Under the Ashes by Cindy Rankin is a middle grade work of historical fiction. Elizabeth "Littlebeth" Morgan thinks she is the smartest, bravest eleven-year-old in Paso Robles. She loves sharing stories of the outlaws Frank and Jesse James and shows no fear when she whacks the head off a rattlesnake. But she is not the proper lady her family wants her to be so they send her to live with her maiden Aunt Sally in San Francisco to be tamed and refined. While Aunt Sally's life is unlike anything Littlebeth has experienced in the country, the pain of being sent away runs deep. Then Littlebeth meets Mr. Steinberg, Aunt Sally's Jewish neighbor. He treats her like a person, not just a little girl, and Littlebeth finds a friend in him. Mr. Steinberg is sweet on Aunt Sally and takes the two of them to see the famous opera singer, Enrico Caruso, perform. But Littlebeth doesn't understand the religious differences keeping Aunt Sally and Mr. Steinberg apart. Before she can meddle in their personal lives, the earthquake hits. Littlebeth is separated from them in the chaos of the streets. She must use her wits and bravery and trust in a few unlikely friends to locate Aunt Sally and Mr. Steinberg. But will Littlebeth be able to survive the disaster and be reunited with her family?
Under the Ashes is a touching story about a young girl that feels disconnected and unwanted by her family. I like that Beth is an adventurous girl, as quick to help others as she is to speak her mind. I think that her family is shown to really love her and what what is best for her, and while I think readers can relate to how they make Beth feel, they can also see that underlying love. I did find that the book took awhile to get to the action. By the time the earthquake hit, I felt like the book was already more than half over, although that information we read in the first part of the book was important it just felt like we took too long to get there, and then the action was a bit crammed together. I think the portrayal of human nature, both before and after the quake, was sadly accurate. The ugliness of selfish people, prejudice, and fear were well exhibited, but so were the kindness and innocence that can be found. I think acknowledging that that sort of attitude existed (and still does) and how pointless it is, is extremely important.