The Lace Dowry

uli hasn't thought much about the future, but suddenly at her mother's urging she must think about it. Juli's mother has been saving money for her daughter's dowry for twelve years. She wants to offer Juli everything she didn’t have—a dowry and dance lessons and the perfect shoes. Juli doesn't want a dowry. It's 1936 for goodness sake, no one needs a dowry anymore. Besides Juli is only twelve and she's not ever getting married if she can help it. She'll do something more exciting—she'll become a scientist or an explorer like admiral Byrd. But Juli's mother is determined, so the family sets off on the train to Kiskunhalas, a small village outside of Budapest. Juli will not have an ordinary dowry, "Because," her mother says "you are not an ordinary girl." Reluctantly Juli goes on the train. When they arrive she meets Roza, a girl who can't read or write, but who knows how to make some of the finest lace in the world. The two girls become fast friends drawn together by the vast differences between their lives and the kittens in the barn.Soon, Juli is begging to go along with her mother to visit lace makers. Between school and dancing lessons and trips to visit Roza, Juli searches within for a solid sense of self to hold up before her overbearing mother. Her emerging identity is sharply defined by her new friendship with Roza, her growing understanding of her mother, and her own notions of who she will become. The Lace Dowry is a story rich with history and a sense of place.

"Juli, listen to me. We will go to Halas and have the ladies make us the most beautiful lace you have ever seen., It must be big, big as this table." Mama puts her arms out to show me the size. "We already have so many tablecloths," I say. Mama has a whole shelf in the linen closet with nothing but embroidered napkins, centerpieces, and tablecloths. "But they are not made otu of lace," Mama says. "And this one is not for me." "Who is if for?" Mama smiles. "For you." "What do I want with a tablecloth?" Mama strokes my curly hair. "This will be part of your dowry," she says. Dowry. The word sounds like something from the Middle Ages.
Author perspective

At the end of The Lace Dowry is an author's note which explains how the story came about. My aunt has an exquisite lace tablecloth framed on the wall of her living room. Her mother, my grandmother, asked the lace makers in Halas to make a beautiful big tablecloth. At first they refused because usually they made smaller lace doilies, but my grandmother insisted. Eventually the lace tablecloth was finished. The story of Juli and Roza is fictional, but the background of the story is real.

School Library Journal

Grade 4-7–Juli can't understand why her mother would want to spend all of her savings on a lace dowry for her only child. After all, she's only 12, and besides, she doesn't plan to marry–ever. The whole notion of a dowry is old-fashioned, even in Budapest, 1933. Mother and daughter are constantly at odds; one is critical and imposes her own dreams on her child; the other, in turn, is both rebellious and hurtful. Still, they make the railroad trip to Halas, known for its fine lace, every few months to check on the progress of the gift. Juli befriends the lace maker's daughter, Roza, an uneducated farm girl who helps her mother with her handiwork and chores. Despite her mother's harsh opinions of common country folk, Juli dreams of a life in Halas, reading and lying in the grass. When Roza's mother becomes ill, almost blinded by the strain of the minute stitchery, Juli hatches a secret plan to help. Under the ruse of buying shoes for the dance classes her mother insists she attend, she asks for money. She then uses it to buy a pair of magnifying spectacles for her Halas friends. This final deceit leads to a blow-up in which Juli's mother reveals painful information about her own life, which enables her daughter to finally understand and appreciate her. Though the family dynamics are realistically portrayed and fairly universal, the setting and particulars of the story have limited appeal. Still, readers might empathize with the protagonist as she struggles with her mixed emotions.–Barbara Auerbach, New York City Public Schools
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Gr. 4-7. "I'm never getting married," announces 12-year-old Juli as she and her parents travel from Budapest to Halas, the town where they will commission exquisite handmade lace for Juli's dowry. At first, Juli envies life in Halas, until she notices the lacemaker's ruined eyes. Then she forms a wary friendship with Rosa, the lacemaker's daughter, and tries to help the family in secret, rebelling against her mother's lessons in becoming "the perfect young lady." Cheng tells a familiar story of children discovering empathy across class and cultural divides, enriching the theme with a vivid historical setting and Juli's strong narration, which is written in spare language and a believable voice that captures the anxieties of a girl on the verge of adolescence. Many readers will recognize Juli's struggle to please her parents yet also follow her own fierce sense of justice and independence. Nicely paced for classroom read-alouds, the novel raises great questions for discussion: Is it okay to lie and steal to help someone else? Why do traditions continue? Gillian Engberg Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Voice of Youth Advocate (VOYA)

"Cheng’s story unfolds slowly as each character’s motive exposes itself. Although there are no earth-shattering conflicts in Juli’s life, she experiences the frustrations of growing up with the same intensity that her friend, Roaz, feels about her choices and the lack of options in her life. Juli romanticizes life on the farm in Halas, While her mother struggles to accept her daughter’s decisions. Cheng’s descriptions of Juli’s trips to Halas subtly expose the changes in the girl. It is a well-crafted, gentle story that develops much like a lace tablecloth is created."

Publisher's Weekly

Like Cheng's earlier novels (Marika ; Honeysuckle House ), this smoothly told tale was inspired by her own family's history. Set in 1933 Budapest, the novel centers on 12-year-old narrator Juli, whose mother commissions a lace maker in the countryside to stitch a tablecloth for her daughter's dowry. The woman has saved since Juli's birth in order to purchase "the biggest, most beautiful lace in the world" so that Juli can attract a suitable husband. Yet Juli, an avid reader who wants nothing more than a kitten, has no interest in a dowry or a husband; instead she wants to become a farmer or a veterinarian. Through Juli's visits with her mother to the lace maker, and her friendship with Roza, the stitcher's daughter, the author conveys the contrast between life on the farm and in the city. Juli witnesses the hardship of the lace maker's life as the woman's health begins to wane from her detailed work, and Roza stops attending school to help her mother. In a stretch of credibility, Juli's favorite kitten from Roza's cat's litter shows up at her Budapest building, providing comfort to the girl as she grapples with the discrepancy between her own goals and her mother's aspirations for her. Cheng convincingly depicts Juli's struggle to both connect with and to detach from her mother, and nimbly weaves bits of Hungarian lore into her story. Ages 10-up. (Apr.)

Book type: 
Middle grade novel
Front Street
Publication date: 
Mar 2005
Interest level: 
Honor Book in Social Studies (School Librarians International), Mar 2005