Spitfire Julia Delaney is orphaned when her father dies in the gang-ridden Kerry Patch, an Irish neighborhood in 1911 St. Louis.
Eleven-year-old Julia is quickly hauled off with her older sister, Mary, to the House of Mercy Industrial School and Girls’ Home, while their older brother, Bill, goes with Father Dunne’s boys. Julia immediately breaks records for escape attempts and waits for the sign Bill has promised, when they will run away together. She develops friendships despite herself, and she watches the gang war evolve through glimpses and rumors, coming to a clearer understanding of how and why her father died and who are the true heroes in her community. Julia’s stubborn voice and limited perspective are evoked in Nelson’s conversation-rich, first-person prose. A happy ending feels tacked on, though it is the only explanation for the otherwise incongruous prologue and cover image, but it’s forgivable as the logical resting place for a story that is really about a character, her time and her place.
Fans of historical fiction will find treasure here in a complex perspective that delivers both a satisfying arc and a desire to know more. (Historical fiction. 9-12)