Hystery Mystery #8: Under Copp's Hill

Author: Kathrine Ayres

Illustrators: Troy Howell and Laszlo Kubinyi

Publishing Year: 2000

Setting:  Boston, spring 1908


Innocenza "Innie" Moretti's twenty-one-year-old cousin Carmela has exciting news: she has a new job decorating pottery at a settlement house. She'll earn seven dollars a week, and won't have to work at a factory anymore. Furthermore, Innie and Teresa (also Innie's cousin, Carmela's younger sister; in sixth grade like Innie) can also come to the settlement house two hours a week--after chores and school--and taking sewing and knitting classes, plus learn about life in America. Innie's annoyed that Carmela volunteered her for sewing lessons, but Carmela explains privately that the settlement house is more of a social club, and that it's starting a library. Innie loves reading, but has to share books at school. The thought of reading a book at her own pace, without waiting for two other girls to finish the page before turning it, delights her. She'll have to hide any library books she gets though; her more traditional uncle doesn't think girls should waste their time with leisure reading when they could be helping run a household (Innie's cousins live upstairs from her).

Innie and Teresa go to the settlement house the very next day, to help clean the room that will be the library. They meet Matela Rosen, a recent immigrants from Russia who is their age, but behind in school because she doesn't speak English well. She's been studying hard, and plans to continue doing so over the summer, and by autumn will be in the same grade as Innie and Teresa. It's a good thing that there are three girls to clean the library, because it's dirty not only from dust but also soot: there was a terrible fire in the neighboring city of Chelsea (a real historical occurrence; it burned for more most of a day and destroyed half the city and left 56% of the population homeless). Innie tries to not think about the fire. When she was two, her parents died in one. She can't remember anything about them, so on the one hand, she doesn't miss them, but on the other, she doesn't know them. Her grandmother, who is raising her, remembers too well, almost suffering PTSD when faced with fire.

But back to the settlement house. Now that it's clean, Innie, Teresa, and Matela find themselves very much enjoying the first meeting of their group, which congregates on Wednesday afternoon. Innie is intrigued by some overheard conversation about a missing packing box being recovered, but without the food it held or the heirloom teapot belonging to one of the settlement house leaders. She wonders if it's related to a book being misplaced. Speaking of books and things going missing, Innie disregards the rule to take just one book a week, and slips Louisa May Alcott's Little Men into her bag with Little Women (kinda long books there, Innie). While no one knows what Innie did, Matela comments that her mother would have blamed a ghost for the other misplaced things. The idea makes Innie nervous, but Teresa rolls her eyes at the thought of ghosts. The three girls are becoming fast friends, although Teresa and Matela admit that their fathers would prefer they be friends with people of their own religion and heritage.

But things at the settlement house aren't going so well. More items are going missing, and the leaders suspect Innie, with her reputation for misbehaving, might be involved. She accidentally broke an expensive pottery piece, and because she didn't tell the leaders right away--she was going to clean it up first--they figure she's a trouble-maker. Innie already feels alone the world, perceiving herself not quite accepted by her cousin's family and not a daughter to anyone living, this doesn't really help her self-esteem. But she does vow to herself, her parents, and the Blessed Virgin Mary that she'll be as perfect as possible to avoid any further suspicion--no more taking extra books, and no more being careless. Of course, she does arouse suspicion: she, Teresa, and Matela thoroughly clean the storefront where the settlement house sells pottery, so they can look for clues, and she finds one of the missing pieces of pottery. A settlement house leader comes in just in time to see her holding the item, which looks pretty bad when Innie's already just about considered guilty. The three girls explain themselves, and the settlement house leader agrees there's no real evidence that Innie's at fault, but promises to keep a close eye on her.

Matela thinks there is a ghost now; a poltergeist causing trouble--it's right near a graveyard, after all. She convinces the other two girls to stake out the place at night. They do indeed see someone inside, and because they know the building is locked, the person must be hiding there during the day or sneaking in somehow. A few days later, Innie finds time to try a neglected door in the building, and it reveals a foul-smelling room she figures must be where the thief hides: it has remains of stolen food, and a stolen pottery bowl. She comes back later with Teresa and Matela, and some candles. They discover that the room is actually a tunnel, leading up Copps's Hill, the graveyard (so that was the odor--hmm, that gets to me in a weird way). Innie knows that if she shows the settlement house leaders the passage without finding the thief, they'll think she's the one who's been coming in through it. Teresa refuses to come at night to watch for the thief, but Matela agrees to.

This prompts Innie to divulge a secret to Matela. Before Innie was born, her parents had several premature babies who were born too early to survive. When Innie was finally born healthy, they promised her to a life of Holy Orders, as a future nun. When Innie was two, she woke early one morning crying. Her grandmother took her for a walk, and while they were gone, the building burned and her parents were killed. Her grandmother repeated the promise, reasoning that Innie had been spared for a higher calling. Innie acts up to make the nuns think she's too sinful to accepted into the convent. Matela encourages her that in America, she is free to make her own decisions. She even volunteers to go the next nearest Catholic church with Innie, so she can a priest about the promises made for her--a big thing because the crosses on churches remind Matela of the uniforms the Russian soldiers wore when ransacking Jewish homes. Much to Innie's relief, the priest tells her that no, she's not beholden to her parents' and grandmother's promises. She might decide, when she's more grown up, to be a nun, but it should be her decision.

Back at home, there's some trouble. Innie's not allowed to return to the settlement house, as the leaders consider the thefts her fault. And her cousins Carmela and Teresa have been in foul moods and blame Innie's acting out. Innie's aunt starts to scold her, but when the story comes pouring out, her aunt comforts her instead. She asks Innie why she felt she had to go so far to ask her questions, and Innie explains that she didn't have anyone at home to ask. Innie's aunt tells her that she considers Innie just as much a part of her family as her sons and daughters, and any time something is troubling her, she can ask for help.

Shortly after, everyone's in a good mood, when Carmela passes her citizenship test (Innie and Teresa were born in America). The celebration is slightly tempered when Innie's uncle reveals that the building he wants to buy--which would house a business plus Innie and her extended family--comes with complicated legal paperwork that he doesn't understand. Innie points out that Carmela studied enough to become a citizen; surely she can help with the contract. Carmela's father and brothers scoff at this notion at first, and so does the grandmother, but Carmela and her mother remind them how much she studied. Her father agrees to let her look at the contract.

With that solved, Innie and Teresa meet up with Matela late Saturday night to watch the tunnel. When they arrive, a light's already on in the settlement house. They go in, and find a young Irish girl named Katie. She had come over to the US recently, and was working as a servant, sending her money back to her widowed mother and sisters. But after the Chelsea fire, she couldn't find the family she'd worked for. She didn't go to any of the aid societies because at thirteen, she's too young to be working. Furthermore, she's not sure she's in the US legally--the man who arranged her passage across the Atlantic wasn't clear on that. She needed a dry place to sleep, so she found a cave another servant had shown her, which turned out of course to the tunnel. Desperately hungry, she took some food (and the teapot, accidentally) plus a few dishes, intending to pay the settlement house back. While the girls are discussing how best to handle things, Carmela shows up. She'd noticed Teresa acting suspicious, and followed them. She takes the younger girls upstairs to the settlement house leaders' room. When they hear the whole story, they offer Katie a job in the settlement house! They also apologize to Innie, but frankly it's a pretty weak apology. Carmela and Teresa also learn of Innie's visit with the priest and her concerns about being a nun. Teasing a bit, Carmela asks if Innie will behave better now, knowing that she won't be forced into a convent. Innie counters that she'll act a little better--she wouldn't want to make her grandmother too suspicious of her behavior!

A Peek into the Past

As the United States became the new home for streams of immigrants in the early 1900s, settlement houses opened. They were designed to help immigrants adjust to their new lives. Helen Storrow started one in Boston, uniquely just for girls. She believed that immigrant girls could aspire to more than being a housewife or a servant, and offered them opportunities to learn different skills. She worked with Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown to provide them with instruction in culture, needlework, pottery, reading, and politics. Some families thought it was a waste of time; that their children should either be working at home or at a paying job once they were old enough, so sometimes children had to hide books from their parents (like Claudia Kishi?). Recognizing the desperate poverty many immigrants lived in, the women who lead the settlement house started Paul Revere Pottery, and girls who worked making valuable pieces could earn ten dollars a week, about the same as they could in a factory, but in much better conditions ($10 in 1908 would be about $250 in 2014). Many girls continued their success as they grew up, holding jobs as librarians or teachers. But integrating into American life meant losing touch with their cultures (in Boston at the time, about two-thirds of the immigrants were Italian Catholics and one-third Russian Jews who were escaping persecution like Rebecca Rubin's family). They were able to hang on to some of their traditional ways, and the north end of Boston still boasts many Italian stores today.


Dedicated to "Steve and Lisa and Matthew."

Innie and her family attend St. Leonard's Catholic Church, a real place built by Italian immigrants. It was dedicated in 1899 and is still in use today.

This is the third sentence of the book: "Mass seemed to have gone on for a long time this morning, and sitting still made Innie itch." Sometimes mass is long, and some homilies are boring (that one about tithing with regards to pre-tax income comes to mind). But you don't sit still much during a Catholic mass--during different parts people are standing, sitting, or kneeling; plus a bit of walking to go up for Communion. I sometimes joke that it's to keep us awake. This book is pre-Vatican II, but there would still have been some moving around.

Oh, I just love what Innie's aunt tells her: "You are not a child of my body, but you are a child of my heart." We would love to adopt a child, and this sentiment is really touching.

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