The Cameo Necklace

Published in 2012; author Evelyn Coleman; illustrator Sergio Giovine


On the way home from a performance she'd attended as reward for doing well in her studies, Cécile is knocked down in the marketplace and loses her aunt Octavia's valuable necklace. A woman who was knocked down with her tells her cryptic warnings about opening her eyes. If the woman is trying to help, she's failed; all she's done is confuse and scare Cécile. 
Back at home, Cécile is wracked with guilt over losing the necklace. Octavia and her son Réne are back in Philadelphia visiting her late husband's family. She didn't take the necklace for fear of losing it...it was the last gift her husband gave her before he died. Cécile didn't ask permission to borrow the necklace, only assumed her aunt would agree it was a special occasion. She's due back in six days, and Cécile is sick thinking of having to confess its loss. 
After church the next day, Cécile goes out with her brother Armand, looking for the necklace under the guise of having lost her gloves. She has no luck, but does get to ride an elephant, which she enjoys before a thunderclap startles the animal, causing it panic. A boy who Cécile remembers from the melee the night before calms the elephant, and disappears before Cécile can ask him about the necklace. The elephant trainer tells Cécile he thinks the boy and sister are maroons, but cautions her not to mention that to anyone else. As they head back home, they're accosting by two slave catchers who think Armand is an escaped slave. Armand is able to produce papers proving he's free, but the encounter leaves the siblings shaken. 

Over the next few days, Cécile searches in different places: the market, back at the circus, looking for the people she remembers being with her; but to no avail. She does get the sense that there's something strange about the maroon children, though. They seem to sell a fancy kind of basket, but anyone she sees with the type clam up when she asks where they bought them from. She finds the woman who fell with her, a fortune-teller named Madame Irene, but just ends up more confused. At least Madame Irene tries to reassure Cécile that she'll find the necklace soon. And just then she sees the maroon children. The girl is holding something in her hand, but they both run off when a policeman shows up. Cécile gives chase.

She catches up to them in the forest, and the girl explains that they found the necklace when it fell off during the scuffle, and have been trying to return it, only to have the police come every time. Cécile finally gets it back, and can't thank the children enough. They briefly explain that their mother escaped slavery and they live deep in the swamps with other people, looking out for each other. They leave quickly, as the sun is setting and they want to get home before it's dark. After everyone is asleep, Cécile slips into her aunt's room and returns the necklace to its proper place.

When Cécile and her family awake, they all find thoughtful little gifts by their doors: a beautiful for satchel for Cécile, vibrant paints for Armand, salve for Mathilde, and so on. But the new maid, Hannah, has disappeared. Remembering that she knows Cécile's tutor, they go to ask him if they know why she left and if she needs any help that they can provide. The tutor explains that he and his sister help escaped slaves! Hannah was free but forced into slavery in Virginia, and sold in Louisiana, where she escaped. Now slave catchers are searching for her, so she must flee, but she also can't risk being seen. 

That night when slave catchers come to Cécile's house looking for Hannah, Cécile remembers the boat the maroon children showed her, hidden near the edge of the swamp for emergencies. She and Armand go to warn her tutor, and Cécile takes Hannah to the boat. The boat has a horn to blow for help, and when they're far enough away from the city, Cécile uses it. She hopes the maroon children will remember her and come to help Hannah. They answer her call, and assure Hannah that she will be safe with them. Hannah bids a tearful and grateful goodbye to Cécile and Armand (she kisses him too, and he had been painting a beautiful portrait of her....hmm), and vanishes into the night with the maroons. Cécile will always miss her, but she takes comfort in knowing Hannah will be safe.

Looking Back

The swamps along the bayous in Louisiana offered a unique opportunity to escaped slaves: they were so difficult to traverse and full of dangerous wildlife that they could live there in relative safety from slavers. People who lived in these communities were referred to maroons, from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning runaway slave. Maroons didn't stay hidden all the time; they brought homemade foods and housewares to the markets in New Orleans to trade for good they couldn't make themselves. Maroon settlements sprang up in other areas too, all over the South and in the islands of the Gulf of Mexico, wherever slaves could escape to inaccessible lands like harsh deserts or dense jungles.


This book is dedicated to "my youngest daughter, my talented reader, Latrayan (Sankofa) Mueed, who helps me become a better writer with each book. And to the man who endures months of being ignored for the sake of my writings, my 'rock,' my wonderful husband, Talib Din. I also want to dedicate this book to the ancestors and to all the descedants of the maroons, the escaped enslaved, and those were not able to escape...and to the men, women, and children massacred at Fort Negro. Always remember to fight for our freedoms!"

This book takes place in November 1854. Marie-Grace is away visiting family, but Cécile thinks of her often.

No, poisonous snakes don't live in the bayous. Venomous snakes do. There's a difference. 

The Looking Back part says that cimarrón means feral livestock. Yes, that's one meaning, but doesn't the one about escaped slaves make more sense?

Shouldn't Cécile have gotten two mysteries to match Marie-Grace's two? It was announced in July that the dolls are being retired, so I doubt any more books will be published.


The Hidden Gold

Published in 2012; author Sarah Masters Buckey; illustrator Sergio Giovine


This book starts out reminding me of a BSC book: Marie-Grace and her father are taking a steamboat ride up the Mississippi, and she's roped in to watching a little girl named Annabelle before they even leave the dock. Baby-sitting on vacation! But Annabelle's mother only asks for a bit of help now and then. Just before the ship departs, a girl Marie-Grace's age named Wilhelmina comes aboard at the last moment. Her father died just a few days ago, leaving her orphaned. Wilhelmina had come down with another passenger on main-deck passage, sleeping out on the deck instead of in rooms, for cheaper fare. The captain is reluctant to have her do so alone, so Marie-Grace offers the extra bed in her stateroom (she and her father each have their own, I guess) until the boat reaches Wilhelmina's grandmother's house in Missouri. Wilhelmina accepts, but reluctantly because she's not allowed to keep both her trunks in the room; one will have to be stored with the rest of the cargo. She's oddly protective of her trunks and almost rude, but Marie-Grace reminds herself that the eleven-year-old just lost her father, and no doubt has a lot of emotions whirling inside her. 

At dinner, Wilhelmina eats as if she hasn't seen food in days, then promptly disappears back to the stateroom. A jeweler who had been at the same hotel fills Marie-Grace and the other diners in on her story: her father had just struck gold in California but he died before he was able to tell Wilhelmina where he'd stashed it. No wonder she's protective of the trunks. Later that evening, Wilhelmina confides to Marie-Grace that her family is destitute and without the gold her father found, her younger brothers will have to go live with cousins in Kansas--family, but far away. Her father left to find his fortune two years prior, and Wilhelmina and her brothers moved in with their grandmother after their mother died. On his way home, her father fell ill and died before reuniting with his family. Knowing he might die before Wilhelmina reached him in New Orleans, he left a clue for her regarding where he hid the gold. The girls steal out to the deck to find Wilhelmina's other trunk, which holds the tattered book of nursery rhymes her father used to read her--she put it in his luggage when he left for California so he could read them and think of her. Sometimes he'd send letter with riddles about the rhymes, so she reasons his clue must be in there.

The next day there's a flurry of activity when someone spots a wrecked float and three injured men--they were hit by another steamboat. Dr. Gardner, who I think is getting a deal on the fare to act as ship doctor or is being paid back for helping the pilot during the yellow fever epidemic, immediately tends to them. While that's going on, Marie-Grace spots Annabelle down on the deck, which has no railings to keep the little girl from falling into the river. She rushes down and gets her back to safety with the help of another passenger. A short time later, Annabelle brings the nursery rhyme book to Marie-Grace and Wilhelmina--she'd found it in the hall outside their rooms and brought it to her mother so she could read some to her. When her mother realized Wilhelmina's name was in it, she had Annabelle return it. At Annabelle's urging and with Wilhelmina's permission, Marie-Grace reads some of the book to Annabelle. She notices some faint writing in the margins which Wilhelmina missed the first time through. She takes in sewing to make money, and her eyes are too strained from all the close work to have noticed. They're clues, but Wilhelmina can't decipher what they mean.

Marie-Grace can't stop thinking about the writing. While she's entertaining Annabelle, something the little girl says makes all the pieces click into place. The cooking spider that Wilhelmina's father has in his trunk is the key. Marie-Grace isn't sure how, but she knows it's important. She and Wilhelmina head for the luggage area, and see another passenger trying to break into the trunk! They're able to alert the captain and stop him. It turns out he'd lost some money gambling and overheard about the hidden gold (title drop!) and was trying to steal it. Wilhelmina fetches the cooking spider but its importance isn't immediately clear...until she inspects it closely and chips some black paint off. It's solid gold, and so are some other "iron" cooking instruments! She and her brothers can stay together now.

Looking Back

In the 1850s, steamboat travel was both luxurious and dangerous. Many steamboats were as fancy as five-star hotels, but the fires that produced the steam necessary to power them could get out of control and overtake a ship. The Mississippi River was also very crowded in some areas, and smaller crafts risked getting run over by large boats. Shallow waters also hide rocks and fallen trees. Today there are safer modes of transportation and better signals to avoid collisions.


This book is dedicated to "my niece, Nicole."

So, cargo...why do ships carry cargo and trucks carry shipments?

What weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold? Feathers. A pound of gold is fourteen ounces instead of the standard sixteen. 

Between interruptions, Marie-Grace gradually writes a letter to Cécile throughout the book.

Annabelle's father is never mentioned.

Every time Marie-Grace mentions her late baby brother, she references him by name (Daniel). I know a handful of women who have lost children, and when they do want to talk it's important to them to use their children's names, to formally recognize their too-short lives.


The Haunted Opera

Published in 2013; author Sarah Masters Buckey; illustrator Sergio Giovine


Marie-Grace has a week off from school, and will spend it with her aunt Océane, who has been asked to fill in for a visiting opera company (the singer she's replacing became ill on her journey across the Atlantic and is recuperating in Cuba with her sister, who was also the understudy; Dr. Gardner is busy treating other sick passengers). The company is there to perform an opera called The Crown Diamonds. Another company was supposed to do the same opera about ten years ago but something bad happened. Marie-Grace can't figure out what it was. She's happy that Cécile will be able to come over after her lessons are done. Maybe they can uncover the past together. 

The girls' first day starts inauspiciously--when they see Océane in her costume, they convince her to try on the crown that the star of the show wears, just to see how it looks. Of course, the star of the show, Miss Bell, arrives just in time to see what looks like the replacement singer trying to steal her spot. Océane reassures the girls that no harm is done, but they still feel guilty. They take some things to the sewing room, where they meet a girl a little older than they are, a servant who is traveling with the company. She fills them in on the background of the opera: when it was supposed to be performed a decade ago, the star died just before opening night, and is buried in the cemetery across the street. A few years later, a French opera company set sail for New Orleans to perform The Crown Diamonds, and a storm sank the ship, killing everyone aboard. The girl, Janie, says her older sister (also a servant traveling with the company) saw a ghost the previous night. They're both sure the production is doomed. That night, Marie-Grace overhears a bit of conversation between her aunt and Ida, a seamstress who made some costumes. Ida is leaving and trusting Océane with some secret.

The next day more odd things happen, like an alley cat in Miss Bell's dressing room. And the crown disappears. Marie-Grace knows that some people suspect her aunt, and is pleased to hear that Janie doesn't. But Janie is convinced the ghost stole it. While Marie-Grace helps Janie look for the crown, they discover some unpaid bills in the director's office--he's pretty deeply in debt. But he later announces that opening night is sold out, so maybe things will turn around for him, even taking into account the expense of having a new crown made on short notice. His announcement is confusing in retrospect, though: just a short time later, Marie-Grace sees a sign in the ticket office advertising that a few tickets are left for opening night. 

When Cécile arrives that afternoon, she and Marie-Grace try to work things out. They realize that Ida knew where the key was that unlocked where the crown was being held, but didn't hear that the diamonds on it are fake. They don't want to suspect her, but she seems a reasonable culprit. And she's walking to the cemetery across the street right now! She must be the "ghost." The girls follow her and find a note she's left on a tombstone. It promises the person it's intended for that Ida will bring money. And the tombstone is marking the grave of the opera singer who died ten years ago. Sadly, the girls tell Océane about the note and their suspicions. She corrects them that Ida would never steal, and explains that Ida's been acting strangely because she recently found out that her younger sister is a slave on a plantation nearby, and is trying to secure her freedom. The girls contritely apologize to Ida. They also ask her why she's using the grave of the opera singer. Ida hadn't picked it because of whose grave it was, just because it has a large sculpture that's easy for whoever is delivering her notes to find (understandably, she won't disclose who is taking the notes to and from her sister). That night, Ida leaves for her sister as soon as she's put the finishing touches on the costumes.

The next day is dress rehearsal. Very little seems to go right--the orchestra is out of tune, the male lead is forgetting his lines, and someone tries to destroy the costumes that Ida worked so hard on by staining them with stubborn blue dye. Thinking quickly, Marie-Grace fetches the tin of pralines that Cécile's housekeeper Mathilde made. She offers them around to the cast, who all remove their gloves to avoid getting the sticky candy on them. She spies blue dye on the male lead's wrist--it's him! Once outed, he quickly confesses. Marie-Grace guesses why, too: he's having trouble hearing, having come down with a weaker version of whatever sickened the opera singer recovering in Cuba. He capitalized on the ghost story to force the company to wait to perform until they got to their tour stop, by which time he reasoned he'd be healed. The director fires him on the spot, and gives his role to his understudy. The now former male lead apologizes sincerely, and Marie-Grace, feeling some pity for the man who thought his whole career was over, kindly suggests he see a doctor.

Opening night goes well, with no more bad luck. Océane performs beautifully (sadly, her husband isn't there to see as his ship is sailing). The next week at singing lessons, she tells Marie-Grace and Cécile that Ida and her sister are safely in a free state up north--and that she and Uncle Luc are moving too. But not as far as Ida. They're moving to Marie-Grace's neighborhood, and both girls will have a standing invitation to visit often. 

Looking Back

The historical section is about the popularity of opera in the1800s. Especially in New Orleans, they were very well attended. They were also segregated; free people of color sat in the upper sections, which also had space reserved for slaves who had permission to attend. Considering that slaves were hardly allowed to travel beyond their masters' homes, I'm surprised they could go to operas. I bet a lot were there with their masters to drive the coach or carry bags or something.


This book is dedicated to Chrissie.

In this book and some of her others, Marie-Grace uses the exclamation "gracious sakes!" I've never heard it before but it somehow fits for her.

Cécile's paternal grandfather was a slave when he was younger.

Opening night of the opera is a Thursday.


Cécile's Gift

Published in 2011; author Denise Lewis Patrick; illustrators Christine Kornacki and Cindy Salans Rosenheim


It's now October. There are still a handful of new cases of yellow fever each day, but only two or three, nothing like the droves of people that it was in the summer. One happens to be the young adult brother of a young girl, Perrine Dupree, whose parents already died of yellow fever. He faints right outside Holy Trinity while Cécile and Marie-Grace are volunteering there. The girls take Perrine into Holy Trinity and comfort her while Sr Beatrice makes arrangements for a nun from Children of Mercy, an orphanage for minorities, come get her, and for Perrine to get news of her brother's health. Cécile accompanies her there, and promises to visit the next day.

On the way to bring lunch to her father and his employees, Cécile sees casket after casket. So many people have died and left their loved ones behind. She feels helpless against the tide of grief that's sweeping over the city. When Sr Beatrice sends a message asking for help with a benefit for the orphans happening in a few weeks, Cécile jumps at the chance. Cécile decides to perform a recitation at it. The orphans love her stories so much. Surely she can help in more ways than just letting them forget their troubles for a few minutes. Her tutor helps her find some options and she picks "Response" by Auguste Populus. When she's not practicing, Cécile visits Perrine. Inspired by her grandfather's gift for story-telling, she describes adventures for Perrine to imagine. Her brother is getting better, but is still not well enough to care for her. But at least he's out of danger.

All of Cécile's family is helping with the benefit. Armand is painting scenery, Aunt Octavia is helping the orphans knit items to sell, her grandfather is helping build the stage, her parents are organizing things. No one is available to give her constructive feedback about her recitation. But Cécile knows Marie-Grace can help, and indeed Marie-Grace is happy to. But when Cécile recites the poem for Perrine, the young girl doesn't understand it. Cécile is crushed: she picked the poem especially for the children, but if they can't understand it how will it lift their spirits? Marie-Grace encourages Cécile to write her own poem, one the children will understand and appreciate. But can she write a poem good enough for something as important as the benefit? A few nights before the benefit, Cécile talks with Mathilde who tells her that everyone has a special gift and that anything done with love will be good. Later that night, inspired by a dream, Cécile write a poem she's sure is good enough. 

The day of the benefit arrives, and Cécile is pleased to see that all of New Orleans has turned out to help the orphans. So many people are donating their time, talent, and money to the worthy cause. Shy Marie-Grace is even going to sing a duet with her aunt Océane. The two perform their song perfectly, and shortly after it's Cécile's turn. She recites her poem from the heart, titled "Things to Hold Close," about treasuring happy moments as they happen so they can give strength in uncertain times. The crowd explodes with applause when she finishes, and Perrine is so touched she's moved to tears. Cécile's mother is nearly overcome with pride for her daughter. Yes, Cécile can indeed write well enough for the benefit.

A short time later, the Reys have Marie-Grace and her family over for an elaborate dinner. Dr. Gardner announces that the benefit raised enough money to help all the orphanages in the city. The next day Marie-Grace leaves with her father, aunt, and uncle to visit family north of New Orleans. She'll be gone for two or three months, but she and Cécile will stay in touch through letters. Their friendship will be a long one. 

Looking Back

When yellow fever finally subsided in 1853, New Orleans faced a new set of challenges. Businesses had closed at least temporarily for much of the time, and many families had lost breadwinners. New orphanages were built to house the unfortunate children who lost parents to the epidemic. The small local charities were stretched thin. There was no Red Cross or federal aid money to help, so the people of New Orleans had to help themselves. Many wealthy families organized or contributed to benefits, often entertainment-driven. In the 1850s, New Orleans was already a leading cultural center, full of ballets, operas, and theater, and home to distinguished musicians and composers. It's little wonder the city turned to its own resources. Today New Orleans is continues to influence culture, from jazz music to Cajun cooking. And in this century it still has to face disasters, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the oil spill in 2010. The strong sense of community felt through much of the city helps it come together in times of crisis.


This book is dedicated to New Orleans.

Mr. Rey has been very busy at his job. Cécile doesn't realize for a while that he's busy because there are so many headstones and memorials to carve.

Cécile and her family attend mass one Sunday in November. It's almost too bad that November 2 was a Wednesday in 1853--All Souls Day, the day that Catholics dedicate to everyone who's died in the past year. That must have been a difficult mass.

Cécile's poem rhymes in English. I guess she recited in English, then.

The only bit of Christmas in any of the main six books was Cécile putting away tree ornaments in her first book, and there were no other holidays other than the Mardi Gras ball. I feel vaguely cheated.