Revenge on the Fly Reviews

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“In 1912 Ireland, 12-year-old Will Alton has lost his mother and baby sister to disease. After immigrating to Canada, Will’s father gets a job in a stable, while Will goes to school. When a local newspaper claims that flies are the harbingers of disease and runs a contest with cash prizes for the most flies caught during a three-week period, Will sees an opportunity to avenge the deaths of his loved ones and also help his father make ends meet. Interspersed with Will’s clever and resourceful attempts to catch flies by the hundreds are his experiences at school, where he is known as the new kid, the poor kid, and the focus of the local bully. McNicoll has brought a little-known chapter of Canada’s history to life in this novel of a young boy learning what it means to grieve, to win, and to be a man. Reminiscent of the historical novels of Karen Hesse, this quiet story is lyrically written with a believable young protagonist and a thoughtful message of hope in the midst of trouble.”

Kirkus Reviews

“A fly-catching contest comes to dominate the life of new Irish immigrant Will in 1912 Hamilton, Ontario.

Life isn’t easy for the 12-year-old. His mother and young sister recently died, money is very tight, and rich boy Fred, a new classmate, is savoring every opportunity to humiliate him. Opportunity knocks when the local newspaper offers a $50 prize for killing the most flies as part of an effort to reduce disease. The competition is ruthless, with Fred and his minions collecting thousands of flies and Will trying lots of clever tricks to pull even. Another poor child, Ginny, is besotted with Fred but gradually comes to see the truth about the bully and switches her loyalty and friendship to Will. He struggles with the ethics of his tricks, reminded by the wealthy but even-minded Rebecca of a nobler mission. While the dead-fly count reaches an awesome, even unbelievable level, an author’s note states that the tale is accurately based on a real contest….McNicoll paints a believably gritty portrait of urban life a century ago. 

An entertaining visit to the past with a likable guide on a spirited—if icky—quest. (Historical fiction. 9-14)

School Library Journal

“If readers can stomach the grisly notion of flies being annihilated by the thousands, and several more raised for slaughter, then McNicoll’s novel offers a unique and unconventional view of the fight against disease plaguing the world at the beginning of the 20th century. It is the summer of 1912, and 12-year-old immigrant Will Alton has moved to Hamilton, Ontario with his father, where the local school sponsors a fly-catching contest to help rid the city of the ominous disease that is taking the lives of millions, young and old. Will yearns to avenge the lives of his mother and baby sister, prompting him to attempt to catch and kill more flies than all of the other participants. He must also grapple with an equally powerful urge to beat a rival competitor from school who cheats to win. Those who relish the notion of smashing, squashing, and swatting bugs should appreciate this novel in the same outrageous way as Thomas Rockwell’s How to Eat Fried Worms (Random, 1973). McNicoll, however, fuels the gross factor even more with graphic descriptions of the fly’s attraction to excrement and defecation on the same food eaten by people. This adds some scientific basis to the story, coupled with the fact that there really was a Fly-Swatting Contest in Canada. Ultimately, Will is portrayed as more than just a top-notch bug catcher; he comes to recognize that there is far more to bettering society and saving lives than winning contests. Pair this novel with Makiia Lucier’s A Death-Struck Year (Houghton Harcourt, 2014) for more in-depth knowledge about the fight against rampant disease.”

Quill & Quire

“In veteran children’s author Sylvia McNicoll’s new book, grief and anger are the overriding emotions 12-year-old Will Alton feels over the loss of his baby sister and mother to illness in the family’s native Ireland, even as he and his father embark on a fresh start in 1912 Hamilton, Ontario. When Dr. Roberts, Hamilton’s health officer, visits Will’s new school to speak about the role of flies in the transmission of disease, and to announce an essay and fly-killing contest (‘You can be a hero to your city, vanquish disease, and win great prizes too’), Will is eager to win.

As determined as Will is to kill ‘the miserable creatures that had caused my family so much grief’ and win $50 to help his father find them a new home (away from the rooming house of the vile Madame Depieu), hostile classmate Fred Leckie is just as relentless. Worse still, Fred has the advantage of being wealthy enough to bribe others to do the work for him, and a father with a factory of workers whom he compels to help his cause. Fortunately Will is tireless, clever, and goodhearted, attributes that are always valuable when facing challenges.

McNicoll never allows her characters or storyline to become predictable. Will, his father, and the rest of the cast possess individual voices that ring true and avoid cliché. And, while the ending is satisfying, it isn’t neatly tied up with a bow. Rather, McNicoll illustrates how difficult life was for poor immigrants in the early part of the last century by framing their struggles against a tragic, peculiar episode in Canadian history.”
—Helen Kubiw

CBC’s The Next Chapter

Ken says: “It’s a story from 1912, where there is an epidemic of flies. In 1912 they decided flies were the reason for all the illness in the city. And, so in Hamilton (Ont.) they had a contest: what child can kill the most flies? This is a fictional account of a young boy that has come from Ireland with his father. They’ve got nothing. His mother has recently died, his sister has recently died, and he knows germs were caused by these flies, so he goes on an all-out war. It’s an exciting book and one that I found riveting.”

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The National Reading Campaign

“…In Revenge on the Fly, award-winning author Sylvia McNicoll breathes life into this little-known snippet of history. Through Will’s eyes we see, hear and smell his city; from its poor rooming houses to its grand mansions. Girls and boys, rich and poor, all enter the contest, pitting hardworking immigrants against the privileged few with all the prejudices, jealousies, and yearning attached to socio-economic disparity. Boys in particular will be fascinated by the uncountable ways one can swat, squish, pinch and vacuum up flies (not to mention some gruesome uses for manure).

It’s how you win, not what you win; who you are, not what you have. These are hard lessons to learn when revenge is on your mind. In a true test of successful historical fiction, we are completely immersed in Will’s world, and readers will await the outcome of the competition with bated breath.”
—Penny Draper

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Canadian Children’s Book News

“The world of 1912 may seem completely different but is equally captivating in Sylvia McNicoll’s Revenge on the Fly. It is late spring when young Will Alton and his father arrive in Hamilton. Poor immigrants, Will and his father have journeyed from Ireland where mother and baby sister were taken by disease. Will is heartsick and struggles against the discrimination he and his father face as poor Irish newcomers. Not long after his arrival, his school is visited by Dr. Roberts, Hamilton’s public health officer. The lowly fly, he tells his students, is responsible for spreading germs that cause disease and so much death. The local paper is sponsoring a fly-catching contest with a top prize of $50. Kill flies and stop the spread of disease, he exhorts Will’s class. It is a message that Will latches onto with deadly seriousness, and he is galvanized into action. Perhaps it was the dreaded fly that was responsible for the deaths of his mother and sister. He is determined to win the competition to avenge them and so he can give the money to his father to better their situation.

The contest pits Will against Fred Leckie, a particularly nasty and privileged classmate. Fred will do anything to win, including paying off peers with orange segments (a juicy detail) to bring him their flies. Will struggles to beat Fred on his own, but it is when two unlikely girls befriend him that Will actually starts to have a fighting chance. Wealthy and kind Rebecca has no time for the likes of Fred Leckie and believes in Will, seeing beyond their socio-economic differences. She forces Will to question his motives for entering the contest and gently pushed him to consider some of his actions. Ginny is poor and belligerent, a prickly friend who decides to help Will win the contest. Ignoring her rough exterior, Will likes her spunk and devotion to her younger siblings. ‘And Ginny…seemed as tough as a horseshoe, her loyalty made her gentle and kind, just in a different way than Rebecca.’ The friendship of both girls helps Will to understand that winning is not everything, and that true friends are far better than friends bought and paid for.

Vividly narrating the story in Will’s voice, McNicoll brings this intriguing bit of Canadian history to life, deftly weaving rich historical detail into the tale, immersing young readers in the sights, sounds and smells of early 20th century Hamilton. Will’s struggles with friendship and against bullies is timeless, and young readers will be cheering for him all the way.”
—Tracey Schindler

Resource Links

“Will Alton and his father are new immigrants to Canada. They are learning that Ontario in 1912 is not a welcoming place for immigrants and that the grand life they dream of is elusive. Will sees a chance to better their circumstances when he enters a fly-catching problem. The question is, how far is he willing to go to catch enough flies to win?

I enjoyed this book tremendously. The story moves quickly, and Will is an immensely appealing narrator. Will is intelligent but also crafty; honest, but not above bending the rules to his own interests. He’s also sensitive, having lost his younger sister and then his mother, and it is this aspect of his personality that makes Will’s ultimate revenge on the fly so complex and so satisfying. The idea of fly-collecting contest – as disgusting as it might seem to us today – was inspired by real events and real historical figures. This inspiration offers a unique and unexpected way to explore Will’s larger story.

Beyond the main plot, readers will find many absorbing themes, such as issues of poverty and class, bias and discrimination, sickness and loss. The story identifies emerging urban tensions (such as cars displacing horses, the luxury of indoor plumbing, which only some possess, and the need for government-mandated public health policy), but does so within the context of Will’s telling, so that the text never feel didactic, dry of stuffy. This is a book that will reward follow-up conversations, and it could be well used in the classroom.

One feature I particularly appreciated about this book was its intense focus on Will’s physical world. Sensory details are brilliantly captured, enriching our sense of history and the immediacy of the story. We smell with Will the awful garbage and rotting manure he digs through in pursuit of flies, see the ragtag boarding-house he and his father inhabit, taste the sweet and tart Christmas memory an orange evokes, feel the sting of the strap he receives for disobeying the principal and its throb for hours afterward. And of course we see and hear and feel the thousands of flies Will kills – an ick factor that adds a delicious frisson to the story. Certainly part of the enjoyment of the book comes from its physical presentation. The copy I read has a gigantic, highly detailed fly laminated on the back cover (as well as numerous smaller laminated flies on the front cover), so that as I read, I was constantly touching the raised graphic and reminded of the fly and the evil it represents to Will – a very effective design decision!

Revenge on the Fly is an excellent book, one I expect to see nominated for awards in the coming months. It will make readers laugh, cringe, shudder – and think. I recommend it highly.”

CM Magazine

“Sylvia McNicoll award-winning author of over thirty young people’s novels, has produced another winner…Revenge on the Fly will impress young readers with the importance of basic hygienic measures, like hand-washing, and could spark discussions about epidemics, the history of sanitation, and life in early 20th century Canada. McNicoll brings Will to life so thoroughly…Revenge on the Fly is a startling, thought-provoking work involving fully-rounded characters – and no one can accuse it of lacking realism! Highly recommended.”

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Middle Shelf Magazine

“In 1912, twelve-year-old William Alton sails with his Dad on the Empress of Ireland bound for new opportunities in Canada, leaving behind the graves of his mom and baby sister. A job for Dad, an education for Will, and no more disease! Unfortunately, another baby on board the ship succumbs to summer complaint, and Uncle Charlie falls ill with typhoid; why does everyone get sick and die? On Will’s second day in school, the city health officer, Dr. Roberts, gives him the answer. One tiny little insect spreads germs and death. Will and his classmates declare war on the fly.”

CanLit for LittleCanadians

“…Award-winning author Sylvia McNicoll who has penned numerous early chapter books, middle grade fiction and YA fiction, never submits to the predictable, in her storylines or characters. In Revenge on the Fly, Will, Fred, Ginny, Rebecca, Bea, Ian and Da have the true voices of individuals, never cardboard cut-outs. Even Finnigan has the yips and yaps of a true character, albeit a canine one. And while the ending is gratifying, it isn’t the all-tied-up-in-bows happy ending, because life isn’t like that and in 1912 it definitely wasn’t like that for poor Irish immigrants. Effortlessly Sylvia McNicoll finds the words to illustrate a tragic, but seemingly peculiar, episode in Canadian history and make it personal and unforgettable.”

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