In her adult title Harem: The World behind the Veil (1989), Croutier explored the Grand Harem in Istanbul's Tokapi Palace, and she returns to this evocative setting in her first novel for young people.
The year is 1720. Twelve-year-old Leyla has always been privy to a happy lifestyle in Istanbul. The daughter of a magnificent painter, Leyla's existence has been one full of art, culture, gardening, and love. She is passionate about her family, and thrives on tending her garden where she grows the most amazing flowers. But when her father heads off to war to paint the battle scenes and never returns, Leyla's life changes drastically.
Leyla could have never imagined that when she kissed her father goodbye on that fateful day, that she would never see him again. But as the months pass, there is no sign of her father, and Leyla can't help but feel dreadful. But feeling sorry for herself is out of the question; especially with the shambles that her family is in. Since her father's departure, there is little to no food, and the cold is so strong that Leyla and her family often find themselves sleeping side-by-side in a little ball, just to stay warm. He only consolation for her family's troubles is the work she does in her garden. There she has begun to grow flowers of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. But her most prized flower is the tulip. Legend has it that no one has ever been able to grow a black tulip. Leyla is determined to do just that. But she is forced to put her dreams on the backburner when her family's troubles begin to worsen. Soon she finds herself at Topkapi Palace, a newcomer to the royal harem. When her talent for gardening surfaces, however, Leyla is placed under the guidance of the Mistress of the Flowers. It is here where she secretly plants the special tulips she has brought with her from her home. Now her only worry is what will happen to her if the tulip bulbs are discovered.
Leyla is such a refreshing, remarkable character. Her loyalty to her family is admirable, as is the maturity she displays in having to do what's right to assist those she loves in surviving. I love the time that she spends in the gardens, and how she speaks of the flowers; but it is the way that she captures her thoughts, dreams, and hopes in her painting that is quite lovely. While she is not a prevalent character, I found the inclusion of the Mistress of the Flowers to be wonderful. She seems like such a bright, observant, kind individual, that I couldn't help feeling interested in her whenever she popped up. An engrossing and powerful read with strong characters who won't soon be forgotten. Bravo Ms. Croutier!