Merely Dee

Merely Dee

by Marian Manseau Cheatham




The 1915 Western Electric Employee Picnic is the social highlight of the year in Cicero, Illinois. Five steamers wait to ferry seven thousand passengers to the picnic grounds in Michigan City,
Indiana. As teenager Dee Pageau packs her picnic basket and prepares to board the SS Eastland, she anticipates this will be the best day of her life. Dee hopes to spend time with her best friend, Mae Koznecki-but she also wants to get to know Mae's handsome brother, Karel, a little better. Dee has no idea that in a matter of hours, tragedy will strike.

Despite her mother's dark premonition that death awaits her if she boards the SS Eastland, Dee decides the risk is worth a chance for more time with Karel. Dee's excitement quickly turns to terror, though, when the ship capsizes at the dock, threatening the lives of everyone on board. Rescued from certain death-not once, but twice-by Karel and a mysterious stranger, Dee soon discovers that Mae is nowhere to be found. Dee can only sit back and wait to hear if she is trapped in the flooding bowels of the capsized ship or worse yet, dead.

In this captivating historical tale, Dee takes a coming-of-age journey like no other as she soon realizes that surviving the disaster is only the beginning.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462072293
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/05/2012
Pages: 196
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.45(d)
Age Range: 15 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Merely Dee

By Marian Manseau Cheatham

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Marian Manseau Cheatham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-7229-3

Chapter One


Seven thousand tickets had been sold to the big July event, and it would take five chartered excursion steamers to ferry that many passengers from Chicago to the picnic grounds in Michigan City, Indiana. The SS Eastland was the first boat scheduled to depart this morning, and I wanted to be on her deck, waving good-bye to all the latecomers left behind on the docks to wait. I'd gotten up before dawn to finish my Saturday chores, but I still had to prepare my basket. I stored the carpet sweeper back in the kitchen pantry and then grabbed two hard-boiled eggs from the wooden icebox and wrapped them together in a clean dishrag. On the table, I found a platter of Momma's world-class demi-baguettes. I held one to my nose. There was nothing like the dizzying aroma of home-baked bread, except for maybe an inviting taste. I bit off a crusty end and saved the rest for my lunch. Three more baguettes, two overripe tomatoes from our garden, and I was set for the day. And what a day this would be! The 1915 Western Electric Employee Picnic was the social highlight of the year in Cicero, Illinois.

I extinguished the wick on the kerosene lamp hanging near the kitchen door and tiptoed down the unlit hallway, careful not to wake Momma with the creak of the warped wooden floorboards. I paused at her closed bedroom door. "Please don't work too hard," I whispered through the wood. "And try to have a pleasant day." I knew I would. How could I not? This outing was really the only way a hardworking girl could meet a fella, and this gal had her sights set on one special guy in particular.

Karel Koznecki, the older brother of my dearest friend, Mae, was a dreamboat in a boater hat. Too bad he barely recognized my existence. And why should he? Karel was one of the only guys in the neighborhood who had finished high school. He had an enviable job at Brach's Candy Company in their brand-new Laboratory of Control, testing confectionaries. He had pocket money, store-bought suits, and leisure time to himself. I worked five and a half days a week at Western Electric, and when I wasn't coiling telephone wire, I was helping Momma with her seamstress business. My fingers were blistered and my clothes handmade. Karel lived in a world far above mine. But still, a girl could hope for wings, especially on a truly unique day like today.

I headed through the darkened dining room and into the parlor to collect my Sunday-best beaded bag and my new beige hat with the turned-down brim that would shield my eyes from rain or sun. I slipped into my snakeskin shoes and reached for my umbrella but paused. The big, black, bulgy thing would only be a nuisance, and besides, it couldn't rain all day. I drew back the lace curtain and peered out the bay window. Last night's showers had dwindled to a gloomy drizzle. I felt lucky enough today to risk getting wet. I left the umbrella in the wicker stand beside the front door and glanced up at the cuckoo clock. It was 5:10. Mae and Karel would be here any minute to fetch me. I hurried onto our wooden front porch.

I didn't have to wait alone. Almost every one of my neighbors had risen early like me, and the sight of so many people set my heart racing with excitement. Motorcars and horse-drawn wagons loaded with rowdy picnickers paraded down the muddy, unpaved streets, the chuggidy chug bang of Model T Fords mingling with the clip-clop of hooves. On the front steps of nearly every two-flat on the block, busy fathers gathered up blankets and binoculars, while mothers struggled to keep their well-dressed children from playing in puddles. I inhaled, barely able to contain myself. The air was ripe with the everyday stink of manure, but something new hung on the breeze today, a salty scent like the sting of lye soap. I smiled to myself, realizing that half the town had probably taken their weekly Saturday night baths a day early.

"Have fun, child," Mrs. Mulligan, our upstairs neighbor, shouted out her parlor window. "But don't be going near that nasty water. You'll catch your death of typhoid."

"I've no intention of swimming in the Chicago River. Keep an eye on Momma for me, Mrs. Mulligan, will you, please? We'll probably be back very late."

"Ah, 'tis nothing for you to worry about," she said. "Be gone with yourself now." I waved good-bye to her and the seven little heads all jostling for a place beside their mother at the window.

"Delia! Yoo-hoo, Dee!"

Mae raced along the sidewalk toward me, her ash-blonde hair brilliant even in this dismal light. I opened my mouth to call back when I caught a glimpse of him, tagging along behind his sister. My breath caught.

Both Mae and Karel had that long, lean look about them. But while Mae strode with athletic energy, Karel seemed to glide above the pavement, his movements smooth as quicksilver. He looked dapper in his navy-striped blazer and his signature straw boater set ever-so-slightly askew on his head. His hair, more sunny-cinnamon than blond, only seemed to brighten the heather-gray of his eyes. Each second brought him closer to me till I could see the infamous cleft in his chin. That dimple held the interest of every female in Cicero. One smile, and Karel would find an extra apple in his bag from the greengrocer's wife or a second scoop of ice cream on his sundae from the waitress at the Olde World Creamery. He even managed to garner free carriage rides whenever his regular driver, Salvatore, had his daughter with him.

"Ready, chickadee?" Mae asked, gaining my attention again. She looked fashionable as ever in a summery suit of lilac linen, her pleated skirt draping elegantly above her high Louis heels. "The Eastland begins boarding at 6:30." She smiled up at me on the porch, and I found myself marveling at her stunning appearance. Karel may have had the chin, but Mae had the most extraordinary eyes—lavender with speckles of her brother's gray. As often as she could, Mae would wear clothes in shades of purple that accentuated her features. When it came to style, Mae Koznecki knew what she was doing, and today was no exception. "Give us a gander at that new outfit." She twirled an index finger at me. I ran my hands down the front of my steely-blue dress, so drab alongside her pricey couture. "Come on, Dee. Let me see the back."

I started down our worn and bowed wooden steps but stopped on the landing to wait for neighbors to pass.

"Are you hoping to make the first boat?" Mrs. VandeKipp inquired. She cradled the newest addition to the family in her arms, while the three older kids skipped all around her. Mr. VandeKipp, an engineer at Western Electric, shooed his children with his umbrella.

"Frederick, Rebecca, Petey!" he hollered. "Out of your mother's way before you make her trip!"

"See you on the Eastland," I said, trying not to laugh. "Good luck getting there."

"We'll need it with this lot," Mr. VandeKipp shot back.

I hopped onto the sidewalk and did a little twirl as Mae had requested. The tassels on my sleeves and shawl collar flared out like tiny Ferris wheel cars.

"You didn't tell me about these." Mae rubbed a navy tassel between her fingers.

"Didn't know about them. Momma must have added the fringe last night."

"It's the perfect touch." Mae reached into her lilac silk bag and pulled out something small and golden. "Maybe one accessory?" She pinned the golden something onto my dress right above my heart. "Now your smart ensemble is complete."

I stared down at the delicate gold watch dangling from a golden bow. "It's beautiful. But why? What for?"

"Do I need a reason? We're best friends. That's good enough for me."

And more than enough for me. "Thank you so, so much." I threw my arms around her and kissed her on the cheek. "I've never had anything this lovely."

"Well, now you do. But we'd better get started, or we'll never find seats on the streetcar." She looked at Karel. "Since Mother and Father made you come along as our chaperone," she said, "you might as well make yourself useful and carry Dee's lunch."

"Oh, right. Sure." Karel stepped around Mae and reached for my basket when he stopped, his head jolting back as though he'd been slapped. He eyed me up and down, and my cheeks went hot. "You've grown, Dee." His surprised expression curled into a smile. "Haven't seen you in a while, but I approve of what you've done."

"What'd you expect?" Mae socked him in the arm. "She's seventeen now like me. We're both grown women, old enough to marry. That is, if we had a mind to, which we don't. Get her lunch and let's go."

He inched nearer, and as he did, a chocolaty aroma seemed to fill the space between us. Could it be that Karel Koznecki smelled like the sweet confections he tested each day? I dared a long, lingering sniff before surrendering my basket. I plucked the stickpin from my hat, arranged the hat on my head, and then pinned it into my bobbed hair.

"Good choice on that bonnet," Mae said with a nod. "The creamy color looks great with your cocoa hair and eyes. So, are we all set?"

My skin itched as though a thousand ants were crawling over my body. This was my first Saturday off work all year. I had trolley fare in my pocketbook, new shoes on my feet, and—I hoped—a whole wonderful day to spend with Karel.

"I don't know about you two," I replied, "but I'm ready for anything."

Mae let out a whoop and trotted away. I scurried after her.

"Chérie! Un moment!"

That French voice was unmistakable. I turned back toward the house.

Momma stood on our porch looking harried and disheveled, as though she'd just tumbled out of bed. Her waist-length black hair, always so neatly twisted back and secured by ivory combs, hung down all helter-skelter around her. She had on Poppa's maroon dressing gown, the only piece of his clothing she had not given to the Sisters of Charity after his death a decade ago. The well-worn bathrobe had become nearly threadbare, but Momma was a skillful seamstress. She kept the thing alive by adding cuffs to the frayed sleeves and reinforcing the seams every year.

"No boat!" she shrieked. "Non."

"No?" I called back. "But why not, Momma?"

"I had the dream." Her right eye twitched as it always did when she was in the throes of a premonition. "Mort! You no can go! Much danger."

"Mort?" Karel whispered to me. "What's that mean? What's she talking about?"

"My mother has these premonitions, predictions. But usually when something bad is about to happen. Mort ..." I hesitated. "Means death."

Karel gasped. He removed his boater, tapping the hat nervously against his thigh.

"Take it easy," said Mae. "And leave this to me." She sauntered back toward the porch and grinned up at Momma. Mae's smile had always proven most irresistible whenever she'd turned on the charm, but Mae had never tried to win over my mother. "Mrs. Pageau, I can assure you, there won't be a lick of trouble. Delia will be with us all day. We'll keep her safe."

Momma shook her head fiercely. "Paaa! No picnic. Come, Delia."

I rubbed my left eyebrow, struggling to stay calm. "But you promised, Momma. You said if I got all my chores done, then I could go. I scrubbed the kitchen floor on my hands and knees, watered the garden out back, and ran the carpet sweeper over the parlor rugs. I should be free to leave."

Momma frowned, her intense, black eyes piercing me like a gunshot to the heart. The look had found its mark. I groaned and grabbed for my basket.

Karel pulled back his arm. "You really can't go, Dee? Can't you make her understand?"

"Non!" Momma answered for me. "And you should no go either."

"Miss the picnic?" Mae screeched. "I can't, Mrs. Pageau! I won't! And neither should your daughter." She whipped around, her glare wounding me like a second bullet. "You're coming? Right?"

I shook my head, too mortified to speak.

Mae mumbled something in Polish and stormed away.

I snatched back my basket. Karel glanced at me for a fleeting second, and I saw shock and confusion in his expression. But was there something else in those pale-gray eyes? Sadness, maybe? Would he miss me if I didn't go? I didn't have time to figure it all out, because he turned and took off after his sister. I watched him go; knowing full well that all my high hopes for the day would disappear with him. There'd be no picnic for me. I'd lost my chance to take the romantic two-hour cruise along the shores of Lake Michigan. I wouldn't ride a roller coaster or eat candied apples or spun sugar on a stick. There'd be no softball games, no pie-eating contests, and now, thanks to Momma and her wild predictions, I wouldn't know the feel of Karel's arms around me as we shared a moonlight dance at the pavilion in Washington Park. I trudged up the steps.

"Forgive me, ma petite," Momma said. "But I no could risk ... Without you, I could no live."

"I know, Momma. I'm here." Not going any place. Ever. "May I please have a minute to myself?"

Momma hugged me and went inside. I sank onto the wooden stoop, setting my unneeded basket and beaded bag aside. Momma might want to follow in Poppa's footsteps and work, work, work herself to death, but I wanted something different for my life. I wanted to work, work, work, and live before I died. Today should have been my day to live.

I stared at the flaking, yellow paint on our front door, wondering what to do. Should I follow Mae and Karel? Did I have the nerve to disobey Momma for the very first time? But what about her premonition of death? How could a picnic be dangerous? Yet Momma had never been wrong before, except maybe the time when she'd predicted that Mrs. Mulligan would die a tragic death. Our neighbor was still very much alive, but her twin sister had died the next day. She'd slipped off an icy curb right in front of the coal man's wagon and had been trampled by his two horses.

The very idea of opposing Momma ...

I shuddered at the thought. Still, I couldn't stop thinking about Karel and Mae. Soon she'd be boarding the Eastland and searching out all our pals. Where did that leave Karel? Without me, he wouldn't know a soul. If only I were there to help him pass the time.

And what if Momma was right? Wouldn't Mae and Karel need my help?

I sprang to my feet, my heart thundering, and dashed down the street.

Chapter Two

Defiant and Determined

Mae and Karel had a ten-minute head start over me, and it would take more than a little hustling to catch up with them. But with hundreds of picnic-goers swarming the narrow sidewalks, I could barely walk, let alone run, the four blocks to the nearest Chicago-bound streetcar. As if I didn't have enough trouble, the sprinkles I'd hoped would let up today seemed to be worsening. I sidestepped a muddy puddle and turned onto Twenty-Second Street, the paved thoroughfare Mae and I took to work each day. It was the wrong way to go. People poured in from every side street like water through a funnel. I found myself pressed up against the plate-glass window fronts of the neighborhood stores. I slithered past the butcher shop with the sides of beef dangling from chains in the window. On days when the wind blew in the east, Cicero was near enough to the Union stockyards to catch the stench of slaughter. But now, the rain and this great surge of picnickers seemed to mask any hint of dung or urine. I'd slipped around the red-and- white-striped barber pole in front of Giuseppe's Barber Emporium when someone called to me.

"Delia! What's the rush?"

Mr. Mazurski, the greengrocer, was filling an outside stand with potatoes beneath the bright orange canvas awning of his shop. He waved a spud at me. "You've maybe somewhere special to go today?"

"Now, Stosh. Don't tease the girl." Mrs. Mazurski scolded her husband from behind the cash register. "And Delia, tell Mae thanks again for the tickets."

"Yes, please," said Mr. Mazurski. "We're taking the last steamer. We'll see you in Indiana this afternoon."

"I'll tell her," I said with a wave.

I lurched forward, but not before smacking into the woman in front of me and knocking her feathery aqua hat off her head. I caught the hat before it hit the wet sidewalk. The woman turned, revealing a tangle of red curls and a pair of fiery, emerald eyes.

"Dolly! I'm so sorry." I handed back her hat.

Dolly O'Brien, switchboard operator at Western Electric, smiled at me with heart-shaped lips that seemed to say to the boys kiss me or else. "Don't bother yourself," she said. "This mob is madness. How're we ever going to catch a streetcar?"


Excerpted from Merely Dee by Marian Manseau Cheatham Copyright © 2012 by Marian Manseau Cheatham. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Merely Dee 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
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V-Rundell More than 1 year ago
While many stories take the reader to new and exotic worlds, this captivating historical novel recounts the tragedy of the SS Eastland in a way that transports the reader to a world within our own. A time before a house phone, a time when ice boxes and milk delivery was the norm. Through the eyes of young Delia Pageau, Dee to her mother and Chickadee to her best friend Mae, we learn the struggles a young woman of the early 20th century may have faced working to support family while searching for a suitable husband. Just as she seems to be making headway, her entire world capsizes, in the form of the SS Eastland. The horrifying account of Dee's survival and her search to find the missing Mae is chilling, but the mourning and re-birth of the survivors is a lesson for life. This meticulously researched work provides a rare glimpse into a tragedy that consumed Chicago, and the promise of love and hopeful ending will resonate for young and old alike.
amberleeAC More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. As someone who has been born and raised in Chicago, I feel this is a story that has slipped through the cracks over time in the story of our great city. Yet one that needs to be told and not forgotten. The people who perished in this event were much of the hard work working backbone of what made Chicago the city of broad shoulders we know today. The coming of age tale following Dee Pageau as she struggles to grapple with the loss of her best friend while discovering her own strength Dee never knew she had is inspiring. A must read for anyone who loves historical fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A well-researched, exciting and captivating work of historical fiction. The story centers around a devastating event in Chicago history and puts you right there in the middle of it, grabbing your attention at the start and keeping it through the very end. The author expertly blends this tale with a coming of age story and a love triangle that will delight and warm the hearts of young adult and older readers alike. I could not put it down and read it in one sitting!
catlan More than 1 year ago
Merely Dee is an excellent new work of historical fiction. The novel is narrated by Delia Pageau, a worker at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works Plant in Cicero Illinois. Dee joins her friends and coworkers for a company picnic outing on July 24, 1915 on the S.S. Eastland. Everyone who knows Chicago or maritime history knows what happened next. This novel is full of local details familiar to Chicago and Cicero residents: from the scenes along the Chicago River to the makeshift morgue at the Second Regiment Armory to the funerals at St. Mary’s of Czestochowa. The novel is appropriate for young adults in that is told from the viewpoint from a teenage girl, but adults will appreciate the breadth of her reactions and the in depth depictions of her story.
HeatherFrizzell More than 1 year ago
Imagine a steamer capsizes while still at it's downtown mooring point on the Chicago River in 1915. Imagine 844 souls perish quickly, in relatively shallow waters, despite the help to hand from the quayside close by. Imagine the workforce of a large local employer loses 500 employees, mainly women. Imagine such loss of life and suffering of bereaved families on what was supposed to be a happy picnic day. Imagine even entire families were completely lost to those cruel waters. Imagine then that some young people survived to mourn, remember and then find their way ahead in the world. The historical background is amazingly true and not imagined. This author, Marian, has researched the details of the actual event so well and has written so vividly that the reader gains a really good grasp of the events that fateful day. Marian has then imagined for us how the real events might have impacted on young people completely swept up in the horrors of this historical tragedy. Her personal connections with Chicago and Cicero thread the narrative with passion and enthusiasm for her subject. Her personal connection with the story, recounted at the end of the book, is a little spine-tingling. As my own family have a connection with Chicago and the Western Electric company (my grandfather worked there in about 1936) I have really enjoyed reading this book. I hope my review may encourage others to pick up and read this little gem of a book. It may lead, as it did for me, to further research and interest in this actual event.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
riviting i couldn't put this down and read it in one day!! it has it all love, death, friendship, history and triumph! can't wait for this author to get another book published!!
LindaCol More than 1 year ago
A well written story centered on the life of a 17 year old girl, Dee, a survivor of a capsized cruise ship the SS Eastland. The real-life tragedy that happened in the Chicago River in 1915 is recounted in vivid detail from the creaking of the steal to the smells, sights and sounds of despair and death. The author's wonderful descriptive writing puts you right there with her. It is a page-turner that you won't want to put down. The reader is taken on a journey of Dee's excitement at going on the company picnic (via the Eastland) with her best friend Mae and other fellow Western Electric employees to her suffering despair and loss as she tries to cope and keep her own sanity. She encounters young men who not only save her but stir her romantic yearnings. The romance in this story is done very well and will keep you guessing plus wanting more. This is a must-read with fact-filled history of a Chicago tragedy that many people have forgotten or not even heard about. The bonus is the character Dee and all the people in her life seem very real and familiar or larger than life and you don't want it to end but only want more. I certainly hope that there will be a sequel and I, especially, feel this would make a fantastic movie much like the movie "Titanic".