Recommended for ages 10+
It’s 1929, and 12 year-old Martha has gotten herself thrown out of school for the rest of the school year. Her Ma certainly isn’t going to let her sit home and do nothing, so Martha ends up going to work as a maidservant for Mr. Sewell, the wealthy owner of a major New York newspaper, and his reclusive wife, Rose. Martha’s mother is in charge of the household and oversees all the staff, and Rose isn’t getting any favors by being Ma’s daughter: she’s put straight to work in the kitchen, scrubbing, sweeping, and mopping. She also hears a lot of talk from the servants in the house, who say that Rose is crazy, but Martha isn’t buying it: there’s more there than meets the eye, especially because Mr. Sewell gives her the creeps. When she discovers the Sewell gallery, a conversation with Alphonse – a servant who also seems to know more than he’s letting on – confirms Martha’s suspicions. By learning more about the art that Mrs. Sewell sends down from her locked room to be displayed in the gallery, Martha puts together the real story about what’s going on at the Sewell house.
The only thing better than the story taking place in The Gallery is the fact that it’s based on a true event. Ms. Fitzgerald’s captivating author’s note at the end of the story fills in some crucial details about the story, the true story that inspired it, and more information about events taking place at the time the story unfolds. The Jazz Age, on the brink of the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression, had anarchists, performers both glitzy and outrageous, defined separation of classes, and a lot of backstabbing, both professionally and personally. It was a fascinating time, and The Gallery is a fascinating look into some of that era.
The Gallery is a metaphor for there being more than just face value to things. Martha sees past Mr. Sewell’s exterior, to be sure, but there’s also a touching subplot about a girl coming of age in the middle of this madness, and realizing that her father isn’t the person she thought he was, either.
Every single character in this book is interesting; the story’s pace is perfect, with just enough exposition, then a slow but consuming buildup to the big finale. The bookend story that frames the entire narrative is just so good, and brings readers full circle. This is a great book to introduce to middle schoolers who want something… more. You know the readers: they want something, but not what everyone else is reading. They aren’t really sure what they’re in the mood for, but they want a good book. This is that book. Suggested books I’ve seen are Chasing Vermeer and The Westing Game, neither of which I’ve read, but have heard great things about. As they’re art-related mysteries, display them together. I’d also suggest The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, an excellent Jazz Age re-imagining of the beloved fairy tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and also includes an autocratic, wealthy male figure that wants to keep the girls in his life locked away so he doesn’t have to deal with them.
Definitely worth the add to your collections. I’m thinking of gifting this to the eldest’s girlfriend; she loves a good story. It’s lovely when there are readers all around you!