Sue Purkiss
with illustrations by James de la Rue
(Walker Books)

Emily does not want to move to Australia and leave behind England and her beloved grandmother. So it is reluctantly that she comes aboard the famous SS Great Britain, which is docked in Liverpool, ready for the long journey to half-way round the world. But her assumptions that this is going to be a long, monotonous journey are shattered when she meets Thomas, a fellow passenger, and his pet rat Barney. Emily offers to help hide Barney and look after him. But this is not the only welcomed distraction for Emily; apparently the ship is haunted and Emily is pretty sure she has seen the ghost! It seems this trip is not going to be so boring after all …

I really enjoyed this short novel part of the Racing Reads series and aimed at young confident readers.
Emily is a feisty, fearless and strong-minded heroine, in the tradition of many girls you would find in books taking place in this era (think Jo of Little Women!). Her parents are also quite stereotypical of children’s books of that era: the father is grumpy and distant, the mother prone to fainting and just as disinterested in her daughter unless it is to make her look “pretty”. This is by no mean a criticism; in fact I think it helps a lot in making this little novel  authentic. The setting of this story is very traditional and again very much in line with the era. The author manages to bring a lot of social history within the main storyline. We witness the social divide first hand inside the boat: Emily’s family are first-class passengers and although Emily and Nanny’s cabin is quite small, her parents have a suite. In contrast, Thomas’ living compound is in steerage where people stay in communal areas and are responsible for cleaning it themselves. Tom gets paid to work in the ship’s bakery; Emily helps a lady with teaching the younger first-class passengers. The most striking and effective portrayal of the British social divide of the time however is when Emily and Tom realise that their lives are in fact intertwined: Tom and his father work in the mill owned by Emily’s grandfather. Their views of working conditions in the mill are somewhat different, as you can imagine. But Emily is a rather clever little cookie and it seems that she learns a lot about the fate of those less fortunate than her during this journey. The discovery of the real identity of the “ghost” strengthens her belief that life might not be so rosy for everyone after all.

This is a lovely little novel  written by a local author on a subject very dear to the hearts of Bristolians, who are fiercely proud of the SS Great Britain and anything linked to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It will captivate fans of adventure, history and even animal stories. A great little find, well worth trying out with young readers stuck in endless series and which will appeal to both boys and girls.