New Orleans, April 1862. Red buckeye and gladiolus blossoms adorn the city. Hope has come with spring, though the Great American Civil War is entering its second year. But for Francesca Dumas, the murder of her “contract husband” has changed her future from bright to bleak. As with her mother and friends, a marriage of any kind was the only way a woman could live a life free from poverty.
With the recent arrival of rumors that the war will soon come to New Orleans, Francesca—and her friends and neighbors—must make the painful small choices available to women: find another man or compete for a handful of “female occupations.” Or she could decide to take on a role that was reserved for men—instead of following a friend and passing for white.
The Laced Chameleon is a striking novel that looks beyond race and takes readers into women’s caste and class struggles in the antebellum South. Superimposed on Francesca’s story are greed and murders committed by men seeking power and wealth—all while the deeply divided United States is in civil strife and its survival as a single nation is in doubt. Undaunted by a depleted police force because of war, Francesca undertakes finding and bringing to justice her husband’s assassin. She gets advice and help in her crusade from historic people of New Orleans, including humanitarian Venerable Henriette Delille, actress Sarah Butler, and Union spy John Mahan.
Undercover, rookie homicide detective Francesca becomes a chameleon in lace.
In America, race matters. The artificial constructs of race, caste, and class have mattered for centuries and still matter today. Sex between white men and African, Native American, and mixed-race women produced off-springs known as mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons. Mulattos are likely to have as few as one or two white grandparents and an African or Native American parent. Quadroons have three white grandparents, while octoroons have seven white great-grandparents.
Mademoiselle Francesca Dumas was a quadroon. According to young and vivacious Francesca, “There are many rules in New Orleans about sex—written and unwritten. The rules apply to everyone—except white men.”
While miscegenation existed all over the South, arranged unions between white men and women of color existed in antebellum New Orleans society by contract in a recognized extralegal system called plaçage. Race, caste, and class are significant matters in Francesca’s life.
The rigid caste system into which Francesca Dumas was born in 1843 was an American institution a century before the United States Constitution was written. European Americans used skin color in the establishment of their caste system. For centuries, the ruling or dominant culture decided segregation of people into subordinate groups—whether by skin-color or some other basis such as religion or linage or whatever. A few examples are societies in China, Rwanda, South Africa, India, and Pakistan.
The caste system that had such a profound impact on Francesca’s American life is alive and well in twenty-first-century America.
Partial List of Nonfiction Characters Appearing in The Laced Chameleon
Benjamin, Judah P., US Senator; Confederate Secretary of State
Browne, Thomas, Owner of the Singer Sewing Machine Agency
Hildreth-Butler, Sarah, Actress, wife of General Butler
Butler, Andrew, Colonel, US Army; brother of General Butler
Butler, Benjamin F., Major General, US Army
Casanave, Pierre, Founder of Undertaking Service
Casanave, Peter, Son of Pierre, Undertaking Service
Cocks, Arianna*, Daughter of Annabelle
Cocks, Annabelle*, Daughter of John G. Cocks
Cocks, John G., New Orleans Judge
Cocks, Able*, Son of Annabelle
Corlin, Martha*, Confederate Sympathizer
Delille, Henriette, Founder and Mother Superior, Sisters of Holy Family
Dumas, Alexandre, Author of The Count of Monte Cristo
Foster, Thomas, Owner of a New Orleans slave sales depot
Heidiseck, Charles Camille, Owner of Heidiseck & Company Wines, Reims, France
Jobert, Rev. J.B., Pastor, St. Augustine Catholic Church
Lille, Sarpy, Officer, Union Bank of New Orleans
Lovell, Mansfield, Major General, Confederate States Army
Mahan, John, General Butler’s most trusted Spy
Nixon, James, Owner/Publisher, New Orleans Daily Crescent
Packwood, Theodore, Owner of Belle Chasse Plantation
Rusha, E.M., Owner of EM Rusha. Importer of Fine Wines & Liquors
Strong, George B., US Army, Major, General Butler’s Chief of Staff
Tunnard, William H., Confederate Army Sergeant, 3rd Louisiana Infantry Regiment
Zunts, James E., Investor and Co-owner of the City Hotel
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