By: Pamela Rushby
Published by: Harper Collins
Published: April 2014
ISBN: 9780732297138


'A brilliant and richly evocative insight into a fascinating and little-known aspect of our past.' Jackie French, Australian Children's Laureate

It's 1900. Thirteen-year-old Issy McKelvie leaves school and starts her first job - very reluctantly - as a maid in an undertaking establishment. She thinks this is about as low as you can go.

But there's worse to come. Issy becomes an unwilling rat-catcher when the plague - the Black Death - arrives in Australia. Issy loathes both rats and her father's four yappy, snappy, hyperactive rat-killing terriers.

But when her father becomes ill it's up to Issy to join the battle to rid the city of the plague-carrying rats.


The Bubonic plague in Brisbane in 1900? I didn't think so and neither did Pamela Rushby, but a chance look at a photo in a museum of piles of rats made Pamela look more closely.

Indeed, Brisbane and other Australian cities did suffer from the plague in the early 1900’s. Hundreds died, but the story is not well known. This is a wonderful tale of life in this period, told through the eyes of thirteen year old Issy.

Issy is facing the hardships of living near the wharves in a poor household - her Dad is a rat-catcher with sporadic employment. So Issy is sent off to work as a housemaid for an undertaker - something she is altogether not keen on.

Unfortunately for Issy, this is the way for thirteen year old girls during this time, even though she would much rather stay at school. Her sister Kate has to perform similar duties at a doctors’ house.

But then the plague arrives and Albert, their next door neighbour, becomes the first victim of the disease. This is the start of a period of quarantine and sickness, and an intriguing depiction of the impact that a plague of this size can have on an entire community.

We experience love, death, racism, women’s rights (or a lack of), but also hope - through Issy’s actions and dreams of a better future.

A fantastic account of a little known period in Australia’s history that Year 7-9 students who enjoy this genre will really appreciate.

This book was included in our April 2014 Secondary Standing Order selection.

Reviewed by Rob