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Secret in St. Something

Illustrated by Richard Williams

One flight up the narrow, steep stairs, Robin finds himself swallowed up by the darkness, terrified and hating the thought of the misery and fear his knock will bring to the wretched families who huddle behind every door in the building.

Thus begins the story set in a grim tenement district of New York City before the turn of the twentieth century. It is there that Robin, once protected by a loving mother and father, both now dead, must contend with a brutal stepfather, Hawker Doak. Yet Robin is faced with only two choices: remain in the ruthless charge of Hawker, collecting the hated rents, and, perhaps worse, being sent to work in a factory or escape into the treacherous slum streets, haunted by, among other horrors, the bullying boys who work and live in the streets, and whom Robin so fears. Either choice provides a sure recipe for a very short life. But in the end it is fear for the life of his baby brother that makes Robin's agonizing decision for him. The answer to whether or not they survive will only be found when Robin discovers the secret guarded by a place called St. Something.

Within this true picture of tenement life, Barbara Brooks Wallace has created another chilling mystery that starts with one kind of terror, only to weave its way into yet another, deepened by intrigue and unspeakable treachery.

By Barbara Brooks Wallace
Robin has lost both his parents, and life with his stepfather is brutal. He decides that he must run away and live on the street, but he also must protect his baby brother. Robin becomes a shoeshine boy and discovers a secret which will change life for both of them forever.
• In this book Robin is shown as part of several families. Before the book begins, he had his parents and at the end of the book he has a new family. What makes a family? Were the shoeshine boys a family when they lived in St. Something?
• Why didn't the boys take money from the poor box? What is a poor box?
• There are some good people and some evil people in this book. Discuss the fact that neither good nor evil are always poor or rich.
• Robin had been afraid of the boys before he got to know them. Why do you think we fear people we don't know? Is it important for people to get to know those who are different from them?
• Who did the boys think was the "landlord" of the church? Why? Do you think this was a good way to think about it?
• Robin was a shoeshine boy. What other ways did people in the book make their living? (Ideas: Rent collector, pawnshop owner, sewer, landlord, janitor.)
• Draw a picture of the tenement where Robin had to collect rent. Remember that it was a single room in which seven or eight people lived.
• Write a newspaper story about the return of Jonathan Highcrofft's son. What information was the family planning to keep secret? How were they planning to explain what happened?
• Robin traveled by carriage to St. Something to get Danny. Build a model of a horse-drawn carriage.
• If you were Robin and planned to teach the street boys how to read, what would you do? Make a lesson using pencils and scraps of paper. Think about what words the boys would want to learn and how you would help them learn the meanings of the written words.
This reading group guide is for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Prepared by Betty Neal
© William Allen White Children's Book Award
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Barbara Brooks Wallace has written Victorian mysteries that include a parlor, a tavern, a castle, a scullery, and a gallery. But she claims never to have lived in a tavern or a castle, or owned a house with a parlor, a scullery, or a gallery. So far she has not lived in a tenement, either. She simply dwells in a nice little house in Alexandria, Virginia, with her very nice husband; affectionate Burmese cat, Cleo; and turtle, Peter. Her son, Jimmy, daughter-in-law, Christina, and Victoria and Elizabeth, their two daughters, live nearby.

More books from this author: Barbara Brooks Wallace