Plague: A Cross on the Door

Written by Ann Turnbull
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

1665, London. It’s been a long, hot summer, and plague threatens. Nine-year-old Sam works for a shoemaker in one of London’s narrow, overcrowded streets. Mr Kemp is a good master, and Alice, the servant who keeps the household, is kind, and then there’s the dog, Budge, whom Sam loves. After work, Sam plays with his friends, and their special joy is fighting some local French boys. One of them is lame, and Sam taunts him. He knows it’s wrong but the boy’s superior air irritates him.

The plague gets closer. A notice goes out ordering the mass cull of all cats and dogs. Sam hides Budge. Worse is to follow. Mr Kemp is struck down by the plague and Alice flees, leaving Sam alone with the dying man. After his master’s death, Sam is locked up inside the house for forty days by the authorities and a cross and Lord Have Mercy Upon Us are painted on the door.

Sam and Budge are trapped. Can they escape? And, if they do, how will they manage with nowhere to go and no money?

This is a slim book, but it packs a lot into its eighty pages. It is not only about the history – and Ann Turnbull doesn’t pack her punches about the horrors of the plague – but also about how people behave under stress. Alice is upset, but she still leaves the nine-year-old Sam to cope alone. Sam, too, behaves badly towards the lame French boy, mocking him about his disability. But he meets with kindness, too. We hope that, in the sequel, Sam will learn that people may speak a different language but still have the same hopes and fears as he himself has.

The story zips along and I found it engrossing. For children age 7 plus.