On October 8, 1871 the deadliest fire in U.S. history killed an estimated 1500 people, possibly as many as 2500. No one knows exactly how the fire started, but it was fanned by strong winds into massive proportions and consumed an area approximately twice the size of Rhode Island, including the town at the center of the fire.
No, this deadly tragedy was not the Great Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871 that everyone knows about, but rather the Peshtigo Forest Fire, on the same date in and around Peshtigo, Wisconsin, the one that killed many more people and destroyed far more acres of forest than the more famous fire in Chicago. The two children who are the protagonists in Cinnamon Moon are survivors of the Peshtigo Fire. (“The fire jumped across the Peshtigo River and burned on both sides of the inlet town. Survivors reported that the firestorm generated a fire whirl (described as a tornado) that threw rail cars and houses into the air.Many escaped the flames by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells, or other nearby bodies of water.” ~Wikipedia)
Oddly enough, twelve-year-old Ailis and her younger brother, Quinn, having lost their entire family in the fire, end up in Chicago, a city which is still recovering from its own fire. In the midst of all the destruction and confusion, the family friend who rescued Ailis and Quinn leaves them in a boarding house with the less-than-nurturing Miss Franny, who makes them work for her rather than go to school. In the boarding house Ailis and Quinn become friends with an orphan girl, Nettie, who has been placed temporarily in the care of Miss Franny, and when Nettie goes missing in a city full of human trafficking and exploitation of child labor, Ailis and Quinn must find her and rescue her.
This novel is historical fiction at its best, good for middle graders who are ready for an introduction to the seamier side of life for children and especially orphans in the nineteenth century. Nettie is enslaved and put to work killing rats in the sewers. She lives in a sort of Dickensian Chicago warehouse for captured orphans. Ailis and Quinn find that it’s hard to rescue someone who doesn’t understand the terms and limitations of her enslavement, but as it should be in a children’s book, all ends well for all three of the children. The story is just dark enough to show older middle grade children that this world is not always a safe place without depriving them of hope and faith in at least some of the adult around them.