Wednesday, October 24, 2012

With Eyes Wide Open: The Cameo Necklace (A Cecile Mystery) by Evelyn Coleman

As quickly as the old woman had disappeared. Cecile found herself being moved along by a new crush of people emerging from the showboat.

At the same time, Cecile reached up to feel for her necklace. Her fingers grasped air.

Panic exploded in her chest. The necklace she had borrowed from her aunt was gone.

Cecile had marveled at the circus aboard the showboat, and she was secretly pleased that her rival Agnes Metoyer was obviously envious of Tante Tay’s cameo, the last gift from her young husband who had died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1853. Cecile’s aunt had promised to let her wear it for a really special event, and even hough her favorite aunt was away, Cece had felt sure that the circus would count as that special event when she took the necklace from her aunt’s bureau and placed it proudly around her own neck.

But a tall marchand selling sweet buns had stumbled into the crowd, and Cece had fallen, knocking down an old woman as well, who had pulled Cece to her feet with a sharp gaze.

And now the cameo necklace is gone. Tante Tay will be back in only ten days, and Cecile knows she must find that necklace. There were several people near  when it  disappeared–the orange bun seller, the old woman with the bracelets, a blonde lady circus performer, two elusive dark-eyed children selling cypress baskets, even Agnes and Fanny Montoyer, caught in the press of the crowd. Could one of them have found her necklace, or even stolen it in the melee?

Always sheltered by her well-to-do and protective free Black gens de couleur libres family, the need to recover her aunt’s beloved keepsake takes Cecile Rey out of her family and into the diverse community that is is New Orleans in 1854.  Well-brought-up girls of the Creole culture do not go out alone, so Cecile manages to go along to the marketplace with their cook Mathilde and their new maid Hannah where she looks for the two young basket sellers and the old lady.

Cece even turns to her older brother Armand, confiding her secret to him, to help her find the those around her at the time the necklace went missing. And with him at Congo Square, she finds the old woman, who beckons her near:

“Come, Cecile,” the old woman called. “ My name is Madame Irene. I knew you would be here today.”

“Those we cannot know have your necklace. Open your eyes so you can see. And you will learn much more than you seek, Cecile Rey.”

And in the next days, Cecile meets circus performers, takes a wild elephant ride at the dock, and sees her brother Armand almost taken away in chains by slave catchers. Following the old woman’s lead, Cecile meets the two mysterious children and learns they are maroons, fugitive slaves living in the swamps just outside the city, and that her new maid, Hannah is herself an escaped slave. And when the slave catchers come for her at midnight, it falls to Cecile and Armand to help Hannah flee to the shelter of the swamp and the maroon community. In the search for the cameo necklace, Cece’s eyes are indeed opened.

Until the last few days, Cecile had been blind to all the things that happened to people of color. She’d thought only of people like herself, the gens de couleur libres; she had rarely thought about slaves and certainly not maroons. She touched the paper in her pocket, the only thing that kept her free. It seemed very fragile now.

Cecile shivered. Her eyes were opening, but Armand was right–-she wasn’t sure she wanted to see.

As in all the popular American Girl series, Evelyn Coleman’s The Cameo Necklace: A Cecile Mystery (American Girl) (American Girl Mysteries) (American Girl, 2012) tells the story of an American girl in transition into an an awareness of the society around her in a significant period of American history. New Orleans in the early 1850s was a peculiarly diverse community, in which the cultured and well-to-do free people of color held a unique place of some power and influence. But as the country worked its tortuous way toward the upheaval of the Civil War, even Cecile and Armand, sheltered and well-educated, find themselves in peril of losing the small freedoms their family have cherished. A rare coming-of-age tale set in the colorful atmosphere of a mystery in old New Orleans, this book can be an eye-opener for its readers along with its heroine Cecile.

As in all books in the American Girl series, there is an color illustrated appendix, "Looking Back--A Peek into the Past" which puts the story into the context of pre-Civil War New Orleans, followed by a glossary and pronunciation guide to the French words and names used in the story.

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