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.

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