Serafina and the Black CloakBy Robert Beatty
Serafina is a 12-year-old girl who lives in the grand Biltmore Estate in 1899. Owned by the famous Vanderbilt family, the house itself is beautiful and vast, almost a castle. The grounds are lovely, manicured, and surrounded by forest. But Serafina is not a rich girl or even a servant. She lives hidden in the basement with her father, the workman who keeps the new-fangled electric lights running.
Serafina and her pa have lived in the basement for 12 years. She is an expert at hiding, prowling the estate at night when everyone is asleep. She is a hunter, mostly of rats and mice, which she catches with her bare hands. Like other hunters, she knows how to stay silent and watchful, observing the residents and guests of Biltmore in all their finery.
Like other hunters she is also drawn to the forest, but forbidden to enter. The forest is full of dangerous beasts, possibly demons, and many other things both “dark and bright”. Yet the forest holds an allure that she cannot explain.
One night in the basement, Serafina hears the unusual sounds of people descending the stairs; no one at Biltmore ever comes to the basement at night! As they approach, Serafina realizes that a young girl is being chased by a man, who is trying to assure her that she will not be hurt. Closer and closer they come, and Serafina watches the terrifying ordeal. The man is wearing a black cloak, and when he finally gets his hands on the screaming girl, he wraps his cloak around her and poof! She disappears.
Is the girl dead? Has he somehow consumed her, body and soul?
Intent on solving this mystery, Serafina becomes bolder, roaming the house during the day. A pall is cast over Biltmore as children begin to disappear. Search parties are organized to no avail. Serafina wants to help, but who would believe the things she saw?
Finally, hungry for a friend and confidante, Serafina allows herself to be seen by Braden Vanderbilt, a boy of her age who is always accompanied by his fiercely loyal Doberman, Gidean. Braden is lonely as well and a friendship begins to blossom. Together, Serafina and Braden embark on a grim adventure to save the disappearing children from the Man in the Black Cloak, and to make the adults understand that the culprit may not be of this world.
Serafina and the Black Cloak is suspenseful throughout. The beautiful finery of Biltmore is contrasted with the dark and unknown forest. Animals such as Gidean feature prominently in the story; both Braden and Serafina are able to communicate with animals on a deep level, hence their affinity for each other.
The book also features elements of the supernatural, as magical forces shape the actions of some of the characters. But fantasy mixes with realism in this novel, making the fantastic all the more believable.
Serafina and the Black Cloak will appeal to those who love fantasy, mystery and adventure, but it can be quite scary at times. The notion of children being kidnapped or possibly killed is a central feature of the novel, and should not be discounted. This novel is recommended for grades 5-8, but especially for children who enjoy a bit of a scare.