Shades of Oliver Twist and Fagin come to mind when reading this exciting story of a boy, orphaned by the Plague in the London of 1666. There are no social services to come to the rescue so he’s cast out onto the streets with his brother, who soon dies of the illness. Sam is ‘rescued’ by Wilf who introduces him to a life of crime on the streets under the protection of Uncle Jack, the Fagin figure. However, this is no copycat story but a well-written book with good historical detail.
Sam gratefully accepts Wilf’s hand of friendship, which is soon withdrawn after Sam manages to steal more than Wilf does. Instead, Sam is befriended by Catherine, another young ‘thief’. They work together and so one night they are both cast out at the daily evening reckoning – when whichever of Uncle Jack’s thieves has stolen the least during the day is forced to spend the night sleeping rough without food. Sam sees the beginning of the Fire of London starting in Pudding Lane.
This is a well-known story but Jonathan Eyers breathes new life into the spread of the fire and the ensuing panic. Against this background, Sam and Catherine try to escape from Uncle Jack’s clutches, but when they try to rescue Gideon, the son of a rich family who have left without him, they realise they cannot abandon the boy. The story ends with Sam and Catherine delivering Gideon to his family in Brentwood with a sequel obviously planned.
From the beginning, the reader is back in 1666. The author has drawn a vivid picture of the London of the time with its narrow lanes and overhanging houses, and many young people on the streets trying to eke out a living by stealing just to stay alive. The description of the beginning of the Great Fire is a really good piece of writing and would read aloud so well. Sam and Catherine live on the pages, while Uncle Jack is a terrifying character. The part where his wooden leg catches fire is definitely a satisfying end!
The publishers says this book is for children of eight plus but really this is for good readers of 9 and upwards. It would be perfect for reading aloud to children who may be studying the Great Fire in KS1. The cover is arresting –the silhouette the main characters against an appropriate red background – so will hopefully draw readers in and let them read a really good novel about one of the most famous events in English History.