimes accompanied their fathers on house calls. I went on every historical tour I could find in San Francisco, Sacramento, and New York. Historical tours rarely give me a picture of the exact time, place, and social status I’m looking for, but they are a leaping-off place. I pepper the tour guides with questions and source materials and begin to develop a picture of what the homes of my characters might have looked like.
Another thing I love to do is walk the neighborhoods I’m writing about. Of course, San Francisco today looks nothing like San Francisco in the 1900s—and yet some things are the same. Weather, proximity to the bay, seafood, wildlife, birds, and natural geography are all largely the same. I spent a lot of time in Chinatown. Chinatown now is almost nothing like it was then, except for one thing: it still feels like its own city in the middle of San Francisco. By walking the city and studying old maps and photos, I was able to conjure up Chinatown in 1900.
Research is an ongoing detective game, a synergy between what I can find out and what I can imagine. I research before I begin writing, while I’m writing, and again while I’m revising. My husband says that when I’m in the middle of a book, I am possessed: I can’t get enough information. But I find the entire process thrilling. There’s nothing like discovering a juicy source that tells me exactly what I need to know.
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About Gennifer Choldenko
|Photo Credit: Patricia Leeds|
With more than 2 million books in print, School Library Journal has called Gennifer: “unsurpassed at interweaving plot with historical detail.” Gennifer’s Tales of Alcatraz trilogy is considered by Kirkus to be: “A cornerstone series in contemporary children’s literature.” Her novel Al Capone Does My Shirts received the Newbery Honor and nineteen other awards. It has been on the New York Times, Booksense and Publisher’s Weekly bestseller lists and has been translated into more than eleven languages. Her newest novel, Chasing Secrets, is due out in August. Gennifer is currently at work on two new novels. She lives with her loyal husband, irreverent daughter and naughty dog in the San Francisco Bay area.
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