Rachel has lived her entire life in Africa, the daughter of missionaries working in a hospital. She loves her surroundings and her life. But then her parents – both orphans themselves- are killed in the great influence epidemic that spanned the world during and after World War I. She desolately walks to the plantation nearby, meaning to use their resources to get word to the mission board that the hospital will have to be closed, and she herself sent to an orphanage. Knowing that the Pritchards have recently lost their own daughter to influenza, Rachel expects them to offer help only reluctantly. To her surprise, they insist that she stay with them, and treat her very well.
Soon enough, however, she learns of their plan: they will send her to England to impersonate their dead daughter. Mr. Pritchard has been exiled from his family estate. His father is on his deathbed, and the Prtichards are convinced that Rachel – posing as their daughter Valerie – will be able to convince him to leave his estate to Mr. Pritchard, rather than to the Bird Society. They convince Rachel that word of his granddaughter’s death will be the final straw, killing the old man, and that she must pretend to be Valerie to save his life. Rachel disagrees, but is finally forced into the situation.
This novel is an excellent example of historical fiction. It shows a worldview and setting that children will find fascinating. At the same time, it is not hard to identify with Rachel and her problems. Rachels’ growing assertiveness, and her eventual transformation into a pioneer of women in the sciences, are handled deftly, without becoming anachronistic.