Firestorm!, the middle grade historical fiction novel by Joan Hiatt Harlow, felt like a needed respite. That's not to say that difficult events are not presented. Certainly children fleeing from the Chicago fire of 1871, "one of the greatest disasters in American History" arouses suspense.
I found it interesting that the story reads as a study of how economics affects individuals. Lives of the poor and rich are in sharp contrast in this novel, and are pertinent today. Poppy, our twelve year old protagonist is dirty, starving orphan, with a bad cough. She's from Conley's Patch, a poor neighborhood, and is forced to live by stealing for an evil woman named Ma Brennan. Justin, the male protagonist,who is about her age, is wealthy because his family owns a jewelry store. Chapters alternate POV, close third person, between the two. That one child is rich and the other poor is not of their own doing, just the luck of the draw, as is still true today.
How does poverty affect Poppy? She is malnourished, for one thing. Like the poor kids of today, she likely didn't eat many fresh fruits and vegetables that are touted today as necessary for good health, or much protein. She is small and skinny, but perhaps she was fortunate there were no soft drinks in 1871 like there are today, cheap and ubiquitous and a major cause of obesity.
Wealthy Justin, regularly eats food like roast chicken, mashed potatoes and winter squash. When Poppy finds herself at Justin's dinner table, she tells the pastor, "I ain't never had such a good meal, mister." Then, "she wiped her mouth with her wrist, hating to dirty the neat linen napkin by her plate."
Besides good nutrition, it seems Justin's wealthy family has easier access to a doctor than Poppy would. In fact, when Justin's brother, Charlie, burns his hands as they flee the Chicago fire, they just happen to run into Dr. Anderson, a friend of the family. "The doctor waved hello as he approached the family. 'So glad to see you make it!'"/ He glanced at Charlie's hands. 'I do have my medical bag here if you need anything.'"
How convenient, to be in the same socioeconomic class and personal friends with the doctor! In this story, only through her connection with a wealthy family, will Poppy meet the doctor, and maybe get medical attention for her hurt leg, and even her chronic cough. Is this fair? What about the other poor kids? Middle grade novels can stir such debates by contrasting the rich and poor.
Besides hunger and having poor health care access, Poppy can't read, another thing still associated with poverty today.
At the end, Poppy is rescued. She will be adopted by Justin's big sister, and no doubt learn to read, eat better, live in a healthier environment, cough less, and probably live longer.
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