Review Blog

May 06 2014

The ratcatcher's daughter by Pamela Rushby

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Angus & Robertson, 2014. ISBN 9780732297138.
(Age: 11+) Recommended. Historical fiction, Plague, Australian history. A little known part of our early twentieth century is highlighted in this descriptive account of Brisbane in the first years of the new century, playing host to a disease only found in accounts of Medieval times. When thirteen year old Issy becomes a maid in an undertaker's house, she has never seen a dead body but the sight of a dead child and the ritual of burial becomes a fascinating backdrop to the life she is about to enter, as an inmate in a quarantine centre out of the city. Her father is a rat catcher, and from the start the reader is made aware of the increasing number of rats in the city, and when she helps her friend with her job as a maid at the local doctor's house, she overhears a conversation about a disease coming closer to Australia. It is only when the boy next door dies of appalling swellings that she hears the word,'plague' for the first time, and puts together the things she has heard.
This is an engrossing read. Rushby incorporates the inability of those in government to deal adequately with the disease and its consequences, the fear of many as they shun their friends, the over reaction of local authorities, the situation in the hastily erected quarantine camp outside the city and the divide between rich and poor, allowing those with money to be treated at home. In watching Issy learns that even her trusted employer is involved in protecting the rich from the ignominy of the disease.
Issy bravely carries on, and when her father becomes ill with the other appalling disease which caused he deaths of many, Influenza, she takes over his business, learning that there is more to life than being a maid in someone else's home. An entertainingly rich read about past times and a young woman's coming of age as she perceives there is life outside the narrow restrictions of the past.
Fran Knight

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