History Mystery #10: Shadows in the Glasshouse

Author: Megan McDonald

Illustrators: Paul Bachem and Laszlo Kubinyi

Publishing Year: 2000

Setting:  Jamestown, autumn 1621


Twelve-year-old Meredith "Merry" Shipman's life has had some turmoil. She used to live in a fancy London house with her older sister and parents, not wanting for anything. Then her parents died, leaving Merry and Margaret orphans. Margaret was old enough to work as a barmaid, and Merry could sometimes scrounge up food in the streets. It was a hard life, but at least they had each other. Until three months ago, when Merry was kidnapped and sent to the New World as an indentured servant.

When the ship she's on finally reaches land, Merry is auctioned off like a slave (indentured servants weren't that different, except for the possibility of their service being over at some point). She's to work in a glasshouse, owned by Captain Norton who is intent on succeeding in the glassblowing business. He's brought Italian glassblowers over, eager to have them attempt their secret methods that result in clear glass. Her first night in Jamestown, Merry overhears a plot to steal a book that an apprentice glassblower, Angelo, brought with him. He's been taking notes in the margins of his book as he improves his skills and figure out how to make clear glass of the larger-grained sand in Jamestown. When he takes Merry with him to work in the glasshouse the next day, she warns him to keep his book safe, lest his studying be stolen for someone else's profit. But it's too late. The book is already gone.

A short time later, Merry has the opportunity to look through the house where she's staying (the man of the house, Mr. Webbe, is one of the ones who wanted to steal the book). She finds the thin volume slipped inside a Bible, but the lady of the house returns before Merry can take it.

Meanwhile, strange things are happening in the glasshouse. Blown glass needs to cool very gradually or it becomes brittle, so the glasshouse workers place their items in a furnace overnight. When Merry arrives to work one morning, she finds that the furnace was sabotaged and the fire went out. The glass pieces are all destroyed--and they were part of a huge order, a wedding gift that a local man will be presenting to his bride who is due to arrive from England. It will take a few days for the fire to get hot enough to melt sand into glass again. The head glassblower, Franz, thinks that Bernado is to blame (conveniently, he's one of the men who was conspiring to steal Angelo's book). As Merry cleans up, she tells Angelo that she found his book, but that Mr. Webbe moved it again. Angelo tries to convince Merry to let things be, as he has most of his formulas memorized anyway. Merry suspects Mr. Webbe is the one who sabotaged the glasshouse, and seems to confirm her suspicions when she finds a bootprint by the damage that exactly matches his, right down to a crack on the heel.

Three weeks pass with no further incidents, and the glasshouse is up and running again. Franz is so impressed with Merry's hard work and help that he offers to help her blow her own bottle. She's very excited to head to work the next day, only to be told she's to mind Thomas, the young son of Captain Norton, as the Captain is very ill and Mrs. Norton is away for a bit. While doing so, she overhears Mr. Webbe and Bernardo talking about "getting rid of" Angelo. Before she can figure out how to warn him, she finds Captain Norton dead in his bed, his sheets and pillow soaked with blood. Did he succumb to his illness...or was he stabbed?

Several days later, the large order of glassware is finished--and mysteriously smashed to bits. A distinct blue bead is among the wreckage. One of the ones Angelo had made to replace some that had fallen from Merry's necklace, her sole memento of her parents. Mr. Webbe has Angelo arrested and promises that he'll hang for the crime. Staring at her necklace, Merry remembers how Angelo mentioned the beads he made aren't as perfect as the originals. The bead that's being used against him as evidence is one of the originals--she'd given him one so he could try to copy it. Realizing that this can exonerate him, she rushes to the governor's house where Angelo's trial is being held and falsely confesses that she destroyed the glass in a fit of anger over her kidnapping and forced servitude. The court releases Angelo and has Merry arrested. Merry saw Mr. Webbe leave the house the night of the vandalism, and is sure he stole her bead, but knows there's no way the court will believe that. She languishes in a crude jail for a few days before Angelo sneaks her some flint, so she can set a fire, allowing her to escape.

Angelo helps her hide in the loft of the glasshouse until morning when they can make a plan. A noise wakes her in the middle of the night, and she sees a figure bringing gunpowder to the furnaces, no doubt to blow up the glasshouse. She shouts for the person to stop, only to realize it's Mrs. Webbe in her husband's clothes. Mrs. Webbe tries to justify her actions: if the glasshouse fails, her husband will finally take her back to England, and Merry should help her, because no one will believe the word of an indentured servant who confessed to vandalism over that of a noblewoman. Fortunately for Merry, Angelo, Franz, and Mr. Webbe happen upon the scene. Desperate, Mrs. Webbe tells the gathering crowd that she has to blow up the glasshouse, because her husband, now so close to discovering how to make valuable clear glass thanks to stealing Angelo's book, will do anything to ensure they stay in Jamestown--even murder the owner of the glasshouse.

The Webbes are both banished for the crimes (there's no real evidence to convict Mr. Webbe, but under the law he's considered responsible for his wife's actions). Because Merry helped catch the real culprit and because her masters are banished or dead, she's given a certificate declaring her indenture completed. She's free.

Merry doesn't have the money to return to her sister in England, but she's able to get employment at the glasshouse. She can at least sent Margaret a letter soon, when she gets a free moment. The glasshouse is very busy, filling its big order for a third and final time. Merry gets to meet the man who placed the order, and he says that his new wife is in Jamestown too, and has heard about Merry's excitement. She'd like to meet Merry. And then in what may be the biggest coincidence of the seventeenth century, his wife is Margaret herself! She'd learned of Merry's kidnapping and that she could get to Jamestown too, if she could prove herself a desirable bride. She actually arrived during Merry's imprisonment, but was unable to get anyone in power to believe that the two were sisters. But now they're reunited, just in time to ring in the new year together, in the New World.

A Peek into the Past

The historical section is about the struggles colonists faced to get the Jamestown settlement up and running (from 1609 to 1610, the population dropped from 500 to 60, largely due to starvation). By 1621, however, it was doing better. Investors were buying large properties to grow tobacco, and other industries did decent business as well, for example, glasslowing, with Italian and German artists competing for the lion's share of the market. Indentured servants were common--people agreeing to contracts of four to seven years in exchange for passage to the New World or other rewards. Some, like Merry, were forced into indentured servitude, and not all saw their contracts honored.


Dedicated to Richard.

I got this book from the library. Someone was hungry while reading it; it's full of crumbs.

Merry chides herself for playing near the docks and getting herself kidnapped. A boy she's talking to counters that none of her actions justified the abduction. I like him.

By the end of the book, Angelo has succeeded in making clear glass. Bernardo hasn't, and has gotten himself a bad reputation because people suspect him of stealing Angelo's book and because of his boasting and relatively poor glass-making skills. He slinks back to England in disgrace.

I suspected Mrs. Webbe when she told Merry to bring some medicine to Captain Norton, but thought that the blood was evidence of Captain Norton being poisoned. Poison is a very popular way for women to murder. I thought she was trying to murder the glasshouse owner to make the glasshouse fail, in addition to the other sabotage.

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