Book Title & Alexandra's Review

The List of Unspeakable Fears by J. Kasper Kramer

7th Grade and Up width=

Essie O’Neill is afraid of everything. She’s afraid of cats and electric lights. She’s afraid of the silver sick bell, a family heirloom that brings up frightening memories. Most of all, she’s afraid of the red door in her nightmares.
But soon, Essie discovers so much more to fear. Her mother has remarried, and they must move from their dilapidated tenement in the Bronx to North Brother Island, a dreary place in the East River. That’s where Essie’s new stepfather runs a quarantine hospital for the incurable sick, including the infamous Typhoid Mary. Essie knows the island is plagued with tragedy. Years ago, she watched in horror as the ship General Slocum caught fire and sank near its shores, plummeting one thousand women and children to their deaths.
Now, something on the island is haunting Essie. And the red door from her dreams has become a reality, just down the hall from her bedroom in her terrifying new house. Convinced her stepfather is up to no good, Essie investigates. Yet to uncover the truth, she will have to face her own painful history—and what lies behind the red door.


This truly is a stand-out story featuring an authentic representation of anxiety and a less talked about historical setting.


Essie is a realistic portrayal of what life must have been like for someone with an anxiety disorder back in the 1900s. Anxiety disorders weren’t even recognized until 1980, so back then, there was no effective treatment, and not much sympathy was given to the overly sensitive. The poor girl is in an almost constant state of fear, her overly anxious brain coming up with the worst possible outcome in every situation. On top of everything Essie has been through, she is now living on a quarantine island full of patients with contagious diseases. I think she has every right to be scared.


I feel that people who don’t have real-life experience with crippling anxiety won’t fully grasp or empathize with Essie’s struggles.


Set in 1910 NYC during the typhoid epidemic, the author does a fantastic job fully immersing you in the time period. There is so much history packed into this one story; women suffragists, immigrants, deadly illnesses, Typhoid Mary, and a horrifying and forgotten tragedy.This is how people should be learning history. History textbooks are dry facts on a page. With books like this, you see history unfold through someone’s eyes.


Speaking of Typhoid Mary, you’ve probably heard her name before but do you know who she was. I didn’t learn her full story until I watched Drunk History’s surprisingly educating depiction of her life. I recommend learning about Typhoid Mary first to better understand her character in the book. I’m including two different YouTube links. The first one is safe for younger readers. The second one, the Drunk History one, features strong language. You have been warned.


What Really Happened with Typhoid Mary:


Mary Mallon Spreads Typhoid Across New York City – Drunk History – Rated PG-13 for strong language


The fact that the world has just gone through a pandemic will make this story even more engaging. Read the Author’s Note to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the story.

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