Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty (Disney-Hyperion; Reprint edition – June 14, 2016), 320 pages, Age Range: 9 – 12 years
Twelve-year-old Serafina lives secretly in her father’s basement workshop at Asheville, North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate in 1899, taking care to stay hidden from the Vanderbilts, the guests, and the servants. While he is an employee tasked with keeping the electrical and mechanical systems working, nobody knows her father lives in his workshop, much less that he has a daughter who spends her nights catching rats in the dark hallways of the vast estate.
“Pa” said her mother died in childbirth, but that doesn’t explain why Serafina must hide. For years, she’s believed her father was ashamed of her because she was born with four toes on each foot and a spinal abnormality that make her different from other children. While he’s content to allow her to wander the house at night, her father has told her many times to keep out of the dangerous forest.
One night, she sees a hooded man in a black cloak murder or kidnap a young girl in a dark hallway, but she has no way to prove it happened. Her father thinks she’s imagining things, and even if she comes out of hiding and talks to the Vanderbilts, she doubts they would believe a strange young girl’s story about a mysterious man she cannot identify. But then another child disappears the following night, and another on the night after that. The missing ones are the children of the Vanderbilts’ guests. Search parties are organized, but nothing is found.
This well-told tale centers around Serafina’s need to act, her fear that the man in the cloak may also be stalking her, to discover why she’s drawn to the dangerous forest, and her continuing need to learn why she is different and must hide in the basement. When she befriends young Braeden, a nephew of Biltmore’s owners after a chance meeting, she realizes the man in the cloak is also stalking him. Braeden keeps Serafina’s secrets, but is hesitant to believe her when she puzzles out the probable identity of the man in the black cloak.
Nonetheless, her determination to stop the man and how she goes about it, make this fantasy mystery a compelling story for young adult readers. The conclusion is stunning, and (for many readers) quite likely to be unexpected, yet the hints, clues and mysteries will fall perfectly into place.
The novel is the well-deserved recipient of the 2016 Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize and other awards. Adults who have toured the Biltmore House and its beautiful grounds, might also find themselves lured into reading the book once their children finish Serafina and the Black Cloak because the story fits so well into the setting.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and other magical stories and novels.