Monday, June 23, 2008

History Mystery: Shadows on Society Hill by Evelyn Coleman

It is 1866 and in Philadelphia, former slaves are coming out into the light of a new day. Freedmen's schools are opening, and African Americans are beginning to be accepted for their skills and intelligence in society. Reconstruction is in full swing in America, and its cruel racist conclusion is still in the unforeseen future.

For Addy Walker's family, their past as escaped slaves is not forgotten, but reunited at last, their hopes for the future are high. When Addy's quick action saves the wealthy Albert Radisson from a runaway horse, he hires her father to work as a master carpenter and offers them a comfortable home in a snug brick house on the grounds of the fine house on Society Hill inherited from his abolitionist uncle. Soon to be married, Radisson also gives Addy's seamstress mother work altering his fiance's wedding gown when she arrives from Connecticut. The Walker family is a bit dazed from their good fortune, but settle happily into their new life.

Then Addy sees a mysterious light moving on the porch of the Radisson house late at night, and soon Albert's Southern-sympathizing mother begins to accuse Addy of midnight thefts of food and small items from the big house. Seeking to clear her name and solve the mystery of the missing things, Addy discovers a note left for her which can only be read when warmed with the candle found with it. Following its cryptic instructions, she discovers a secret door under the porch which leads to hidden rooms beneath the house from the days of the Underground Railroad. More amazingly, she discovers a black woman hiding there who claims to have been an important Union spy,* still in hiding from Confederate sympathizers who have vowed to kill her on sight.

At first warmly befriended by Radisson's beautiful black-haired fiance', Elisabeth, Addy and her family are astounded and hurt when she accuses Addy of the theft of a valuable piece of jewelry. When her father is quickly fired and the family is given a week to find other lodgings, Addy knows that she has only a few days to solve the mystery and clear her own name. What she doesn't know is that she will have to uncover a secret about Elisabeth, a secret so threatening that the young woman is willing to falsely accuse Addy to protect it.

Evelyn Coleman's Shadows on Society Hill: An Addy Mystery (American Girl Mysteries) is a worthy successor to Connie Porter's Addy books in the original American Girl series. The setting includes many background details on the lives of free blacks in the early Reconstruction period, and the mystery itself is well plotted and suspenseful. Addy risks her family's well-being to unlock the truth behind the clues in this excellent historical mystery, and the solution itself uncovers unknown connections between the seemingly well-born Elisabeth and Addy's family in North Carolina. Without saying so explicitly, author Coleman hints at the many interrelated roots of American life which continue to be revealed in our own time.

*As always in the American Girls novels, the appendix gives a illustrated factual summary of the period, in this case of the life of African Americans during and immediately after Reconstruction. In this backmatter the author reveals that the character of the black Union spy hiding out in the Radisson house is based on Mary L. Bowser, a black Union spy with a photographic memory who pretended to be a uneducated slave in the Confederate White House of Jefferson Davis, listening in on conversations with his generals as she served them, reading his private correspondence, and reporting critical information to the Union forces. Our nation's history is full of amazing life stories. Let's hope that the authors and editors at American Girl keep on telling them for young readers.

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  • thank you thank you thank you...what an invaluable website! I'm always on the prowl for books for my grandchildren....your reviews are enlightening...i didn't know you existed until today...will visit often.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:04 AM  

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