On the same day as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, 250 miles away in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, there was an even more devastating fire. Twelve-year-old Ailis and her younger brother, Quinn, survive, but their family does not. Ailis and Quinn are taken by a family acquaintance to live in a boarding house in Chicago, where they meet six-year-old Nettie, an orphan displaced by Chicago's fire. But the woman who runs the boarding house makes their lives miserable, and Ailis vows to find a way for the three of them to leave. Ailis finds a job at a millinery shop and Quinn plays his fiddle on the streets so they can save money. Then Nettie disappears, and Ailis and Quinn discover she's been kidnapped by a group that forces children to work in the sewers killing rats. Can they find a way to rescue her? CINNAMON MOON is Tess Hilmo's riveting story of friendship and finding home.
A Margaret Ferguson Book
About the Author
Tess Hilmo is the author of Skies like These, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and With a Name like Love, an ABA/ABC New Voices Pick. She lives in Highland, Utah.
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By Tess Hilmo
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Tess Hilmo
All rights reserved.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 1871
A long, delicate twist of ash still lingers in the sky above the Irish quarter of Chicago. It is two blocks over from where I stand on the porch of the boardinghouse where my younger brother, Quinn, and I have been living for the past seven weeks. The sky here is steel gray, but clear. A cold November wind glides and flutters above the rooftops. The same wind that drove Chicago's Great Fire last month has since been slowly, gently scrubbing it out of the sky.
I look at the ash cloud and wonder if the darkest, middle spot is lingering over the O'Learys' barn. Everyone is blaming Mrs. O'Leary and one of her cows for starting the fire that destroyed most of Chicago.
"You've done your best to help them," Quinn says, coming up to my side. He knows my thoughts by the direction of my gaze.
"A pound of bacon isn't much."
"Plus the flour and eggs from before ..."
"I feel so bad for them," I say. "Nobody really knows how that fire started."
"Ailis," Quinn asks, "why do you risk taking things from Miss Franny's kitchen?"
Miss Franny runs this boardinghouse. Father would have called her a skinflint or pinchpenny — which just means greedy. I'd add spiteful, prejudiced, and mean to the list.
"Mrs. O'Leary has lost her milking business and hardly comes outside anymore," I say to Quinn. "Giving her and her family food is a small thing, but maybe it lets them know someone cares."
"You know stealing food from the kitchen only makes Miss Franny angry at them — and at you."
"Miss Franny is eternally angry at me, and at you, and at the O'Learys, because we're Irish. It doesn't matter what we do."
"She'll make you go without dinner tonight and you'll probably get a whipping."
I look over to my brother, whose dark eyes are heavy with worry. The way they crowd his nose reminds me of Father. "Quinn the protector," I say, tousling his hair. "Don't worry so much about me."
He dips his gaze down and says, "You're all I have." The truth of his words makes the air between us uncomfortable.
"It's precisely for that reason you must trust me," I say. "You're only eleven."
"And you're only twelve," he says. Then he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a newspaper. "Look what I have. Today's Chicago Tribune."
"Where'd you get it?" I ask, grabbing the paper and sitting down on the front step. It's chilly outside, but we are away from Miss Franny's watchful gaze.
"I found it in the kitchen."
I start to flip through the pages of the Tribune. The whole neighborhood has been buzzing about Mr. and Mrs. O'Leary being called before the city's investigative council and I want to read about it. But first I want to see if there is any mention of the fire that happened in our hometown of Peshtigo, Wisconsin.
"Ailis —" Quinn begins.
"Don't start up again," I say, looking at Quinn.
"But Miss Franny has let us stay out of kindness when we have nowhere else to go. Maybe you can at least try to annoy her less."
"Not out of kindness," I correct. "Out of obligation to Mr. Olsen. Don't forget that he's the one who owns this boardinghouse. Miss Franny is just an employee."
Mr. Olsen is a real estate investor and former president of the great Union Pacific Railroad Company. He has been trying to build a railroad line from Chicago up to Peshtigo. Father was an important liaison between the Peshtigo farmers and the railroad executives. I know Mr. Olsen wanted to buy our land for the railroad, but Father wouldn't sell it. Still, Father arranged meetings and encouraged others to at least listen to the railroad company's plan. I guess Mr. Olsen sees helping Quinn and me as a way to pay back some of Father's kindness. I tell myself he has no idea of the type of person Miss Franny truly is and that he would not have placed us in her care otherwise.
Quinn settles down on the step next to me and leans in to my side, trying to get a glimpse of the newspaper. He can't read nearly as well as I can because Father needed him in the cranberry bogs most of the year. Farming and schooling are often at odds. "Is it there?" he asks.
I look through all the pages. "Nothing."
Quinn shakes his head. "How can that be? I overheard Sam say the count of dead bodies is over two thousand for Peshtigo's fire — that is nearly ten times as deadly as Chicago's fire. And it happened on the same day! How can there not even be a mention of it in the paper?"
Sam is one of Miss Franny's boarders and the only one I pay any attention to, mostly because he is the only one who bothers to speak to Quinn and me. That, and the fact he doesn't switch out like the others. He has been at Miss Franny's since before we came. It was Quinn who first noticed that Miss Franny cuts a thicker slice of roast for Sam and fills his coffee cup before it is even empty.
"Peshtigo is not Chicago. A poor lumber-and-farming town doesn't have the world looking at it. It's the big city that gets the press. Besides, you shouldn't be earwigging on Sam's conversations."
"And you shouldn't be stealing Miss Franny's bacon."
"One-tenth of which was mine already."
Just as the ring of my words leaves the air, Miss Franny steps out onto the porch.
Willow switch in hand, she narrows her eyes at the sight of me.
* * *
I am curled up in the bed I share with Nettie when she slides in beside me. My face is to the wall and her cold feet bump against my legs, sending a shiver through my body. The bed is in the storage closet off the back of the house because Nettie always has a runny nose. Other tenants complained so Miss Franny keeps her separated on account of their fear of getting sick. At least there is a small window.
Nettie is only six years old and had lived her whole life in one of Chicago's orphanages until it burned down. City leaders asked anyone who had space to take in those displaced by the fire and promised a small monthly payment for doing so. The children in the orphanage were handed off to various locations, and that's how Nettie came to Miss Franny's.
When Mr. Olsen delivered Quinn and me to the boarding-house after the weeklong trip from Peshtigo, Miss Franny asked the guests who would be willing to share their space. I'll never forget standing there at Mr. Olsen's side when Nettie's sweet hand went into the air, offering her bed.
Quinn ended up on the front room floor.
"Are you awake, Ailis?" Nettie whispers in the dark.
"I'm sorry about Miss Franny. I don't think she wants to be mean. Not really."
Precious Nettie, who shares her tiny bed and forgives people like Miss Franny.
"She's just so ..." — her words trail off — "tired."
I want to remind Nettie that Miss Franny seemed plenty awake when she was bellowing at Quinn about the woodpile or giving me three lashes with a willow switch for swiping the bacon, but it seems pointless.
"I brought you something."
I turn from the wall. "Oh, Nettie, you should never take anything from the kitchen."
She giggles. "It's not food. It's the newspaper. Quinn said you'd want it back."
"How did you get it away from Miss Franny?"
"I hid it in the waistband of my bloomers when she wasn't looking. Do you still want to read it after it was in my bloomers?"
"Shhh," I say, reminding us both to lower our voices. "Of course I do." Suddenly the night doesn't seem so miserable.
She hands me the paper and I put it under my pillow. "Better not light the lamp when Miss Franny is in such a bad mood," I say. "We'll read it in the morning, together."
"But I'm not tired," Nettie says.
"Close your eyes, sleep will come."
"No it won't. Ailis, tell me a story."
I punch at my pillow. "What kind of story?"
"A story about home."
Nettie always wants to hear about families and homes because it's something she's never had.
"How about a mermaid story instead? Or a story about a magical nymph from Ireland?"
"No," she says. "Just a story about how your mother would do things."
I don't want to think about how Mother did things.
Still, it's Nettie.
"Okay," I say. "Mother had long hair the color of clouds at sunset."
"Reddish orange, just like yours."
I remember Mother's long braids twisted up on her head. They were so beautiful. "Everyone loved her hair, especially Father."
"Father was a cranberry farmer," Nettie says. She talks about them as if they were her own.
"Yes. He worked long days and was tired at night, but always managed to play the fiddle before bedtime."
"He was a wonderful musician. His fiddle is right there in the corner." She motions in the darkness toward the foot of the bed where Quinn and I keep our things, including the badly charred case that holds Father's fiddle. How it survived the fire, I'll never know.
"That's right," I say. "And he was good with stories, too. He liked to tell this one about mischievous fairies who hide behind a looking glass and ..."
"No," Nettie says softly. "No fairy stories tonight. Just family stories."
"All right." I take a breath and settle my memory into the farmhouse back in Peshtigo. I am grateful for the cover of darkness in Nettie's closet because I can allow the tears to come as I remember Father holding his fiddle in his calloused hands, bending and swaying as he played "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye." "Mother would pull Gertrude up on her lap by the fireplace ..."
"Gertrude was three, right, Ailis?"
"Yes," I say, remembering Gertrude's chubby pink cheeks. "She was only three."
"I would have loved Gertrude, wouldn't I have, Ailis?"
"And she would have loved you right back."
"What kind of games did Gertrude like to play?"
I can't help but smile. "Hide-and-seek was her favorite. She'd hide in the wool basket almost every time."
"But you and Quinn would pretend you didn't know where she was, right?"
"You'd say, Oh my, where could Gertrude be hiding?"
I turn to the side and wipe my wet cheek along the pillow edge.
"Where would I have hidden, Ailis?" Nettie asks.
"I don't know. Maybe in the wool basket as well," I suggest.
"No," she says. "I would never take Gertrude's spot. I think I'd hide under the table. Did Mother keep a cloth over the table? If she did, I could hide there."
"For you, I'm sure she would have."
"She was such a good mother, wasn't she, Ailis?"
I try to say yes, but all that comes out is a squeak. Nettie takes my hand under the quilt.
"Thanks for that story," she says. "I know it makes you sad, but you had something real special. Maybe just for twelve years, but at least you had it."
And all I can think as I listen to Nettie's breath slow as she falls asleep is, Twelve years is not enough.CHAPTER 2
Nettie is up and off to church when I awake. It is Sunday morning and I can hear hammers slamming against nails and stone. The great rebuilding of Chicago is constant, even on weekends. It's all under official order from Chicago's brand-new mayor, Joseph Medill.
Sam tells me he sees Mayor Medill downtown from time to time, standing on stages and waving banners, talking about how Chicago's loss is the greatest in all history. He brags about how he has reached out to a bunch of powerful world leaders, who are sending fat checks to help with the rebuilding. He says the money will make Chicago stronger than ever before.
Peshtigo did get a train car full of blankets and clothes right after the fire, but there will be no fat checks coming in from overseas. No one is waving banners at our loss.
One evening, as I was washing the dishes, I mentioned these thoughts to Quinn, and Miss Franny overheard. She said I was a wicked child for questioning Chicago's misfortune and maybe she's right. If I think about it long enough, I know Miss Franny has a fair point when she says Chicago's loss was also a terrible thing.
But knowing my feelings are wrong doesn't change them.
So I keep them to myself.
"Ailis Doyle, you lazy girl, get up this instant," Miss Franny hollers from the kitchen.
"Yes, Miss Franny," I holler back, putting on my skirt and blouse. I recover the Tribune from under my pillow and follow Nettie's lead of sliding it into the front of my bloomers, under my blouse and held in place by my skirt's waistband. Then I twist my hair into a braid, looking out the tiny window into the side yard where Sam and Quinn are busy removing weathered slats from the side of an old shed. Sam is prying the rotten boards off with a crowbar and Quinn is stacking them up by the woodpile.
"You'd sleep the day away if I didn't get after you," Miss Franny says, coming into the small room. She is a conundrum. Tall and slender. Younger than she should be as mistress of a boardinghouse. Pretty, some might even say.
That is until she opens her mouth.
Quinn says it's her mouth that keeps her unmarried and I've no reason to disagree.
Miss Franny begins waving a small trowel in my face. "Get the potatoes," she says. "I need a full basket."
"Fill the holes behind you."
"And don't track mud into my kitchen when you come back. This isn't wretched Peshtigo. Take your shoes off at the door."
I dip my chin but don't reply with a yes, ma'am. Peshtigo is not wretched. It is towering timbers and brilliant blue skies. It is still-water lakes and green pastures.
Miss Franny notices my silence and smacks the trowel on the side of my arm. She is a miserable woman.
"I'll remove my shoes," is all I can bring myself to say.
She drops the trowel at my feet and returns to the kitchen. "Stupid rat," she mutters.
I pick up the trowel and think about my schoolmaster back home. Mr. Frankel was from Germany. He couldn't teach us much about spelling or conjugation, but he knew more about animals than anyone I had ever met. Father said he was a biologist in Munich but gave it all up to bring his family to America. Even if that meant spending his days in a ramshackle schoolhouse. If Mr. Frankel were here, he would inform Miss Franny that rats are surprisingly intelligent. But Mr. Frankel is gone with the rest of them so I say nothing and go outside.
The community garden is a chunk of land owned by the city and farmed by anyone in the neighborhood who wants to participate. Everyone plants what they can and shares what comes out. It is meant to supplement people's own gardens and also allow those who live as boarders to have an opportunity to farm a little. Sam says in the summer there are glorious things like tomatoes and basil and hot peppers. But now that it's November, just potatoes remain.
Next to the garden is a row of walnut trees, tall and majestic. Our neighbor, Mrs. Mead, is the only one digging potatoes, probably because it is Sunday and most people are at their various churches. Miss Franny never asks Quinn and me if we want to attend church, not that I would go anyway. Mother and Father dragged the whole family to Catholic Mass every single week, but what good did it do us when the wind turned to fire?
"Mornin', Ailis," Mrs. Mead calls out with a raised hand.
I grin and wave and then scoot around one of the walnut trees. I cannot wait another minute to look at the newspaper.
I reach inside my coat, under my blouse, and pull it out.
I jump with fright, but it is only Nettie sneaking up from behind.
"You promised you'd share it," she says, pointing to the paper. "And now you're running off to read it without me."
I show her the trowel. "I'm getting the potatoes. You're the one who left so early."
"I went to say my prayers and light a candle." Nettie pushes into my side. "You should come to church with me. Father Farlane is awful nice."
"Who would I light a candle for?" I ask, flipping through the paper.
"For Quinn." Her eyes are wide with a sort of hope. "Or me."
"I wish lighting a candle would fix things, Nettie, but it won't." I keep turning the pages of the newspaper until I come to page 6. "Here it is! The Great Fire," I read. "Mrs. O'Leary, the owner of the cow, etc., examined."
"What does it say?"
"It's just a short one-paragraph summary," I answer. "I'm not even sure it can be trusted." Both the Chicago Evening Journal and the Chicago Tribune have been printing false stories since the fire. The Journal seems to be the worst, reporting outright lies about the O'Leary family. One article said Catherine O'Leary was a dirty hag, over seventy years old, who bragged about starting the fire to get back at the city because she was cut off from financial aid, but anyone who knows the family knows that isn't true. I'd guess Catherine O'Leary to be in her early forties and up until the fire, her business was successful, so she had no need to ask for a free dime from anyone.
Excerpted from Cinnamon Moon by Tess Hilmo. Copyright © 2016 Tess Hilmo. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Cinnamon Moon is a great Historical Fiction Story for Middle Grade readers. It is based on an event that I did not even know about, The Peshtigo Wisconsin Fire as well as the Chicago Fire. Ailis and her brother Quinn were moved to Chicago from the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin after a fire killed their parents and young sister. A friend of their fathers, Mr. Olsen, set them up in a boarding house there. Unfortunately, he was not aware that Miss Franny, the person who ran the boarding house, treated them as slaves. They met another young orphan named Nettie and got quite close to her. Ailis and Quinn want a better life, so Ailis takes a job with a German woman, Ida, in a millinery shop, and Quinn starts busking with his violin, making a lot more money that he thought possible. When Nettie goes missing, the two try to investigate, and uncover a plot to use very young children to help keep down the rat population. Can they rescue her from this life? Will they be able to move into a place of their own? The characters were wonderful. Ailis and Quinn tried to make the most of the situation they were in. Ailis was smart, resourceful, loyal and had a strong will. She used what she could (Mr. Olsen, Sam, her work ethic) to make their life better. Quinn, was smart and talented. Unfortunately he was also stubborn. With his wonderful musical talent that he inherited from his father, he was able to help both himself and his sister much more than the thought he could. The siblings never give up on Nettie. That loyalty and love is also apparent when they are reminiscing about their family. Ida, the milliner who took Ailis under her wing, was a wonderful person. Her support of Ailis, Quinn and Nettie was a joy. She owed these children nothing, but she gave them everything she could. After all the trouble they went through, the story had a happy ending. It seemed to come quickly, but considering this book is for young readers, ages 9 to 12, it was nicely done. The plot was built up and you would be rooting for the children. The ending was definitely satisfactory, with the heroes/heroines coming out on the bright side and with some of the villians getting their due. A great book for a class or school library. It may lead some children into investigating this time in history as well as getting them interested in more historical fiction. The publisher generously provided me with a copy of this book via Netgalley.