Meet Cécile

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


Again it's January 1853, but this time things are from the perspective of Cécile Rey. She lives with her mother, father, grandfather, recently-widowed Aunt Octavia, and young cousin Réne. Her older brother Armand has been studying in France for the last two years, but he'll finally be home again in August. The Rey family is very well-off, with Mr. Rey being a skilled and highly-respected marble sculptor and Mrs. Rey owning and managing several properties. Though some wealthy families have slaves, even black families, the Reys know it's wrong to own another human being. They do have a few servants, but they treat them well. They own a parrot named Cochon, not any people. Cécile loves her family--she's always looking for stories to put in her weekly letters to Armand--but sometimes struggles with interactions with other people in New Orleans. She doesn't always remember to act like a perfect lady, causing some people to look down at her. And sometimes she daydreams of being a famous performer while she should be paying attention to her studies with her private tutor or focusing on her opera lessons. Plus, some new residents who have moved from other parts of the US think all non-whites are slaves and treat Cécile and her family rudely. She has to see her grandfather verbally harassed in a store by some new-comers, who seem disgusted to be in the same room as a black man.

That same afternoon, Cécile meets another white newcomer just after her singing lesson. She's a little wary--maybe this Northerner will also hate black people on principle. But she remembers that her mother would want Cécile to be on her best behavior, and she politely introduces herself. The other girl just as politely introduces herself as Marie-Grace. After just a few minutes, the girls are starting to form a friendship. Then the Reys' maid Ellen comes in to fetch Cécile and bring her home. She has good news, too: Armand will be back early, in May! It's turned out to be a pretty good day. 

The next few weeks are a blur of activity as the family prepares for Armand's return. Cécile can't help feel a bit left out and jealous that her brother will get so much attention. Surprisingly, Ellen understands. She was once in the same position with her brother returning after a long time away. Cécile is grateful to have some empathize with her. Her confusing feelings are multiplied when Marie-Grace arrives at singing lessons with an invitation to the Mardi Gras ball and their teacher invites Marie-Grace to look through her things from past performances for a costume. Cécile can't hold her tongue and asks why she must be left out when she's been a student longer. She instantly regrets saying this, and immediately apologizes to both the teacher and Marie-Grace, who accept. Marie-Grace is disappointed to learn that she and Cécile won't be able to attend the same ball, as Cécile will go to the one for colored children. Cécile is at first surprised that Marie-Grace didn't already know this, but then wonders why they have to have separate balls. She gets permission to choose a costume while helping Marie-Grace select one, and secretly picks one that matches her friend's.

At the ball, Cécile slips into the room housing the other party and finds Marie-Grace. She convinces her to switch balls for one dance, and scopes out the room, trying to see what's different. Aside from the skin tones of the attendees, she can't discern anything. She starts to move in time to the music and some girl chastises her not to dance. The other girl's rudeness surprises Cécile so that she just laughs in the girl's face and continues enjoying herself. When the song is over, she and Marie-Grace meet back in the hallway. They exchange a quick hug and Cécile's mask slips down. Suddenly she's shaken up--what would have happened if she'd been found out? She dismisses the intrusive and worrisome thoughts, rationalizing that she wasn't caught, and returns to her own ball to enjoy the rest of the night. 

Finally, May arrives. The Rey family goes to meet Armand's boat at the docks. Though she's first to spot him, Cécile finds herself shy around her brother. But quickly she sees that though he's grown and matured, he's still the same brother she's always loved. The family stops at the cathedral on the way home to offer a prayer of thanks for Armand's safe return. While the adults and Réne are still praying, Armand beckons Cécile outside. He has an early birthday present for her: a doll he helped make that looks just like her. Cécile admires the beautiful doll, and Armand confides in her that he doesn't want to be a stonemason like their father. Instead, he wants to be an artist. He goes back inside, and Marie-Grace appears. She hurriedly tells
Cécile that she has a secret and presses a note into her hand before disappearing again. The note asks Cécile to meet with Marie-Grace after singing lessons. Cécile finds herself somewhat overwhelmed with two people suddenly asking her to keep secrets. But at the same time, knowing they trust her is nice. She's confident that she will prove their trust is not misplaced.

Looking Back

The historical section here is largely the same as in Meet Marie-Grace, except with more details about the prejudice directed at New Orleanians by people from other parts of the US following its induction into the Union. The mostly British-descended and mostly Protestant northerners looked down on the more diverse, more Catholic population. Because of slavery in the South, the gens de couleur libres or free people of color had to carry papers on their persons at all times in case they needed to prove they weren't escaped slaves.


This book is dedicated to "my grandmother, Lillian Milton Lewis of New Orleans."

I think it's cool that there are different authors for the different girls, to give each her own voice.

Aunt Octavia's late husband Henry died in an accident at the shipyard in Pennsylvania where he worked, six months before the book is set.

In 1853, Easter was March 27, so Mardi Gras would have been February 8. That means the book skips three months between the last two chapters.

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