Book Review: At the Sign of the Sugared Plum

Rating: ★★★★☆

Hannah and Sarah are teenaged entrepreneurs, sisters running a shop in 1665 London wherein they make sugar-frosted rose petals and other sweetmeats for the nobility.  Hannah, who has recently joined her sister, is excited at the prospect of a big-city life and complacently dismisses rumors that the Bubonic Plague is reawakening in London.  By the time she realizes her optimism is unfounded, the city is quarantined and she watches in horror as neighbors succumb, one by one, to the mysterious sickness that no one knows how to prevent.  Gravediggers are overwhelmed, and death carts roam the streets awakening fear and grief as the dead are carried away.

This is a nice bit of historical fiction, capturing pretty vividly a significant period of European history.  The specific symptoms of the Plague, as well as the many ineffective attempts at prevention and containment, are described in some detail.  While there are some gruesome scenes, the details are presented sparingly enough that the 8-12 audience should not be overwhelmed by the horror of the situation.  The book is well researched, with a passage from Pepys’ diary opening each chapter, and an afterword giving historical explanation and additional resources.    There are also some recipes for confections made during that time.

One could wish the heroine were a bit more admirable — she is flighty, vain, and contemplates often her dying friend’s admonition not to die unkissed.  Her sweetheart is tentative and not forthcoming about his intentions in pursuing her, although he comes close to kissing her and risks his life to help her escape from the city.  Overall, the characters and relationships portrayed in this story aren’t very remarkable, but the historical description — the smell of the city, the neat pile of hand-ground sugar in the girls’ kitchen, the inside view of the theatre, the streetside view of nobility leaving town in carriages, curtains drawn, as quarantine falls — all these kinds of details combine to form a vivid depiction of the period in which this terrible Plague wreaked such destruction.

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Publication Information: Hooper, Mary. At the Sign of the Sugared Plum. . 2003. ISBN: 0747561249.
Categories: 4 Stars, Age 08-12
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Posted on May 24, 2009

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