Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Twelve-year-old Martha O'Doyle has been expelled from Blessed Name of Our Holy Mother parish school for not knowing her catechism and for arguing with Sr. Ignatius in catechism class. Her ma takes her with her to her job as head housekeeper at a Fifth Avenue mansion. Perhaps a year working as a maid will make her see the value in attending school.

Martha's mother's employer is Mr. J. Archer Sewell, owner of one of New York's most successful newspapers. Sewell's wife, Rose Pritchard is an invalid who hasn't left her rooms in years. Her father made his fortune from the West Virginia coal mines and then moved to New York where Rose was sent to the best schools and attended the society parties. Before her marriage to Mr. Sewell, Rose had a reputation for causing scandal, working in a sweatshop sewing neckties or running off to Paris.

The Sewell mansion is more than Martha ever imagined, with turrets and spires. Martha's mother gives her a quick tour of the house, showing off the opulent rooms with their gold pianos and sofas of satin. However, Martha notes that the walls are entirely bare "a chessboard of discolored squares and rectangles on the silk wallpaper, nails left behind like you'd see in a chap boardinghouse." When Martha asks her mother where all the pictures are, her mother tells her that Rose keeps them in her rooms as a comfort to her.

Martha is assigned to work in the kitchen under the supervision of Monsieur Leblanc and after a week she quickly learns the work of the kitchen. The other staff include two housemaids, Bridie and Magdalena and the footman, Alphonse. Besides preparing special meals for Mr. Sewell's guests, Martha also must prepare the same meals every day for Mrs. Sewell. So she is not "overstimulated" her meals of toast and tea and porridge with a "fancy sugar stirred into it that Mr. Sewell secured from some specialty grocer..." are loaded onto the dumbwaiter in the kitchen. The meals are sent to her rooms in the turret on the top floor and when she's finished the empty plates are sent back down in the dumbwaiter. After a month of working at the mansion, Martha meets Mr. Sewell who talks to her about politics and tells her she should read a book about becoming rich.

Then one night, Rose escapes out the dumbwaiter and the kitchen is set on fire. Rose's antics are published in the Yodel. Martha suspects that Alphonse is the one who leaked the story. When Martha brings tea to Rose's rooms she is astounded. "In just a small suite of rooms were crammed dozens of paintings, stacked three or four deep, leaning against walls or tables or wardrobes. Others were hung haphazardly, some big, some small, some dangling so they half jutted across a window. The walls pulsated with life -- no, with something larger than life. Gods and goddesses fought and frolicked. Dukes and duchesses followed me with their eyes. Winds swept through landscapes and bowls of glistening fruit dangled out of reach."

Mr. Sewell tells his wife she doesn't need to use the dumbwaiter to leave her room but she can leave by the door. The doctor notes that Mrs. Sewell has been reading Ovid and Dante's Inferno. When Mr. Sewell expresses his desire to sell off the books in the library, Rose tells him he cannot because they belong to her. As they try to determine what led to Rose's strange behaviour the night before, she complains that the porridge is too salty. But Martha made the porridge and remembers that she forgot the sugar that night. She notes that Rose has an angry red rash on her face and neck. When Dr. Westbrook suggests removing the paintings, Rose becomes agitated and is given a sedative. Afterwards, Martha confesses to her mother about forgetting the sugar and her mother moves her from the kitchen to upstairs as a maid.

Martha's dad, who is in vaudeville, unexpectedly shows up at home. Her father tells her that he's been very successful with his act but that he cannot stay and has to catch the next train to Syracuse. The next day Martha begins her week as an upstairs maid, cleaning the first floor. When she goes in to clean the gallery, she discovers four paintings hanging on the walls, neatly in a row, each draped over with a sheet. Martha finds the paintings intriguing but doesn't know much about them. The first painting, titled Proserpine by Rossetti looks to Martha like Eve holding the apple. However, Alphonse informs her the painting is not about Eve and the fruit is definitely NOT an apple. Before they can talk further, the two are discovered by Martha's Ma who sends Alphonse off and tells Martha that the paintings are Miss Rose's pride and her ticket into New York society. Ma explains that although the majority of the paintings are in her rooms, "Miss Rose gets it in her head that certain paintings need to be downstairs. For Mr. Sewell's visitors." After her ma leaves, Martha looks at the other three paintings which include Nature morte by Gustave Courbet, Still even by Willem Kalf and The Pomegranate by Pablo Picasso.

Nature morte by Gustave Courbet

Still Even by Willem Kalf

The Pomegranate - Picasso

The next day Martha talks to Alphonse about the paintings and he tells her that "Nothing on that wall is an accident." In response to her questions, Alphonse tells Martha that "Invinculis faciebat" means "made in prison" and that pomegranates are a fruit. Alphonse encourages Martha to make use of Rose's library, telling her he will leave the door unlocked for her. Unfortunately, this doesn't work out for Martha because she is quickly discovered in the library by her mother who tells her the books are extremely expensive and that Mr. Sewell would rather sell them and invest the money in the stock market. He cannot do this however, because the books, the house and the paintings all belong to Rose.

In her determination to learn more about the paintings on display in the Sewell Mansion gallery, Martha takes a side trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art after running an errand. A docent shows Martha the many paintings which contain pomegranates but this doesn't seem to help her. On her way home, Martha purchases a pomegranate from a fruit stand and has Bridie send it up to Miss Rose as a treat. It is returned with the word "HELP" pricked into it.  Martha feels "...those grand, expensive paintings held the secret to something. Something dark and threatening. And the pomegranate was at the center of it."


The Gallery is an intriguing story about a young girl who quickly recognizes that the unusual paintings in the abandoned gallery in the mansion are a message to the outside world from a young wife who lives on the top floor. Once Martha deciphers the message her mission is to convince her mother about what is really going on in the Sewell mansion and to save Miss Ruth.

In Martha O'Doyle, Marx Fitzgerald has fashioned a smart, determined heroine who refuses to accept Mr. Sewell's version of events in his home. The paintings, the book by the Roman poet Ovid along with the message pressed into the pomegranate are clues to Martha suggesting something is not right in the Sewell household. When her first attempt to learn about the paintings is thwarted, Martha turns to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then to the public library. "I needed to connect the dots somehow. I needed to go somewhere where I could find all the stories I needed without keys or admission fees or fear of Ma walking in. The public library."  In the library Martha learns about Ovid and his book, Metamorphoses. After reading the story about Proserpina, Martha is convinced that Rose Sewell is trapped in her rooms upstairs and that she is trying to escape. She also becomes convinced that her mother knows what is going on in the Sewell house but because of her attachment to the master, she cannot see the truth behind the events.

The mystery is gradually uncovered as Martha comes to understand the complex relationship her mother has with Mr. Sewell and the alterior motive Mr. Sewell might have for wanting to gain control over his young wife's inheritance. The person Martha needs to convince most is her mother, because her ma truly believes that Miss Rose is mentally unstable. When Martha tells Alphonse what she has uncovered he tells her that Mr. Sewell is powerful and able to create any story he wants because he is wealthy and he controls a newspaper. But he also tells her that "Mr. Sewell has convinced your mother that this bizarre scene is in service to her mistress. So let us just say, the lady of the house is not the only one that Mr. Sewell has imprisoned."

Marx Fitzgerald brings her wonderful story to a satisfying conclusion, tying up all the loose ends and having those who deserve to, get their "just desserts".  In her author's note at the back of the novel, Marx Fitzgerald states that The Gallery came about after she found some fascinating stories in old newspapers from the 1920's and '30's. Into these stories, the author has woven in some of the most famous works of art, giving young readers the chance to learn about them. She also has her main character, Martha learn about the classical Greek myth of Proserpina. This makes The Gallery not only engaging but a great chance for young readers to explore other Greek myths on their own.

In her Author's Note, Marx Fitzgerald answers questions the story in The Gallery brings up, providing background information about the historical setting of the novel. The Gallery takes place in late 1928 and early 1929, before the historic Great Crash of October, 1929. It's a good thing Miss Rose was able to save her paintings and books because had Mr. Sewell sold them and invested in the stock market he would have lost everything in that crash.

The author does mention that Italian immigrants like Alphonso Vanzetti would have been able to easily change their name in this era. This is partly true - immigrants did often anglicize their names - Pasquale became Patrick for example. However many Italian immigrants like my grandfather did indeed have passports issued by the Italian government and young men under the age of 18 in Italy were not allowed to emigrate unless they were travelling with their families. All young men were also registered for armed service at birth and were expected to report on their eighteenth birthday. They had to provide proof as to why they could not fulfill this obligation even if they were in Canada or America.

The Gallery is a wonderfully refreshing and enjoyable novel, suitable for all ages. Well written, completely riveting, complete with a likeable heroine.

Artwork attributions:
Dante Rossetti: Proserpine © [W. Graham Robertson] Photographic Rights © Tate (1940), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Gustave Courbet:

Willem Kalf: Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pablo Picasso: The Pomegranate

Book Details:

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
New York: Dial Books for Young Readers    2016
321 pp.

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