The Seamstress of New Orleans
Constance Halstead knows something is wrong. Her husband, Benton, is demanding money from her trust fund, and her refusals are making him irate. She fears he is in debt to the Black Hand, a criminal organization in New Orleans, and after his suspicious death she is sure of it. And when a mysterious mustached man begins to threaten her and her children, life becomes terrifying.
In the meantime, Alice Butterworth finds herself pregnant and abandoned by her husband in an apartment in Chicago. With winter closing in and no money she decides to search for her missing spouse. The only thing she knows about his history is a general location of his mother’s house in Memphis. But when she arrives in Memphis, she is shocked to learn that the house he had described to her does not exist.
After overhearing a conversation regarding Mardi Gras and its elaborate costumes in New Orleans, Alice, a skilled seamstress, decides to take her chances there.
She arrives with just enough money to live for a few weeks and finds a kind landlady. Understanding Alice’s circumstances, the landlady recommends an orphanage in town that needs someone to teach the children sewing and will give her food and shelter in return.
This orphanage is the same one that Constance visits since the death of her infant son. It is a place where she feels she can be useful.
When a wealthy, influential widow decides it’s time for the women in New Orleans to stand up and host their own Mardi Gras krewe, this widow will not take Constance’s “no” for an answer. In spite of her recent widowhood, the widow insists that since this Mardi Gras krewe will be in disguise, no one will recognize Constance, so no social conventions will be broken. She convinces Constance that this is something she needs to do for her daughters and to take a stand for women.
Remembering her mother and how different she was with friends and how reserved she was required to be in her father’s presence, Constance relents. She realizes that this one small step could be the beginning of better days for her girls.
After Alice moves into Constance’s household, the women begin to work on a magnificent gown for the Mardi Gras krewe. As they adorn it with powerful symbolism they are drawn together and bond over the fact that they have each lost infant sons. As they grow closer they also bond over keeping Constance’s children safe from the man who continues to watch, follow, and threaten them.
After the krewe, when the mysterious man shows up and threatens Constance in public, things come to a crisis. Soon after the krewe, evidence is produced that helps Constance regarding both the threatening man, and any doubts or fears about her husband’s fate.
Author Diane McPhail has created a novel that is at once a mystery and a novel of feminine friendship and empowerment. She reminds the reader of how constricted life for women at the turn of the century was, and she illustrates this with two very different characters.
Alice, from the rural plains was not valued because, as a female, she offered little by way of farm help.
Constance, on the other hand, was treated as ignorant and of no value because she was a woman. Rather than nurture her imagination, she was told how to sit, eat, speak, and behave like a lady.
Because of the author’s choice of these different women characters, she personifies what was a shared experience for many.
The Seamstress of New Orleans leaves you wanting more of New Orleans, a place that is saturated with history. It is a perfect summer book to sit back with a glass of sweet tea and enjoy. It is a story of the strength of female friendships, set against the fascinating backdrop of turn-of-the-century New Orleans—a place where crime is tolerated and the stakes are high for those who find themselves in trouble.