History Mystery #5: Secrets on 26th Street

Author: Elizabeth McDavid Jones

Illustrators: Robert Sauber and Greg Dearth

Publishing Year: 1999

Setting:  Chelsea district, New York City, autumn 1914


Eleven-year-old Susan O'Neal has a lot on her plate. While she'd love to have leisure time to read and even entertains the idea of college occasionally, she knows she has to be realistic. She's of Irish descent and her family lives in poverty. In a few years she'll be someone's maid.

Susan's the oldest of three girls (Helen is eight and Lucy is three) and her father died of pneumonia last year. Her mother works twelve hours a day, six days a week at a shipping office, so it's up to Susan to take care of nearly everything. Even with the work, the O'Neals are four months behind on rent. Their slumlord is threatening to evict if they can't pay by the end of the month--next Thursday. They're taking in a boarder to make ends meet.

When Susan and Helen arrive home from school after picking up Lucy from the neighbor's, the boarder is already there. Susan is resentful at first--the boarder is taking over the bedroom her parents used to share--but the boarder has laid out practically a feast for dinner, and is so friendly that Susan and her sisters take to her right away. She's from England, Beatrice Alexis Victoria Rutherford--Bea. Bea gets on well with Susan's mother too. Susan helps Bea unpack. When she sees the ornate things Bea has, like silk nightgowns and more clothes than the dresser has space for, she wonders why Bea is choosing to rent a room in a dingy tenement, rather than somewhere nicer. But it would be rude to ask, so she holds her tongue--and continues to when a letter slips out of a book inscribed "must be kept secret for now."

Bea's presence seems to make everything better. Susan's mother even laughs sometimes, something she hadn't really done since being widowed. But money is still tight, and there's not enough to pay all four months' back rent. Susan takes advantage of her bob haircut and disguises herself as a boy to get a job shining shoes after school and on Saturdays. She's good at it, too, and starts earning money pretty quickly. She keeps it secret for the meantime, knowing that her mother wouldn't approve of her using deception to get the job. She'll wait until she gives her mother the money for rent, and then quit if her mother insists. One day she sees Bea, far from where she says she's working. And chatting with the slumlord like they're old friends. Susan reflects that she only met Bea a few weeks ago, and doesn't really know her. Plus, her mother and Bea have been sort of fighting. A coworker of Susan's mother was fired for marching in a suffrage parade, and Bea admonishes Susan's mother for not standing up for the woman.  Susan's mother counters that she'd be fired too, and even if every woman did the same thing, they could be replaced in  half an hour. It's too dangerous to stand up for causes in desperate situations.

One day at work, Susan ends up shining her slumlord's shoes. She takes a little more time than necessary, because he's talking about his plan to get several suffragists arrested at Saturday's rally, with the help of some corrupt cops and politicians. Susan makes up her mind to go to the rally. She takes Helen and a neighbor boy, Russell, with her (her mother is gone to visit Susan's paternal great-aunt who is ill, and Lucy stays with Russell's mother). Susan gets caught up in a speech by Alice Paul (a real person) when the crowd turns. The slumlord's plan is starting, and soon things start getting violent. Helen gets separated from them briefly, but all three get away from the riot. As they leave, Susan notices that those being arrested aren't just the people who were fighting--it's the suffragists who were just making speeches, too. When everyone gets home, Susan is worried to find that Bea isn't back yet. The factory where she works closed for the day a little while ago, so she should be back. Even after the girls eat dinner, she's still not home and neither is Susan's mother. Susan asks Russell to check on Bea at the factory (Lucy and Helen are asleep). Bea comes back a while later, with a slight limp, and explains that she hurt her ankle at work and is very tired, so she'll go straight to bed. Not long after that, Russell returns. He was talking with the factory foreman. No Beatrice Rutherford has ever worked at the factory.

The next day brings more confusion. Susan's mother is still gone. The slumlord comes by for the rent, too, and Susan, remembering Bea's advice about acting confident, bluffs that her mother has the money, but forgot to tell Susan where she'd put it before she left. The slumlord says he's only looking for this month's rent, as Bea paid off the balance, and wasn't it nice of her dad's cousin to come help the family? Susan recovers from the shock well enough that the slumlord doesn't suspect anything, and he says that he'll come back for the money in a few days.

Monday comes with no word from Susan's mother. It's very worrisome, because her mother doesn't even like the family member she's visiting, and wouldn't risk losing her job by staying away so long. Susan spends some of her tip money to send a telegram to her great-aunt asking after her mother, but at the end of the day there's no reply. When she gets home, Bea announces that a telegram arrived and her mother is safe, and staying a bit longer. But Helen tells Susan that she saw Bea read the telegram, and it was clearly bad news. Susan and Helen work out a scheme to get the telegram and also the letter Susan saw when helping Bea unpack. But there's no information about their mother in either. The telegram appears to be from Bea's estranged grandfather (her only living family member), refusing to send money because of a falling out they had. And the letter is from Alice Paul, asking for help with the suffrage movement. Intriguing, but nothing that helps Susan know where her mother is. And the next morning brings word from Susan's great-aunt. Susan's mother isn't there, nor was she asked to come, nor is her great-aunt ill. So not only has Bea lied, but Susan's own mother has as well.

Susan and Helen skip school that day, trying to figure out where their mother is. Susan ends up following Bea to a law office, and confronts her after overhearing some conversation. It turns out that Bea has come to the US to organize the working class to rally for women's suffrage, and Susan's mother had agreed to help. But during the riot, Bea and Susan's mother got separated, and Bea doesn't know what happened to her. Susan thinks Bea is lying again, and goes to the county jail with her shoe-shine money to bail her mother out (Russell offers some of his too). At first it seems like another dead end, until Susan tries the stage name her mother had wanted to use for vaudeville. She's there, and Susan and Russell bail her out. Susan's mother is sore and tired, but otherwise fine.

Back at home, all the truth finally comes out. Susan's mother was offered a job with the suffrage movement, for better pay than her old job. But she needed to take a day off from work, so she made up the story about the sick relative. She told the same story to her daughters in case someone checked up on her. Bea apologizes to the girls for not coming clean about their mother's whereabouts earlier--although she truly didn't know she was in jail, she could have told them about the rally and ensuing riot, and then maybe Susan could have helped sooner (Bea had asked her grandfather for money for bail or medical expenses, but being against suffrage, he refused). Susan's mother and sisters consider it water under the bridge, but Susan isn't quite there yet. She'd thought she had a special bond with Bea, and finding out how much Bea had kept from her hurts. Bea talks with Susan and makes a heartfelt apology, and promises to not keep any more secrets. Susan accepts the apology, and joins her sisters and mother in treating Bea as a member of the family.

A Peek into the Past

The historical section is about the movement for women's right to vote in the US. The suffrage movement took more than six decades to finally reach its goal. Powerful political lobbies feared that women voters would take power away from them, and were instrumental in defeating several attempts to pass an amendment. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were influential figureheads in the 1800s, but when they died much of the passion seemed to leave the suffrage movement. A breath of fresh air arrived in the form of British suffragists. Finally, the nineteenth amendment was ratified on August 26, 1920, allowing women the right to vote in the United States.


Dedicated to "my husband, Rick, and my children, Mandy, Lindsay, Whitney, and Michael."

With Bea in one bedroom and the three girls in the other, Susan's mother sleeps on a cot in a closet off the kitchen (pantry?). I guess the girls' room could be cramped, but I'd rather sleep in my daughters' room than a closet if at all possible.

Annoyingly, the book doesn't reveal how much or even if Susan got tipped when she shines the slumlord's shoes (she's paid in tips and has to give half to her boss).

No comments: