National Book Award winner Blundell (What I Saw and How I Lied, 2008) explores the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires in this well-crafted, literary page turner.
Resourceful, frank and observant, with a wry sense of humor, 14-year-old Minnie must take work as a lady's maid for the unscrupulous and ostentatious Sumps, who are moving to San Francisco, when her beloved and restless father gambles away the family's Philadelphia tavern. "I'd rather wash the greasiest pots in the tavern. I'd rather clean the fish," she confides in her diary. Mrs. Chester Sump, her remote, 16-year-old daughter Lily and Minnie arrive in San Francisco on April 17, 1906, just in time for the biggest society event of the season—Enrico Caruso’s appearance in Carmen. At 5:12 the next morning, a massive earthquake tears through the city. The author deftly incorporates true events, circumstances and key historical figures into the rapidly unfolding fictional plot, in which Minnie is thrown into a moral dilemma after she is mistaken for someone else. Blundell achieves an impressive balance, portraying the catastrophic destruction and fight to save the city while imbuing the story with elements of mystery, melodrama and a Mark Twain–like sensibility. As Minnie uncovers truly corrupt and greedy goings-on, perpetrated by characters such as "Slippery Andy," and also witnesses heroic firemen in action, her sense of what it means to live with integrity crystallizes.
Exciting, suspenseful, absorbing and informative. (epilogue, historical note, archival photographs, author's note) (Historical fiction. 8-13)