The Peshtigo Fire is the deadliest in recorded history, completely destroying the Wisconsin town and claiming as many as 2,500 lives, but it is largely forgotten because it happened on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire: Oct. 8, 1871.
Irish-immigrant siblings Ailis and Quinn Doyle survive the Peshtigo firestorm by jumping in the Menominee River. Orphaned and homeless, they go to live in a boardinghouse in Chicago, still reeling from its own catastrophic inferno. The investigation into the fire’s origin centers on Catherine O’Leary, suspected of arson, inflaming anti-Irish sentiment among many in the city, including Miss Franny, who runs the boardinghouse and resents having to shelter the two refugees. Ailis and Quinn anglicize their names to Alice and Steven Smith when applying for work and befriend the naïve 9-year-old orphan Nettie, who was displaced by the Chicago fire. When she mysteriously disappears, their investigation puts them in touch with the wealthy boardinghouse owner and a reporter investigating child labor. Ailis narrates, her outsider position convincingly realized as she navigates this city of immigrants. The mystery surrounding Nettie’s disappearance makes for compelling reading, as does the story’s historical backdrop. Hilmo’s author’s note explains her inspiration for the story and puts it in historical context.
A good mix of history and mystery enlivened with interesting, likable characters. (Historical fiction. 10-12)