History Mystery #11: The Minstrel's Melody

Author: Elenora E. Tate

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Glenn Harrington

Publishing Year: 2001

Setting:  northeast Missouri, April 1904


Orphelia Bruce dreams of a life bigger than what she has now. The twelve-year-old is a gift singer and would love to be a in traveling minstrel show, but her mother insists that any music beyond church hymns (not to mention dancing) is sinful. Her sister Pearl, two years older, also think a minstrel show would be fun, but only as a passing fancy--she'd rather stay on her parents' good side, plus she doesn't have the natural talent Orphelia does. While play-acting that they're in a minstrel show with Cap (a boy Orphelia's age who has a crush on Pearl; he rose the rails to their town), he shows them a shed belonging to the town sheriff containing a variety of musical instruments. It looks almost like a saloon, something very scandalous for Orphelia's town. Orphelia, Pearl, and Cap sneak in and out carefully.

Back at home, Pearl lets the secret slip during dinner. As their strict mother is scolding Pearl, Pearl deflects the blame to Orphelia, a common tactic of hers as their mother rarely punishes Pearl but is always hard on Orphelia. Instead of the usual switching she'd get for misbehaving, Orphelia is forbidden from performing in the town's upcoming talent show--the one organized by a Madame Meritta, a famous minstrel. She appeals to her father, but he retorts that maybe next time she'll think twice about trespassing and doing sinful things like dancing. She's still allowed to go to talent show, and can't help doing part of her act during intermission, when she thinks the room is deserted. None other than Madame Meritta is there to hear her, and she echoes what Orphelia's father said earlier during the show: Orphelia is head and shoulders above the other performers. She even approaches Orphelia's parents to ask if they'll allow Orphelia to perform with her troupe at the World's Fair in St. Louis! Orphelia's father seems amenable, but her mother is outraged at the idea, even when Madame Meritta says Orphelia could represent their church and sing a hymn. Mrs. Bruce icily refuses, and tells Orphelia that she can put the idea completely out of her head--and they will be no more singing or playing piano in church either. Mr. Bruce tries to intervene, saying that they should encourage Orphelia's talent, but it's no use. That night, when her family is sleeping, Orphelia slips out of the house and stows away on Madame Meritta's coach.

She's found out pretty quickly, and Madame Meritta insists on sending her home as soon as possible: a traveling minstrel show is no place for children. But Orphelia is able to talk herself into playing a part that afternoon, to replace an actress who quit. While preparing for the show, she learns that most of what she's read about Madame Meritta is exaggerated. She's not rich, she doesn't live in luxury, she was orphaned rather than being a runaway. In fact, Madame Meritta wants to make her show more of a song-and-dance one rather than the typical racist minstrel shows that other troupes do. She's heard about a new kind of music called the blues, and wants to start showcasing that. She also doesn't want to travel so much anymore--her son died two years ago from smallpox, and Madame Meritta blames her family's traveling for him not being to recover.

Orphelia performs well, and the audience loves her. Except for a rowdy contingent that rushes the stage to "black up" the performers (who are all already African-American anyway); that is, force them into blackface and hurt them in the process. A man named Reuben gets Orphelia to safety, curiously calling her by her mother's name (Otisteen). Reuben has been with Madame Meritta's for a some time after they took him in. He was badly hurt at some point in his life, and has not only physical scars but brain damage. No one knows his real name or his past, but he's hard-working and Madame Meritta and her troupe wouldn't feel right leaving him to fend for himself.

Orphelia's return home is delayed by weather and a bridge washing out. She ends up having to accompany Madame Meritta's troupe to St. Louis, because they can't just leave her behind and the troupe needs to be on time for its performance. Orphelia's parents have been sent a telegram and will meet them there. Orphelia uses her time to try to find out why Reuben would call her by her mother's unusual name. She also remembers she has some papers she took from the possible saloon back home. Much to her surprise, she learns that her parents had been part of a minstrel trio with her late uncle, Winston Taylor. He played a type of wind instrument that she's seen Reuben carving, and he wore a lapel pin in the shape of a music note, just like the one on Reuben's necklace. But the papers Orphelia has also reveal that that her uncle Winston was murdered by a lynch mob that formed as a result of the trio's shows, his body dumped in the Mississippi River. Maybe that's why her mother hates Orphelia's talents so much.

Suddenly Orphelia has a thought. Her uncle's body was never found. Asking Madame Meritta further about Reuben, she learns that the troupe found him shortly after the lynching. She's almost certain that Reuben and Uncle Winston are the same person. She'll have a chance to test her theory when her parents arrive in St. Louis--and thanks to a scheduling change and some trickery, she's going to perform with the troupe, too. Her parents and sister arrive just in time for her to slip onstage, and when the performance is over, she tells her parents about "Reuben." They meet him, and he's confirmed to be Winston. He doesn't really understand all this, but knowing he's alive and cared for brings unfathomable relief to Orphelia's parents. Her mother admits that she's been especially hard on Orphelia ever since her talent became evident, because she feared for her daughter's life. When Mrs. Bruce thought her brother was dead, she was overwhelmed with guilt (the trio had been her idea) and asked her husband to get rid of most of their things from that time. He couldn't bring himself to completely destroy everything but hid it instead, which is why Orphelia was able to find the papers. The piano the trio used to use was donated to Orphelia's church--she's been playing on it for years.

A Peek into the Past

The historical section is mostly about minstrel shows, which tended to portray an exaggerated and romanticized view of African-American life. Before the Civil War, parts were played by white actors in blackface makeup. When slavery ended, some former slaves got work in minstrel shows, but were required to also wear blackface. Because of resentment over losing the war, the racism inherent in the portrayals because more pronounced. But by Orphelia's time some minstrel shows were actually headed by black people, and those troupes were able to simply entertain without insulting their heritage.


Dedicated to Evelyn Morgan, Merilyn Bruce Hamlett, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Mary Carter Smith.

One of the other talent show acts is two girls playing "Flight of the Bumblebee" on violins. That's an incredibly difficult piece of music. Must have been impressive.

On page 47, when Orphelia sneaks into Madame Meritta's coach, someone wrote in the margins "Dancing will be the death of me."

Like Shadows in the Glasshouse, this book makes the point that while you should try to avoid certain risks, you doing something risky doesn't make it right for someone else to do something evil.

Winston/Reuben stays with Madame Meritta's troupe. Orphelia's parents reason that with the brain damage, taking him away from a familiar surrounding would only hurt him further.

Orphelia's mother says she was trying to protect her daughter, but she's really quite awful and basically abusive to Orphelia. It's a little horrific to read about in some parts.

Tate put an author's note in the very back of the book stating that while the character of Winston Taylor was nearly lynched in Lewis County, Missouri in 1892, to the best of her research, there have been no reported lynchings in Lewis County. A  cursory internet search shows the same.

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