Marie-Grace Makes a Difference

Published in 2011; author Sarah Masters Buckey; illustrators Christine Kornacki and Cindy Salans Rosenheim


It's a few days after Marie-Grace and Cécile prayed together in the cathedral, but the epidemic continues. Holy Trinity has taken in twenty-seven new orphans this week alone. The girls help out whenever they can. Marie-Grace feels numb, though. There are so many orphans, and Mlle Océane is still sick. Cécile thinks they should plan out her wedding for her, so she won't be overwhelmed with too much when she recovers. Marie-Grace half-heartedly joins in. She can't help wondering whether the wedding will even happen. 

It's lonely back at Marie-Grace's house. Her father has so many patients to see that he's barely home. Mrs. Curtis was never exposed to yellow fever like Marie-Grace and her father, so she left for Boston to escape it. Mrs. Lambert helps out, making dinners and doing a bit of cleaning, but she has five children including an infant and a young boy recovering from yellow fever, so she can't spend much time there. Only Argos keeps Marie-Grace company. When Uncle Luc comes looking for Dr. Gardner because Mlle Océane has been moved to an infirmary, Marie-Grace offers to sit with her. Uncle Luc can't; the only men allowed are close family or doctors. Fiancés don't count. 

Uncle Luc takes Marie-Grace to the make-shift infirmary (housed in a ballroom) straight away. Marie-Grace is surprised to see Lavinia there. Lavinia's sister was so ill with yellow fever that her father actually ordered a casket. When she recovered, her parents began donated and helping in gratitude. Lavinia's proud to be able to deliver ice, a rare commodity in an 1853 summer, but shudders at the thought of actually being near so many sick people--right where Marie-Grace is headed. The head nurse almost doesn't let Marie-Grace in until she learns who her father is. 

Mlle Océane is almost comatose. Marie-Grace remembers that her father told her nurses work wonders just by making their patients comfortable. Marie-Grace removes her beloved teacher's sweaty bonnet and cleans her face. She straightens the bed, fluffs the pillows, and brushes her hair, all while talking about the ideas Cécile has for the wedding. She talks about the children at the orphanage, and the latest news about Argos--anything she can think of. She remembers how Armand was calmed when Cécile sang to him, and sings "Amazing Grace," the song she was last working on in her lessons. Mlle Océane is so still that for a terrible moment Marie-Grace thinks she's died.

But then she opens her eyes and recognizes Marie-Grace. She asks for ice and Marie-Grace goes to get some. The head nurse isn't sure they have any, but also hadn't heard that Lavinia was going to deliver some. Marie-Grace heads down to the donation center, which is crowded. Though normally shy, Marie-Grace thinks of how Cécile or Lavinia would approach the situation and loudly calls out--politely--that she needs to get through. And there is the ice! She brings a cup back upstairs. Her almost-aunt gratefully, weakly accepts the ice. Uncle Luc arrives with a nurse that Mrs. Lambert recommended, and both are thrilled to see Mlle Océane awake and alert. Then Dr. Gardner comes in, looking ashen. He sees Marie-Grace and rushes for her--Mrs. Lambert had left a note that Marie-Grace was at the infirmary, but didn't specify that she wasn't a patient. The poor man, having already lost his wife and his son, thought he was going to lose his daughter as well. On the way home, Dr. Gardner tells Marie-Grace how proud he is of her--but also that he's sending her to stay with her great-aunt. It's too dangerous for her in New Orleans, and she doesn't have anyone with her at home. She'll sail there in the morning.

They stop by Holy Trinity on the way to the boat. Marie-Grace can't leave without saying goodbye.The children are upset and Cécile is stunned too. Too soon they leave. But then Cécile and Sr Beatrice rush to the dock. They have a plan: Marie-Grace can stay at the orphanage to help, and also not be alone all the time. Argos will have to stay at the house as he would have anyway, but Mrs. Lambert can watch out for him. Dr. Gardner accepts the proposal, and Marie-Grace happily watches the boat leave without her.

Work at the orphanage is difficult, but rewarding. After a week, Marie-Grace's father brings the news that Mlle Océane is out of the infirmary. She's going to convalesce in the country until the epidemic is over--no one knows how long that will be. Marie-Grace feels truly depressed about that. Her father visits her daily, but the idea that this sort of life could go on for months, while people die all around, is very hard. It's all she can do to not give up.

But five weeks later the cases of yellow fever fall significantly. One day, Uncle Luc and Mlle Océane come to visit and announce that they'll be married in three days, right in the chapel at Holy Trinity. And Marie-Grace is to sing "Amazing Grace" during the ceremony. As she readies herself for the wedding, she promises the orphans she's grown to think of as her younger brothers and sisters that she'll visit several times a week, and bring Argos whenever she can. The wedding is simple but beautiful. After vows are exchanged, Marie-Grace gets up to sing. She has a moment of stage fright, but sees her father watching her proudly. The song comes easily after that. As she sings the line "and grace will lead me home" she happily thinks that now, finally, she is home.

Looking Back

The historical section is about germ theory wasn't understood in the 1850s, and consequently some medical treatments actually made patients worse--like bloodletting, especially with non-sterile equipment. Diseases spread easily from person to person because doctors didn't wash their hands between patients. (One particularly nasty and often fatal illness affecting new mothers was puerperal fever, often contracted when a doctor came to assist with labor directly from an autopsy; midwife patients fared better as midwives washed their hands.) Many women worked as nurses with little training, but their methods of keeping patients comfortable, fed, and clean often worked. By the time Marie-Grace and Cécile were adults, medical science had come a long way. Germs were so well understood then that the first vaccines were developed, paving the way for a better quality of life for many.


This book is dedicated to Jay and Jen.

Cécile brings flowers from her garden to help decorate for the wedding.

I was married in nuptial mass (eight years ago last month) and from the order of things this book briefly gives, it seems the wedding wasn't a full mass. As long as the vows are there, it "counts" so this isn't a criticism, just an observation. 

Leeches have made a small, specific comeback in medicine: they can reduce swelling in nearly severed or recently reattached body parts. Maggots also play a role in wound debridement. The use of either is rare, and in both cases the animals are grown under strictly sterile conditions.

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