Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016
From the inside front cover: “Something is afoot in the Sewell Mansion. Twelve-year-old Martha, the new kitchen maid, is going to find out what it is. Millionaire Rose Sewell was once the talk of the town. But no one has heard from her in ages—she hasn’t left her room in years. Her newspaper-magnate husband has a staff to tend to his eccentric wife, so he can instead focus on tending to his riches. … Martha’s ma, the head of household staff, oversees everything, but is blind to the most obvious, devastating deception of all. And at the center of this house filled with secrets sits the gallery, which just might hold the key to revealing what everyone is hiding. Inspired by real-life events, and set in the Roaring Twenties, [the author] spins a tale of mystery and intrigue where no one is who they say, nothing is what it seems, and the answers are concealed in plain sight, if you only know how to look for them.”
We really enjoyed this book. After Martha was kicked out of the local Catholic school, her mom brings her to work with her (so she can appreciate schooling) and puts her to work in the kitchen scrubbing pots. During the long 12-15 hour days, she begins to actually miss school . But then, the mysterious Rose locked away in a top room of the house – complete with a bodyguard outside to prevent her from escaping, Martha slowly begins to understand that the entire household staff works in concert with Mr. Sewell against the devastating truth about Rose.
As the mystery and intrigue slowly build the reader is invited to figure out what the changing pictures in the art gallery mean. Is Rose trying to communicate with the outside world? Is she really crazy enough to be medicated all the time? Who are Mr. Sewell’s late night guests? And why is the footman so allusive?
Martha has a strong foundation of right and wrong and she is determined to right the wrongs she sees being done. She does have to tell ‘white lies’ here and there to accomplish her task, but is always found out by her mother. The mother-daughter relationship is strong and loving; Martha looks after her younger twin brothers on their one day off so her mom can rest. Despite the frequently absent father, they have a strong and supportive family unit.
Warning: There are depictions of drunkenness and wild frivolity at a party; Rose has to be physically restrained more than once; and Martha’s dad, “Daddo,” is an alcoholic actor in vaudeville. (One afternoon she finds out he is in town without telling his family; she searches for him and finds him totally plastered in a bar. Not for the first time, she has to walk him home.)
This is a really good book for middle grades who enjoy mystery and puzzles. The author also includes a history of the long-gone era and the real life events that inspired her. We wouldn’t mind putting it on our “to-read-again” list!
Here’s a couple of the paintings Martha sees in the art gallery: