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Voices From the Gaps

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Mystery of the Dark Tower
by Evelyn Coleman

Mystery of the Dark Tower
  • Cost: $5.95
  • Length: 139 pp.
  • Publisher: Pleasant Company Publications, 2000

Reviewed by Ebony Adams

From North Carolina to New York City:
A Girl's View of the Harlem Renaissance

"What be done in the dark, always come to the light. " This ominous warning to Bessie Coulter, the main character of Evelyn Coleman's Mystery of the Dark Tower proves to be true, although not quite in the way that Bessie or readers expect. Set against the backdrop of the Great Migration (the movement of masses of black Americans from the rural south to the urban north), this book represents the latest offering of "History Mysteries," by American Girl.

The series is devoted to featuring girls from different eras, classes, regions, and races, and is intended as "intrigue for girls 10 and up. " Along with the requisite intrigue comes an interesting history lesson, complete with a few pages of archival material at the end of each book.

Mystery of the Dark Tower is set in 1928; 12 year-old Bessie Coulter moves with her father and younger brother Eddie to Harlem from Burlington, North Carolina. Bessie's sick mother does not accompany them, nor are provisions made for her eventual arrival-- a situation that arouses Bessie and Eddie's suspicions. Things go from bad to worse for the siblings when they realize where they will be living in Harlem: with their father's supremely fastidious, demanding, repressive older sisters.

Life in the brownstone they share is not comfortable for any member of the Coulter family, but markedly less so once Bessie's father takes a mysterious new job and begins to spend evenings away from home. Soon, he doesn't come home at all, but is spotted around town with strange women. Now faced with the inexplicable and horrifying absence of both parents, Bessie and Eddie must work to discover exactly what is happening to their family. Has their father abandoned them? Is their mother dead? Will they have to stay with Aunt Nellie and Aunt Esther (and eat Cream of Wheat) forever?

Bessie is an independent and astute heroine, and her story is all the more touching for its similarity to the frustration and loss felt by many African Americans leaving the known behind to make a better life in Harlem. At every turn, Bessie must confront the terrors of an unfamiliar landscape, the strangeness of new food, and even the occasional shocked pride at seeing a black policeman, or wealthy African Americans, for the first time. In fact, it is the exciting, sometimes frightening people Bessie, her brother, and new friend Lillian come into contact with that make Coleman's mystery so thrilling.

As Bessie and Eddie attempt to discover the whereabouts of their father, Bessie enlists the aid of a neighborhood woman suspected of having magical powers:

The woman was tall and slender with long, long black hair. Her complexion was like the dark bark of a tree. Her dress had red, yellow, and green birds flying all over it. Her body swayed as she walked toward them. She was very pretty. "Quick. Lower your head," Lillian whispered as the woman neared them. "Don't look in her face. She's a hoodoo woman from the Caribbean islands. She could turn us into frogs or something. " (Coleman 27)

In addition to colorful and intriguing personalities like that of Miss Flo (the Caribbean conjure woman), Bessie is also lucky enough to meet a cast of writers, painters, jazz musicians, and dancers whose names will be recognized by anyone familiar with the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, the "Dark Tower" of the title refers to the magazine column penned by poet Countee Cullen, a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance; Cullen's column lent its name to a salon for some of New York's leading minds and greatest artists. The secret of Bessies family is closely tied to these inspiring men and women, and as she unravels the mystery surrounding her missing parents, the reader is privileged to discover more and more about this fascinating time and place in American history.