Boston, 1919. It's been a terrible year for thirteen-year-old Joshua Harper. The influenza pandemic that's sweeping the world has claimed his father's life; his voice has changed, so he can't sing in the Boston Boys' Choir anymore; and now money is tight, so he must quit school to get a job. It's not fair! Joshua begins working as a newspaper boy, hawking papers on the street, but he soon finds himself competing with Charlestown Charlie, a tough, streetwise boy who does not make things easier for Joshua. It seems that fitting in is not as easy as it once was. Then disaster strikes the city of Boston. Joshua must do what he can to help, and in doing so he finds the place -- and the voice -- that he thought he'd lost.
The sound of creaking wagon wheels and clinking bottles broke through Joshua's dreams. Was it dawn already? The milkman's horse neighed softly in the alley beneath the window.
Joshua yawned and stretched in the small brass bed. His room wasn't heated, and the January morning was cold. His mother was already clattering pans in the kitchen. Before the Spanish Influenza struck the family several months ago, things had been different. Every morning his mother used to sleep late while Annie, the housekeeper, brought coffee and toast up to the big bedroom. Dad would be shaving and humming in the bathroom. Joshua's morning had been full of his father's singing, his mother's soft laughter when Dad teased her from her sleep, and the smell of coffee.
That was before that awful day -- the day Joshua's father died from the virulent pneumonia that was part of the influenza. Just when it seemed that the whole family would recover, Joshua's dad lost his fight. The flu epidemic had taken another victim.
Mom didn't laugh anymore. Instead, she cried late at night and banged the pots and pans early in the morning.
Two weeks ago, Christmas had been a disaster. Just one long, dreary time of sadness and memories.
Things were even worse now. Instead of heading back to school after the Christmas and New Year holidays, Joshua had to look for a job. "We don't have much money, Josh," Mom had said. "We have to tighten our belts and find ways to get along. I've had to let poor Annie go, and now you'll need to pitch in and find work."
Joshua punched his pillow. Surely he would wake up from this nightmare and everything would be the way it used to be. But it was no dream.
"What about me?" Joshua said out loud, hating the guttural sound of his voice. His dad was gone. He'd been dismissed from the boys' choir because his voice changed. Now he couldn't go to school. The rugby team had a good chance of winning the pennant, too! What else could go wrong?
Joshua pushed his comforter away and sat up. He'd put off looking for a job all week. It was Friday. He'd have to go job hunting today.
The old gas lights had been sealed when the house was electrified ten years ago. Joshua tugged the long string attached to a bulb. The light glared in his eyes.
He looked out the window at the dismal day. The milkman had deposited bottles of milk and cream on their back stoop, and the horse pulling the carriage was clomping down the cobblestone alley. Next door, the neighbor had opened his carriage house and was cranking up his brand-new Model T Ford.
Joshua washed quietly in the bathroom. Then he tiptoed back to his room to dress -- careful not to wake Mrs. Fryor, who snored loudly down the hall in the room that used to be his.
Pushing aside the knickers that hung neatly in the closet, Joshua grabbed his blue suit and tossed it on the bed. He didn't want to go to work. He didn't know the first thing about job hunting.
But he had to go.
After dressing he brushed his blond hair with some pomade, then headed to the kitchen.
"Good morning, Josh," his mother greeted him. She put a pot of coffee on the gas stove, then looked her son up and down. "Good! You're wearing your best suit. It makes you look older."
"Do you think I can go back to school someday?" Joshua asked.
Mom turned her attention to a pot of bubbling oatmeal. "I'm sorry. I can't afford to send you back to the academy this year. Even public school is out of the question. We really need money, Josh. Your father made some poor investments, and...well, you don't need to worry about all the details. Once things settle down and we get all the rooms rented, maybe..." She turned a switch on the stove, and the burner flame went out with a loud POP! "Maybe I'll even get the electric stove I've always wanted."
Joshua recalled what Mr. Williams, the family lawyer, had told them right after Dad's death. His father had left only a small insurance policy and an even smaller bank account, along with large, outstanding debts.
"You finished eighth grade early, and with high marks, too," Mom continued. "Your father had great hopes for you, Joshua." She looked sad as she spooned oatmeal into a bowl and sprinkled brown sugar over it. "It will be hard to find decent work now that the war is over. You're only thirteen, and I don't want you working in a sweat shop."
"I'm going to Dad's bank to see if they need a messenger."
"No!" Mom said quickly. "Not there! Can't you try another bank? Or perhaps a department store? C. Crawford Hollidge is a nice store. Of course I wouldn't want anyone to see you there, but if you could work in the office..."
"You don't want anyone to know I'm working, do you." It wasn't a question.
"It will be better that way. After all, we have our pride. Perhaps you could find work with one of the music publishers. They would probably remember you from the Boston Boys' Choir."
"No!" Joshua snapped. "I told you I'm finished with music."
Mom shook her head and pulled the pot onto the side of the stove. "Don't eat any more of this oatmeal, Joshua. Aunt Caroline always has a big breakfast."
"Mrs. Fryor is not my aunt," Joshua grumbled.
Mom sat at the table. "I told you, our neighbors would never tolerate a rooming house on their street. I don't want them to know we have a paying boarder. So, she is now your Aunt Caroline."
"She's so cranky and mean. It's no wonder her family put her out."
"Hush! It's a shame when someone gets old, to think their family doesn't want them," Mom whispered. "Besides, they didn't put her out. They're paying a nice monthly fee for us to keep her here."
"She's got my bedroom," Joshua reminded her. He opened a bottle of cream and drizzled it on his oatmeal.
"Things have to be different now." Mom touched his shoulder. "Be careful where you go today. Stay away from the tenements. And please don't go to your father's bank."
When Joshua finished his oatmeal, he pulled on his bulky overcoat. Mom handed him some coins. "Take the El, Josh. Remember, you don't want just any job." She kissed him on the forehead. "I'll worry if you're not back before dark."
Joshua had only taken the elevated train twice by himself and then he had gone directly to State Street to Dad's bank. He felt queasy. Mom was treating him as if he were suddenly all grown up -- like she was expecting him to find work and take Dad's place or something. It wasn't fair!
Joshua headed out the front door. Nightshade Lane was awake now. A couple of automobiles rattled down the street, steering around a horse and carriage. Joshua remembered how excited and proud they were when Dad bought their new Peerless automobile. But the first thing Mom did after Dad died, was to sell it to Mr. Williams. Since then, when it was too far to walk, they had to take a cab or the El.
They lived in a nice neighborhood not far from downtown Boston, on a street of brick-front houses with bay windows and wrought-iron gates. How long would they be able to live here? Joshua wondered as he headed toward the elevated station on the next block. And where on earth would he ever find work?
Joshua paid his fare and found a seat next to the window. Well-dressed patrons got on at his stop, but he noticed poorer people coming aboard as the train continued into town. There were men in overalls and women in faded coats. Even children, carrying lunch pails, were on their way to work. Joshua almost asked one boy where he was employed, thinking there might be a job for him in the same place. The boy's eyes seemed far away, though, and Joshua changed his mind remembering what his father had told him: "Don't talk to strangers in town. Some of them are from different worlds, Josh."
Several passengers wore gauze masks. The influenza epidemic had everyone afraid. Joshua turned his face to the window -- away from the man who was coughing next to him. Even though Joshua had already had the flu, he wasn't taking any chances.
The sun was shining brightly and streaming through the grimy windows. The train stopped again, and the sweet aroma of chocolate from the nearby candy factory drifted into the car. The slender, gray Custom House Tower piercing the skyline caught Joshua's attention.
Dad never did get to take him to the top of the tower like they had planned. Dad said the city was beautiful from up there, but Josh would never see it now.
The warmth and the constant rattle of the train made Joshua sleepy. He closed his eyes.
His thoughts drifted back to Dad's funeral.
The sweet smell of flowers and fresh earth of the new graves permeated the cemetery. There were many other families weeping over new graves, too. Thousands had perished in the influenza outbreak.
Mom asked, "Josh, won't you sing one hymn for us? 'A Prayer to the Good Shepherd' was your father's favorite."
"No!" Joshua's voice rang out over the soft murmurs of relatives and friends. "Don't ask me to sing. I can't. Not at Dad's funeral!"
"Hey, boy!" Someone shook Joshua's arm. The man in the next seat. "Wake up."
Joshua awoke with a start. "Where are we?" he asked.
"This is Atlantic Avenue."
Joshua had missed his stop. He got off the El and looked around, bewildered. The icy air smelled of sea and fish. Where was he? He blocked his eyes from the sun and saw the Custom House Tower. State Street must be nearby.
Horses and carriages crowded the streets. The blaring honks of automobile horns added to the commotion. On the opposite sidewalk a man with a brightly colored wheelbarrow called out, "Fresh haddock and halibut!"
A newsboy, who looked to be about sixteen, darted around the traffic, hollering out the headlines. His brown woolen knickers were held up by bright red suspenders. Plaid shirttails hung below his open jacket. Strands of unruly carrot-colored hair had slipped out from under his soft gray cap. Joshua watched the boy in awe as he wove in and out between the cars and the carriages, yelling in a high-pitched voice, "Extra! Robbery in Revere." He'd stop at each vehicle, slide the latest copy of the newspaper into the driver's window, and grab the coins with the same hand.
Suddenly the traffic unsnarled and started moving again. The newsboy hopped onto the sidewalk, bumping into Joshua.
"Hey, you! Watch where you're going!" the boy exclaimed, scowling at Joshua. "Get outta my way."
Joshua struggled to retain his balance. "You bumped into me!"
The newsboy stepped closer. "Don't argue with me, pip-squeak."
"I wasn't arguing," Joshua snapped. "Get away from me."
At this moment two more boys, who also carried newspaper bags over their shoulders, appeared. One -- a tall, skinny fellow -- shook his finger at Joshua. "Don't you know you're askin' for trouble?" he warned. "This is Charlestown Charlie himself!"
"Did you hear what Shawn said?" The redheaded newsboy put his face close to Joshua's -- so close, Joshua could almost count the freckles that dotted his nose. "Everyone in Boston -- except you -- knows it don't pay to argue with me." And Charlestown Charlie gave Joshua a shove that knocked him to the ground.
Joan Hiatt Harlow is the author of several popular historical novels including Secret of the Night Ponies, Shadows on the Sea, Midnight Rider, Star in the Storm, Joshua’s Song, Thunder from the Sea, and Breaker Boy. Ms. Harlow lives in Venice, Florida. For more information, visit her at JoanHiattHarlow.com.