Way Down Yonder...: Meet Cecile by Denise Lewis Patrick
"Grand-pere, look! There's Madame Zulime's candy shop. Her pralines are the best!"
"Ah, Cecile! I see your grand-pere is with you today, Perhaps he'll get you some bon-bons, too!" Madam Zulime smiled and pointed to a tower of chocolates inside a display case.
Cecille headed right over to look. She heard the door open and close behind her.
"Escuzez-moi," she heard Grand-pere say.
"Watch where you are going, boy!" came the rude reply. "You don't step in front of me!" The loud man moved as if he would shove Grand-pere.
Cecile could feel her face turn rosy red. "How dare you, sir!" she burst out. "We are gens de couleur libres!"
It is 1853 in New Orleans, and the traditional way of life, in which "gens de couleur libres," free people of color, occupy a place of respect in New Orleans society, is threatened by the influx of people from the slave-holding states. Made up of skilled artisans, like Cecile's father, a much sought-after marble sculptor, craftsmen, and merchants, this group of mixed race had much greater freedom than African-Americans in the rest of "America," as the locals called the rest of the United States. Nine-year-old Cecile has lived a life of comfort and privilege, with servants, singing lessons, a personal tutor, and an Irish maid to accompany her whenever she goes out, like all well-bred young girls. Her brother Armand is finishing his art education in Paris, and Cecile's only concerns are the snooty Montoyer sisters and the choice of her costume for the upcoming Mardi Gras Children's Ball.
Then Cecile has her first encounter with "les Americains," at the candy shop and suddenly realizes that people from outside her comfortable milieu see people of color much differently. When Cecile meets a newcomer at the studio of French opera singer Madame Oceane, Marie-Grace Gardner, who is an "Americain," who has lived most of her life in Massachusetts, Cecile is drawn to the lively and open Marie-Grace despite her suspicions of American outsiders. As they meet every Saturday for lessons at the studio, the girls begin a friendship which grows over the next months.
Then it is almost Mardi Gras, the season Cecile has been looking forward to since Christmas ended. Madame Oceane allows Marie-Grace to wear one of her theatrical fairy costumes to the white children's Opera Ball, and Cecile manages to borrow an identical costume and mask to wear to her own Creole Christmas ball. When she discovers that their dances are to be held in side-by-side ballrooms, an idea for a grand adventure begins to grow in Cecile's mind, and when the two girls meet in the hallway and realize that with their costumes and masks they are almost identical fairies, Cecile easily persuades the independent-minded Marie-Grace to swap places with her so that they can attend each other's balls.
The introduction of two new characters into the venerable American Girls books is an noteworthy event, especially since this new entry which will feature books on both characters while interweaving their individual stories with the history of pre-Civil War New Orleans. Ahead for the two characters are life-changing events for both, the devastating Yellow Fever epidemic of 1854 and the run-up to the Civil War, both cataclysmic events for the social structure of their city. Denise Lewis Patrick's Meet Cecile (American Girl) (American Girls Collection) (American Girl, 2011) leads off this new mini-series with the introduction of Cecile and Marie-Grace, followed by the publication of Meet Marie-Grace (American Girl) (American Girls Collection) (American Girl, 2011).
As with no other books in the beginning chapter genre, the American Girl series gives young readers (at least female ones) engaging fiction books which gives them a you-are-there view of life during some of the turning points in American history, and as in this new dual mini-series, some insight into the long-term story of race relations in the United States.
This new entry is backed up as always by an appendix, which in this case includes a glossary of French phrases and a pronunciation guide for names used in conversation in the story, and a brief informational discussion of life in mid-eighteenth century New Orleans, illustrated by vivid color photographs of people and artifacts of the period. Full-page, full-color artwork adds to the text, although these lack the naturalness of earlier illustrations in the the full series. Overall, however, a strong and welcome addition to a notable series.