The Scent of the Roses

Aleen Leslie’s 1963 novel wasn’t marketed as a children’s book, but the story is about a grade-school-age girl and, since I first read it as a junior high student, it was a part of my young adult years. Though The Scent of the Roses is a mystery I’ve reread it for its wonderful depiction of life a little over a hundred years ago.

The story is recollections of adult Jane Carlyle, who tells readers that when she was ten-years-old she could not recall anything that took place before she entered the Weber’s Pittsburgh home on the evening of Saint Valentine’s Day in 1908. She didn’t remember her parents, or even the murder. Her life seemed to begin when 30-year-old store owner Sophie Weber brought the girl home from a buying trip and introduced Jane to her astonished mother and adult siblings.

That evening Jane was put to bed, but then got up to use the bathroom, became lost, and found her way to a location where she could overhear the grownups talking about her. She learned Sophie had gone to New York City to purchase Easter merchandise for the department store where most of the Weber’s worked. Sophie and Jane had stayed at the same hotel, became friends, and Sophie had rushed to the room when she heard the girl screaming after witnessing the murder. The shock caused Jane to loose her memory. No relative was able to care for Jane, so Sophie wanted to adopt her in order to have a child, even if she never married.

Later on Sophie told her that her mother had died, no one knew where her father was, and she’d lost her memory after becoming ill. Because she had no recollections of her parents Jane didn’t miss them, but devoted herself to learning about her wonderful new family. The most colorful family member was Mrs. Weber, a widow with two goals in life: getting her oldest daughter, Sophie, married, and catching a ride downtown each day to visit the Nickelodeons – theaters that showed short silent movies. Pictures that moved and told a story were a modern marvel in 1908.

Soon after Jane’s arrival two of Sophie’s married siblings temporarily moved back to the family home. Sister Ermanie had informed her husband that she refused to have her baby any place other than her mother’s home, so the couple arrived as uninvited guests. A little later brother Hugo’s wife got into a snit and returned to her wealthy parent’s home. In response Hugo closed up his house and took his four children to stay with his relatives.

Whenever visitors arrived Mrs. Weber called for her youngest daughter, Elise, to make some coffee and put the homemade soup on the table.

On occasion a policeman would come by to inquire if Jane had regained her memory, and one time a man claiming to be a newspaper reporter asked one of Hugo’s daughters if the little girl staying with the family remembered anything from her past. But most of the book is about amusing stories regarding the Webers. In an effort to find a husband for Sophie Mrs. Weber places a newspaper advertisement for a male boarder, and the man chosen to rent the one remaining spare bedroom was a most amiable gentleman. His one fault was that he made his living as a house burglar.

For a time Jane adored Sophie, but one day a classmate taunted her by saying her father killed her mother. In a well-meaning effort to protect her Sophie had failed to tell Jane that she had witnessed her own mother’s murder, and that her missing father was a suspect. Later on Jane discovered that Sophie was hiding information from the police, and she suspected her guardian of being connected to the horrible crime.

Despite Jane’s mistrust of Sophie the girl continued to love staying with the Webers. Each book chapter is named after a holiday, and the girl delighted in taking part in festive occasions. Since she had no memory of past holidays each one was a new experience for her.

But then one evening, during a major celebration, Jane became overtired and over excited and kept insisting that a guest knew about something the person claimed to have no knowledge of. She was recalling an event from her past, and that meant danger, for she might soon remember who had killed her mother.

The mystery was finally resolved, but even after knowing who-done-it I enjoy rereading The Scent of the Roses to experience another visit with the Weber family. (The book title comes from a Thomas Moore verse: You may break, you may shatter the vase if you will, But the scent of the roses will hang round it still.)

While telling the story the author slips in interesting tidbits about life in 1908. I can “see” Sophie’s stylish clothes and the beautiful home furnishings. I can “hear” the low sound of the flames in the fireplaces fueled by natural gas. I join Jane as she listens to the adults around the dining room table discussing either family matters, or the all-important business of running Weber’s Dry Goods store. And I still become excited by the life-or-death struggles during the final chapters.

If you enjoy historical fiction, with a touch of “cozy” murder mystery, I highly recommend The Scent of the Roses. The novel is no longer in print, but it was popular enough for used copies to be readily available from online booksellers at a reasonable price.