The year is 1666 and Hannah is determined to get back to her little sweetmeat shop in London as soon as the plague is gone. She returns with her younger sister Anne because older sister Sarah wants to stay with their mother – to help her and also to stay closer to a certain young man she’s met. Hannah, on the other hand, is impatient to return to London and find out if any of their friends and neighbours survived the terrible plague, and to seek out her own sweetheart Tom. But omens and predictions are rife – the year is 1666 and 666 is the number of the Beast. Many are afraid that the plague is just the beginning, something even worse is about to fall on London.
This book is a sequel to At the Sign of the Sugared Plum, in which Hannah and her sister encounter the plague. I hadn’t read the first book when I picked up Petals in the Ashes and it didn’t impair my enjoyment one bit. The back-story was easy to understand so Petals in the Ashes stands alone just fine. Although short (192 pages) and relatively simple, Petals in the Ashes is a beautiful and believable story following two shop girls as they recover from the plague. The rebuilding of London is genuine, the bravado mixed with fear of the people is completely believable, and their confusion as disaster strikes is relatable.
I hadn’t really considered how close together these two disasters occurred, or how much they must have affected the citizens of London. Statistically, it was believed that the great fire killed relatively few people (although nowadays, historians believe that the death toll was much higher). However many people died, it’s important to remember that many of these people had lost almost everyone they knew to the plague, they probably returned to London to find their shops and homes looted, they were already attempting to rebuild their lives when the great fire struck. Most of these people lost everything they had twice.
Petals in the Ashes is a beautiful book that brought this to my attention, but it also illustrates human spirit, the seeming indestructibility of London. The aftermath of the plague didn’t exactly bring people together – London was still a dangerous place with cutthroats, pickpockets and others like them. The people simply carried on as normal. They got the terrible plague, they dealt with it, they didn’t let it change who they were.
Hannah is a strong and likeable main character and her neighbour Mr Newbery is quite hilariously pessimistic. This book has been meticulously researched and it shows, not like a history lesson, but by producing a believable story. Extracts from Samuel Pepys’ dairy begin each chapter and fit the tone of the story perfectly. Petals in the Ashes is a short but entertaining read, manageable for some pre-teens, but not too childish that older readers won’t enjoy it too.
Petals in the Ashes has been published along with At the Sign of the Sugared Plum in a single book, The Fever and the Flame. Isn’t the cover beautiful! I might have to buy it so that I can have that gorgeous cover on my shelf! (and so that I can read the first book of course)