In veteran children’s author Sylvia McNicoll’s new book, grief and anger are the overriding emotions 12-year-old Will Alton feels over the loss of his baby sister and mother to illness in the family’s native Ireland, even as he and his father embark on a fresh start in 1912 Hamilton, Ontario. When Dr. Roberts, Hamilton’s health officer, visits Will’s new school to speak about the role of flies in the transmission of disease, and to announce an essay and fly-killing contest (“You can be a hero to your city, vanquish disease, and win great prizes too”), Will is eager to win.
As determined as Will is to kill “the miserable creatures that had caused my family so much grief” and win $50 to help his father find them a new home (away from the rooming house of the vile Madame Depieu), hostile classmate Fred Leckie is just as relentless. Worse still, Fred has the advantage of being wealthy enough to bribe others to do the work for him, and a father with a factory of workers whom he compels to help his cause. Fortunately Will is tireless, clever, and good-hearted, attributes that are always valuable when facing challenges.
McNicoll never allows her characters or storyline to become predictable. Will, his father, and the rest of the cast possess individual voices that ring true and avoid cliché. And, while the ending is satisfying, it isn’t neatly tied up with a bow. Rather, McNicoll illustrates how difficult life was for poor immigrants in the early part of the last century by framing their struggles against a tragic, peculiar episode in Canadian history.