Meet Marie-Grace

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


As 1853 begins, Marie-Grace Gardner and her widower father have just moved back to New Orleans after living in various places in the northern states for the last four years. They left after a cholera epidemic claimed not only Marie-Grace's mother, but also her baby brother Daniel. Marie-Grace is excited to return, but finds the city unfamiliar. Many people speak a mix of French and English, and she doesn't remember much French. She doesn't even recognize her visiting Uncle Luc, a Mississippi steamboat pilot who rescued her Bouvier de Flandres Argos as a puppy when she young. But she's game to relearn, and happily accepts her uncle's invitation to accompany him to a parade happening a few blocks away. Her uncle introduces her a lot of people, most nice or at least polite, but one girl, Lavinia seems stuck-up. Marie-Grace doesn't let that bother her much though, because next Uncle Luc takes her to meet an opera singer, Mademoiselle Océane. Marie-Grace also meets a student of hers, a girl her age named Cécile Rey. They hit it off pretty quickly. After Cécile's lesson, Mlle Océane listens to Marie-Grace sing, and agrees with Uncle Luc that she has promise. If her father says it's okay, Marie-Grace can start taking lessons. Not only does he like the idea (provided the cost is reasonable), he tells Marie-Grace he's going to enroll her in school. With all the moving they've done that last few years, she's mostly been studying at home and only in schools for a few or weeks months at a time. Enrolling in school means she'll have a chance to make a lot of friends!

Marie-Grace spends a few days acclimating to the city. She helps her father in his medical practice, and does some errands for Mrs. Curtis, the housekeeper. Mrs. Curtis is uneasy around the non-white residents and also gets sore joints from arthritis, so Marie-Grace gets to go ahead of her with Argos to different shops sometimes. In one, she meets Cécile again and the two talk a bit. Cécile helps Marie-Grace with her French and they agree to try to see each other more often. Marie-Grace feels a little conspicuous with her new friend, because Cécile is very wealthy, but for most of their interactions it's no issue. 

Soon it's her first day of school, at St. Teresa's Academy. It doesn't start well: the nun lectures in French, and snobby Lavinia is in her class. She struggles at first despite Sister Pauline trying to help, until they get to the math lesson where the knowledge comes to her easily. It doesn't take long for her to start doing well in other subjects, although French remains difficult. Lavinia has decided not to like Marie-Grace, but that can't be helped. Saturdays are the best days of the week: that's when Marie-Grace has singing lessons. She gets to spend time with Cécile then, too, and practice her French and get to know her friend more. Mlle Océane even gets Marie-Grace invited to a Mardi Gras ball! Her singing teacher is wonderfully kind, and Marie-Grace hopes her suspicions that she and Uncle Luc are in love are true. Though she's thrilled about the ball, she's disappointed that Cécile can't go, as the Mardi Gras children's balls are segregated. But this year both will be at the same building, so maybe the girls will see each other. Mlle Océane lets them look through her wardrobe for costume elements. 

The ball is great fun, despite Lavinia acting like she's in charge of everything, even saying Marie-Grace isn't allowed to dance. Cécile and Marie-Grace are dressed in identical fairy costumes complete with masks, and during the frivolity Cécile sneaks over the Marie-Grace's ball and the two switch places for one dance. When they switch back and Marie-Grace learns that Cécile danced at her ball, she gains the courage to ignore Lavinia and dance too. They leave at the same time, and Marie-Grace can hardly wait until their next singing lesson, to talk about going to both balls.

Looking Back

When Marie-Grace moved to New Orleans, it had only been part of the US for fifty years. It was a bustling port city, and more diverse than most parts of the country. There were many different customs that people from all over the world had brought to the city, notably Carnival and Mardi Gras. Nearly a fourth of the population was of African or Afro-Caribbean descent, and thousands of them were free rather than slaves as in much of the South at the time, because the French and Spanish settlers let slaves earn money for their work and buy their freedom (I guess they were more like indentured servants?). Furthermore, many were in the upper class like Cécile's family. Segregation existed--there were "Whites Only" sections in most settings--but there was still more opportunity for free black people in New Orleans than in most of the US at the time.


This book is dedicated to Jay.

 This is a terrible book to read when you're hungry. Too many descriptions of good food!

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