A young Romanian girl travels in secret to Stamboul and is invited to give advice to the Sultan after she becomes known for her unusual intelligence. Eleonora Cohen is a young Jewish girl born in Constanta, Romania in the year 1877. On the day of her birth, her father, Yakob, a Jewish carpet seller, welcomes a daughter but loses a wife, Eleonora's mother, Leah. A large flock of purple and white hoopoes suddenly flies in and settles around the Cohen's house at the same time that two Muslim midwives, Mrs. Damakan and her niece, arrive to assist with the difficult childbirth. This same day Tsar Alexander II's army sweeps through and defeats the Ottoman forces around Constanta.
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After a week, Yakob sends a telegram to Leah's sister, Ruxandra, in Bucharest asking for help. He writes to Moncef Bey, an acquaintance from Stamboul, offering the housekeeping services of Mrs. Damakan and her niece. Ruxandra arrives and stays she will only stay if Yakob agrees to marry her. The marriage takes place a couple weeks later.
In Stamboul, Abdulhamid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, is informed of the Russian army advances. His Grand Vizier, Jamaludin Pasha, is a strict man and does not want to give any enemy country an advantage. He thinks there are spies everywhere. Whereas Abdulhamid II tries to make decisions for the good of the country in the long run, Jamaludin tries to get him to make hasty decisions. They discuss rumors that Moncef Bey is starting a secret society.
Eleonora spends her childhood in Constanta with her stepmother and father. She does not like Ruxandra. Eleonora is a precocious child and advances in math and reading in record time. Ruxandra tells her she must hide this ability so others do not think she is strange. Once day she goes to the grocers with Ruxandra and publicly corrects the cashier for overcharging. Ruxandra is furious and forbids her to read many books. At eight years old she discovers the book The Hourglass and spends many happy hours reading in secret. When she finds out her father is going to Stamboul to sell carpets, she decides to stowaway on the boat and go with him. On the boat ride Yakob meets Reverend James Muehler, the new Rector for Robert's College in Stamboul. Yakob is furious when Eleonora reveals herself on the boat, but he permits her to stay with him at Moncef Bey's house.
Life at Moncef Bey's house is enjoyable. Eleonora meets Mrs. Damakan again, who is now the housekeeper for Moncef Bey. Eleonora travels around the city with her father and Moncef Bey, and she receives several new dresses. She discovers the big library and spends many hours reading the books.
Abdulhamid and Jamaludin Pasha greet visitors to the palace and listen to their complaints. After a tiring session, Abdulhamid goes into the garden and sees an unusual purple and white hoopoe. The flock has followed Eleonora to Stamboul.
Eleonora and Yakob are invited to accompany Moncef Bey on a cruise celebration for the American Vice Consul's birthday. Halfway through there is a sudden explosion and the boat sinks. Many people die, including Eleonora's father, Yakob.
After the accident, Eleonora refuses to speak. She only writes questions and answers on paper. Moncef Bey becomes her guardian, and she stays in his house. Most of her days are spent reading. She will not leave the house.
Reverend Muehler is invited to Moncef Bey's house. He is secretly gathering intelligence information. He manages to become a tutor for Eleonora and uses any opportunity to snoop through Moncef Bey's papers. Monsieur Karom, Moncef Bey's butler, is always showing up in unexpected places as well.
Reverend Muehler tutors her in Latin and Ancient Greek. One day he brings a piece of paper and asks her to decipher the code, stating that it was just for practice. In reality it is for a secret meeting for revolutionary spies.
Bored with her routine, Eleonora discovers the unused women's quarters and explores them. She wanders down dark halls and finds a door leading to the stables. She does not go further. Several months later she decides to venture from the house and accompanies Moncef Bey to the Café Europa. She sees Moncef Bey hand a piece of paper to an unknown man.
Sultan Abdulhamid finds out there have been revolutionary meetings around Stamboul. Jamaludin Pasha tells him the code was unknowingly cracked by Eleonora. Abdulhamid asks to meet Eleonora at the palace.
While wandering in the women's quarters, Eleonora discovers a secret overlook into the library. She sees Reverend Muehler rifling through Moncef Bey's papers. He takes several and puts them in his bag. The next day she tells Moncef Bey and he immediately fires the Reverend. Eleonora is curious and looks through Moncef Bey's papers. He asks her not to do that again, that he will tell her when the time is right.
The Reverend goes to the palace and tells Jamaludin Pasha of what has happened. He is given a bag of coins to compensate for his loss of money.
Eleonora is invited to the palace, and she suddenly starts speaking again. When she arrives she is overwhelmed and unsure where to go. Abdulhamid takes an immediate liking to her and begins to ask her advice. Jamaludin Pasha is outraged that the Sultan would ask advice from an eight year old girl. He argues that he sees the inherent intelligence in Eleonora and believes in her words. He asks for several carts of court papers to be delivered to Eleonora for her opinion. She reads all the papers but doesn't know what to make of them. Mrs. Damakan tells her she believes Eleonora is a chosen one and will bring good changes to the world. The hoopoes and other signs have been pointing the way.
The next day Eleonora returns to the palace to give her opinions. She has a seizure and reveals many things about Moncef Bey in her trance. Reverand Muehler meets up with an old friend, Frederick Sutton, who is a journalist. He suggests a new article about Eleonora as an oracle for the Sultan. Over the next few weeks postcards and letters arrive for Eleonora asking for her advice.
The Sultan sees the article and hears rumors that he is not fit for the throne. Jamaludin Pasha suggests they deport Eleonora or have her live in the palace under surveillance. Abdulhamid asks Eleonora to come live at the palace only because he enjoys her presence. She says she will think about it.
At Moncef Bey's house she wants things to return to how they were, but she knows they will not. She decides she will run away instead. She puts on clothes for a boy, leaves a goodbye note, takes some money and runs off to Europe.
Best part of story, including ending:
The story had a great deal of fascinating cultural details, and it was refreshing to see a young, intelligent girl as the main character. At the same time, though, the story moved at an exceedingly slow pace and never seemed to actually result in any significant change.
Best scene in story:
A favorite scene was when Eleonora first discovers the unused women's quarters at Moncef Bey's house. She walks into a dark, mysterious section of the house that is filled with cobwebs and dust. When she moves down the hall she sees several lookout sections that allow her to observe people without them knowing. She sees Mr Damakan cleaning the downstairs halls. This becomes her favorite place to hide when she wants to be alone.
Opinion about the main character:
Eleonora is very intelligent and intuitive, and even though she is young she is able to understand many things about the grownup world.