Published on October 06, 2022
The List of Unspeakable Fears- by J. Kasper Kramer
Reviewed by Elizabeth DeVincenzo
This spooky, historical fiction middle-grade novel takes place in 1910 in New York City. Ten-year-old Essie and her mother are moving from a crowded tenement in the Bronx to North Brother Island in the East River, where her new stepfather, Dr. Blackcreek runs a quarantine hospital for mostly poor immigrants who have incurable diseases. Essie has many fears and anxieties. Her mother tells her to write down all her anxieties and fears to help her cope and overcome them. She calls this list “The List of Unspeakable Fears”. Moving to her stepfather’s big mansion on the dreary North Brother Island contributes to her long list of anxieties. Essie also begins to notice strange occurrences on the island. Why do so many of the nurses who work at her stepfather’s hospital go missing? Does her stepfather have something to do with their disappearances? Why does her stepfather go for long walks alone at night? What mysterious experiments is her stepfather conducting in the lab at the hospital? Who is the mysterious girl that Essie sees in the mansion and on the beach? Is she real or is she a ghost? When a human skull washes up on the beach, Essie is now convinced her stepfather is a murderer. Essie is determined to find the answers to all these questions. Essie does find the answers to all her questions and realizes her suspicions about her stepfather were wrong and influenced by her own anxieties and prejudices. (Essie is the daughter of Irish immigrants and her stepfather is from Germany) Essie also comes to terms with her biological father’s sudden death from tuberculous, which is the first step to overcoming some of her anxieties. Essie’s character is well-written and relatable especially for those suffering from anxiety. J. Kasper Kramer does an excellent job depicting the creepy, moody atmosphere of North Brother Island. A historical event and a historical figure play important parts in this story-the 1904 sinking of the ship General Slocum, which killed over 1000 people, mostly German immigrant women and children and Mary Mallon- aka Typhoid Mary, who is a patient at the quarantine hospital. An author’s note drawing comparisons between the typhoid epidemic of the early 1900’s and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic provides thoughtful and timely insight. More information about the General Slocum disaster and Typhoid Mary are also provided in the author’s note. Fans of paranormal mysteries and historical fiction will not be disappointed with this suspenseful novel. Pair this with Avi’s The Seer of Shadows (2008), another historical fiction paranormal mystery that takes place in NYC in the late 1800s.
Target audience: Ages 8-12
Booklist-5/15/21- Starred Review
Publisher’s Weekly- 7/12/21- Starred Review