The List of Unspeakable Fears by J. Kasper Kramer. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. 9781534480742
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or starred review) 4
Genre: Historical fiction and mystery
What did you like about the book? Essie and her Irish-born mother live in a small tenement apartment in New York City in 1905 and are barely scraping by. All that changes instantly, however, when Essie’s mother remarries a prominent doctor who lives and works on nearby North Brother Island. Essie is angry to leave the place where she spent time with her beloved Da, who died two years ago, but even more she’s nervous about moving to North Brother, where incurably sick people are quarantined. Essie has a list of “unspeakable fears” that includes everything from cats to electricity to illness to a silver sick bell, and spends most of her time agonizing over the things she fears. When they get to the desolate island, Essie finally meets Dr. Blackcreek, a reticent, serious man from Germany who she immediately doesn’t like. When Essie meets Mary Mallon (the infamous Typhoid Mary), her suspicions are amplified: Mary suggests that the nurses who have gone missing from the island are being experimented on by the doctor. Essie begins an investigation into her new stepfather, but even as she does so, she senses a spirit following her. Is Essie being haunted? And is her new stepfather a compassionate doctor or a monster?
This atmospheric, creepy novel is at first glance a mystery, but the historical context is rich from start to finish. Kramer weaves in medical understanding and misinformation, as well as fear of contagion and prejudice against specific immigrant groups like the Germans and Irish. I was also fascinated to learn about the tragedy of the General Slocum, a steamboat that caught fire and killed a thousand women and children. Overall, this is an excellent book for readers who enjoy thoughtful historical mysteries.
Anything you did not like about the book? It was slow in the middle for a bit, but overall I really liked this book!
To whom would you recommend this book? Readers looking for a historical mystery with a side of creepiness will enjoy this book.
Who should buy this book? Middle schools with large historical fiction collections
Where would you shelve it? Historical fiction
Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City: Laura Gardner, Dartmouth Middle School, Dartmouth, MA
Date of review: November 1, 2021