London, 1854. A medical breakthrough.In a fascinating manner, Deborah Hopkinson delivers a novel that draws the reader into the fictional story of a boy called Eel, while surrounding the narrative with the true, groundbreaking discoveries of Dr. John Snow. Dr. Snow’s work is not widely known, though he is a pioneer in the field of epidemiology.
The novel opens as Eel, a street urchin, is trying to survive while avoiding capture by his villainous stepfather. While we learn Eel’s story, Hopkinson adds foreshadowing that coincides with the scientific side of the novel. The cholera outbreak in the Broad Street area of London becomes the primary story line as Hopkinson introduces the devastation caused by “The Blue Death.” Her pungent description of the disease, sanitation issues, and the faces of those affected adds a strong dose of reality to the story. Dr. Snow’s and Eel’s roles in the drama work well together and hold the reader’s interest.
As the story continues, Dr. Snow hopes to prove that cholera is caused by tainted water from London’s Broad Street pump rather than by miasma, or bad air, as was the common belief of the day. His goal is to trace cholera’s source via mapping the disease’s spread and to find an unexpected case that would link the cause to bad water. To quote Dr. Snow, “Today we are using science—not superstition—to stop the spread of disease. You and I may not live to see the day, and my name may be forgotten when it comes, but the time will arrive when great outbreaks of cholera will be things of the past” (206).
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