A plague survivor’s tale

All Fall Down by Sally Nicholls

Sally Nicholls is one of the best new writers of books for older children and teens. I loved and was moved by her debut: Ways To Live Forever, (review here), the diaries of an eleven year old boy dying from Leukaemia which won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and marked her out as one to watch.

In All Fall Down, her third novel, a lot more children die – but from the Black Death of 1349. The story of how the plague affects a village outside York is told by thirteen year old Isabel, the eldest daughter in a farming family in thrall to the local landowner. Isabel is nearing the cusp of womanhood, and she hopes she will go on to marry Robin, her childhood sweetheart.

As the plague nears, life changes and soon people begin to die. Some flee, but Isabel’s family stay – for where would they go? Soon most families in the village are affected, and when the disease takes her parents, she and Robin have to act as parents to her younger siblings. There being no-one left to order them to work, they take the opportunity to go to York with a merchant who has lost his own family. Isabel finds it hard to adapt to city ways and yearns to return to her village and farm again – now a free woman.

There is a lot of well-researched history in this novel, I learned lots about the period and the Black Death itself from it. Isabel’s family life seemed hard work but idyllic, a picture of happy villeins farming their strips of land. Maybe it didn’t seem quite hard and muddy enough – although once people started falling ill, the overpowering stench of death was ever present, which contrasted completely.

Isabel herself is at times a bit contrary – a caring girl but she scarcely shows it, except when she was worried about her beloved brother Geoffrey at the monastery. She’s quite a modern heroine too, being rather a feminist in the male-dominated times of the novel. She’s also intelligent enough to see that prayer isn’t enough to prevent getting ill, and that the cures being peddled are useless.

The rest of the characters come across as a little bland, although Isabel’s stepmother, Alice, always brightens the page when she appears. We have to remember though, that this story is told through Isabel’s eyes, she’s only just a teenager – but she is a born survivor.

I enjoyed this book very much; as an adult, I wish it had been even darker, but that might be too off-putting for its intended younger readership. (8.5/10)

See also Lovely Treez Reads for another review.

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I received this book to review through the Amazon Vine programme.
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All Fall Down by Sally Nicholls, pub March 2012 by Marion Lloyd Books, Paperback 256 pages.
Ways To Live Foreverby Sally Nicholls

7 thoughts on “A plague survivor’s tale

  1. TERESA MAJURY says:

    Glad to see you enjoyed this too, Annabel. I have recommended it to a secondary school teacher as I think it would be ideal for schools. Yes, I agree, it skims over the horrific events at times but by doing so it makes it open to a wider age range. Keeping this one for my daughter – her TBR pile is rivalling mine!

  2. Alex says:

    It’s interesting to see a children’s author tackling this visitation of the Plague. It’s usually the 1665 epidemic that comes under the spotlight. I shall look out for this, thank you.

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