cover image Nell of Branford Hall

Nell of Branford Hall

William Wise. Dial Books, $16.99 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-8037-2393-1

Rich in history but scanty in storytelling, this novel is based on the 17th-century inhabitants of the English town of Eyam. The villagers, who were struck by bubonic plague, attempted to prevent its spread by voluntarily sealing off Eyam. Nell, the heroine, lives apart from the town, here called Branford, with her loving and wealthy family. On a trip to London, she witnesses the mass graves and miserable faces of the plague; at home, her scholar father and doctor uncle allow her to look through one of the first microscopes. When the plague comes to Branford, a far-seeing and courageous minister convinces everyone not to flee (as prosperous Londoners have done) and to mark a ""circle of death"" around their town: no one can come in, and no one can come out, until the plague is over. Nell tells the story as an old woman looking back, using formal language that rarely flows easily: ""But we few do remember still the fear and the horror, the bravery and the courage, of those desperate times,"" she says. For history buffs, Wise's (Perfect Pancakes If You Please) first novel is populated by such famous figures as Isaac Newton and Samuel Pepys. The details of 17th-century germ theory and the specifics of the plague are fascinating, but the narrative as a whole is flatly rendered. Nell herself suffers no grave hardship, and her anxiety about a close friend, who lives inside Branford, isn't vivid enough to hook readers. Although this is a story of life and death, it never seems urgent. Ages 10-up. (Sept.)