In 1932 Louisiana, Emery Fontaine leaves daughters Tennyson and Hattie on the decaying ancestral doorstep while he searches for their runaway mother, a frustrated writer. The girls find life at Aigredoux difficult. Aunt Henrietta clings to the family’s glamorous pre-Civil War past, even as she sells marble ripped from the staircase to put food on the table. Since the girls are the last of the Fontaines, she insists they must be trained up to be proper Southern ladies and rescue the family fortunes by marrying well. Tennyson copes by writing stories based on the dreams Aigredoux inspires about the family’s dark past, a lost fortune built on the miseries of slavery. She hopes that if her stories are published in The Sophisticate magazine, her mother, who never misses an issue, will get the message and come home. Tennyson’s hopes are raised when Bartholomew Prentiss, a Sophisticate editor, also arrives on Aigredoux’s doorstep, seeking his newly-discovered author.
I didn’t know how to take this book. The chapters at Aigredoux are necessarily gloomy, with the girls missing their parents and the sad family past. The chapters about Prentiss seem to be intended as comic relief: “And then he marched straight back to his office to steer the fate of American literature away from the rocks of disaster.” Those parts are humorous, but I found the large disparity of tone between the sections jarring. Plus, I doubt that a New Yorker-type magazine would publish a story by an 11-year-old, handwritten on the backs of pages of sheet music, and apparently not requiring any editing. But perhaps Blume intended an element of fantasy? I did like the way she juxtaposed Aunt Henrietta’s ideas about the glamorous past with servant Zulma’s tart anecdotes of what it was like from her slave ancestors’ point of view. Ages 8-12.