Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, 1947, 1957, 1975, 1987.

This book has been printed and reprinted many times over the decades. The edition that I used for this review is the same one that I read when I was in elementary school, printed in the 1980s. One of the reasons why the edition matters is that the illustrations were different in the first printings in the book. In 1957, the illustrations were replaced by the ones you see here, which continued to be used in later printings.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is a widow who lives in an upside-down house. Her husband was a pirate, and she has magical cures for the bad habits of the children who live in her neighborhood. Sometimes, she doesn’t need magic for a particular child’s bad habit, just using psychology. Sometimes, certain behaviors, like staying up all night instead of going to bed, are their own punishment, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle advises the parents to let the children do them for a certain period of time so they can find out for themselves why these things are a bad idea, usually with very funny results. This book is the first book in the series, and it particularly uses more psychology than magic.

As an adult, I actually prefer the psychological cures to the magical ones. These stories are meant to be humorous rather than practical, and because of that, they’re not realistic. First, they never really go into the psychological reasons why some of these kids do the things they do, like becoming over-protective of their belongings or suddenly become afraid of taking baths. Then, when children suffer the consequences of their misbehavior, the consequences are humorous and exaggerated, like the boy whose room gets so messy that he actually traps himself inside until he decides to clean up and the girl who gets so dirty that her parents can grow radishes on her. However, the fact that there are consequences for the children’s behavior is a useful touch of realism. It gives parents or teachers the opportunity to talk to kids about what they expect would happen if they actually did any of the things kids do in the stories and think about some of the consequences of their own actions. These are stories that can make kids chuckle and then make them think.

I think it’s important to point out that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle never actually blames the children for their bad behavior, seeing it more as an affliction that they need to be cured from. She likes all children in spite of their bad habits and bad behavior (something I admit that i find hard to do with people in real life), and she wants to cure them of their problems so that other people will see how likeable they are underneath. Even though Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle likes the children, she doesn’t spare them from the consequences of their actions because that is part of the cure that the children need to become the best versions of themselves. Sometimes, the consequences are the cure by themselves. After all, what makes bad habits “bad” is that they have bad consequences to them. They cause problems, both for the person behaving badly and others. Maybe, sometimes, people need to see the problems for themselves and experience the consequences directly before they find the motivation to fix their behavior. I can believe that part of these stories is realistic. The rest of it is just for fun.

The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books are collections of short stories, and each one focuses on a different child or set of children, their particular problems or bad habits, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s solutions to them.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

The Stories in this Book:

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Herself

This section of the book introduces and describes Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. She is a small woman with a hump on her back, which she says contains magic. She has very long brown hair, which she usually wears up, but sometimes, she lets it down so that children can comb and braid it or style it in different ways. Her eyes are also brown, and her skin is described as being a “goldy brown.” She wears brown clothing (although that’s not how she’s shown in the pictures) and smells like sugar cookies. She claims not to know her own age, saying that it doesn’t matter, since she’ll never get any bigger than she is now.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is a widow, and she tells the children that her husband was a pirate who buried treasure in the back yard before he died. She has no children of her own, but she loves all the neighborhood children, and she frequently looks after them and has them come over to play. She doesn’t often speak to the children’s parents because she gets nervous around adults. She also has a dog named Wag and a cat named Lightfoot.

She also lives in a little brown house that is upside down. She says that her house is upside down because, when she was a little girl, she used to look up at the ceiling when she was in bed and wonder what it would be like to walk on the ceiling, so when she grew up, she purposely built her house upside down just to find out. The only parts of the house that are normal are the kitchen, the bathroom, and the stairs because none of them would work properly if they were upside down.

When I was a kid, I thought that the upside-down house was the best part of the stories. When people walk around inside it, they have to step over the sills of the doorways because what should be the tops of doors are not flush with the ceiling the way the bottoms are flush with the floor, and these doorways are upside down. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle put little steps into and out of doorways to help with that, but kids like to jump the doorways as a challenge. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle lets them make chalk marks to record the lengths of their jumps. Also, because the ceilings are now the floors, the chandelier is on the floor of the living room, shining upward instead of down, and kids sit around it like it’s a camp fire. The children can also use the slanting ceiling-floors of the house as slides.

Most of this part of the book is backstory for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, but it explains that the first neighborhood child she made friends with was a girl named Mary Lou, who was running away from home because she hated doing the dishes so much. Seeing Mary Lou going down the sidewalk in the rain with her suitcase, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle invited her in for tea and cookies, and Mary Lou told her about her problems. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle tells Mary Lou that she really likes washing dishes because it’s fun to pretend that she’s a beautiful princess who was captured by an evil witch who makes her do all the cleaning and that the only way she can escape is to have everything clean by the time the clock strikes. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle draws Mary Lou into a game of pretend, where they both pretend that they’re cleaning the kitchen for the evil witch. Then, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle puts on her witch’s costume, pretending to be the witch, inspecting the kitchen to make sure that it’s clean.

It’s so much fun that Mary Lou gets over hating washing the dishes. When she tells her parents about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, they let her spend time with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and she brings her friend, Kitty, to visit when Kitty says that she hates making the beds at her house. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle plays a similar game of pretend with Kitty and Mary Lou, where they pretend that they are making beds for a cruel queen who will throw them in the dungeon if the sheets are wrinkled.

Gradually, Mary Lou and Kitty start bringing their siblings and other friends to see Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle gets to know all of the children in the neighborhood. She shows them how to make chores fun, teaches them to do things like bake cookies and pies, and lets them dig for pirate treasure in the backyard. Because she is so good with children, parents in the neighborhood call her to ask for help and advice when they’re having problems with their kids.

The Won’t-Pick-Up-Toys Cure

Hubert Prentiss’s grandfather gives him many wonderful toys, but Hubert doesn’t like putting them away. It’s very difficult to get around his room, and the problem gets worse all the time. Hubert’s mother tries asking other mothers what they do with their children, but they either don’t have the same problem or don’t know what to do. Then, one of them suggests asking Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle because she’s so good with children. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has met Hubert before because he’s come to her house with the other children.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle suggests that Hubert’s mother let Hubert make his room messy and that she not try to pick up after him or even enter his room. Then, when the room gets to the point that it’s difficult for Hubert himself to even go in or out, to give her a call. After a week, Hubert’s room is so bad that he can’t open his bedroom door and can’t even use his bed. His mother has to feed him through his bedroom window. Even though she’s only able to give him things like peanut butter sandwiches through the window and Hubert doesn’t have anywhere comfortable to sleep anymore, he’s still not motivated enough to leave his room and put away all his toys. However, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has a plan to motivate Hubert enough that he’s willing to finally clean his room just to get out.

The Answer-Backer Cure

When Mary O’Toole’s teacher picks her to stay in at recess and help clean up the classroom, Mary is so irritated that she tells the teacher to do it herself and to let her go play with the other kids. Her mother tells her that was a rude thing to say to her teacher, but it’s just the beginning of Mary’s bad habit of being rude and impudent to people. Mary thinks that it makes her look smart to contradict people, and her new responses to any order or request her parents and teacher make are “Why should I?” and “I’ll do it because I want to but not because you tell me to.” (Nobody but you cares why you do it, kiddo. They just want it done because they just want to get through the day and accomplish things. You can either be the one who makes that easier or the one who makes that harder or more unpleasant, but things are still going to need to be done either way.)

Mary’s mother goes through the usual routine of calling other mothers for their opinions, and one of them suggests talking to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s solution is to let Mary keep her parrot, Penelope for awhile. Penelope is as rude as Mary is and repeats many of the things that Mary herself says. At first, Mary thinks it’s funny, but gradually, she begins to see how annoying it is and realizes how she sounds when she talks that way. Her dad actually laughs when he hears how much the parrot sounds like Mary, which makes Mary mad. Penelope also uses remarks that Mary thought that she’d made up herself, but she says them before Mary actually said them around her, making Mary realize that she’s not even as clever and original as she thought she was. When she sees how annoying it is to be around someone as rude and negative as she was, Mary apologizes to her teacher and gives it up.

(Actually, I know a lot of adults who talk just like Mary – “I’ll do it because I want to but not because you tell me to.” If they don’t use those exact words, it’s solidly the exact same attitude. They say they do it specifically because they’re adults and nobody should be telling them what to do under any circumstances, even if it’s something important. For them, it’s a kneejerk reaction to being told something, anything, no matter the circumstances and with little thought or attention to what they’re being told and whether it’s actually worthwhile. I always think of this story whenever I hear them talking that way.)

The Selfishness Cure

Dick Thompson is selfish and greedy. It’s no fun for other kids to come play at his house because he won’t share any of his toys or let anybody touch anything that belongs to him. It’s always “MY” this and “MY” that and everything is “MINE!” Dick’s mother realizes that something must be done when she gives Dick a box of peppermint sticks specifically to share with other kids in order to teach him how to share, and he actually hits Mary O’Toole on the hand with his baseball bat for trying to take one.

When Dick’s mother calls his father at work and asks him what they should do, the father’s first suggestion is a good, hard spanking because that’s something Dick can keep all to himself, but the mother is upset at the idea of more physical violence. The father then suggests that she talk to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle because she’s helped other children in the neighborhood.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Selfishness Cure is her special Selfishness Kit. It contains a variety of padlocks that Dick can use to lock up his stuff. It also has labels and paint that Dick can use to label all of his stuff, and it even has a pastry bag for labeling Dick’s food as his with frosting. The idea is to indulge Dick’s desire to prevent anyone from touching anything that belongs to him until it becomes so much of a hassle that he decides that it’s too much trouble.

At first, Dick is really happy that he can label everything he owns with his name and write “DON’T TOUCH!” on it, but as predicted, it turns out to be a big problem. Because Dick has everything, including his lunch, marked with his name and “DON’T TOUCH”, it isn’t long before everyone at school knows and is laughing at him. Plus, as my mother says, “With some kids, you can tell them not to touch something, and they won’t touch it, but there are also kids who, when you tell them not to touch something, just can’t wait to touch it.”

The Radish Cure

Patsy is a perfectly ordinary girl, but one day, she suddenly decides that she hates baths and refuses to take another one. There is no explanation why, and none of the other mothers in the neighborhood seem to be having that problem with their children, but Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has a solution.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle tells Patsy’s mother to led her go several weeks without washing at all, letting her get as dirty as she wants. Then, she should get a packet of small radish seeds and plant them on Patsy. When Pasty sees that she’s sprouting radishes, she suddenly decides that she’s ready for a bath.

The Never-Want-To-Go-To-Bedders Cure

The three children in the Gray family never like going to bed. Every night, when it’s time for bed, they beg to be allowed to stay up a little later and insist that nobody else in the neighborhood goes to bed as early as they do. It often takes about an hour of whining, complaining, and arguing before their parents are able to get them to bed.

Mrs. Gray goes through the usual routine of asking other parents if they have this problem with their children, but none of her friends do, so she asks Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle what to do.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s advice is to let the children stay up as late as they want to. Mrs. Gray worries that not getting enough sleep will be bad for the children’s health, but Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle says that a day or two with less sleep won’t make much of a difference, and by that time, they’ll realize why going to bed at night is a good idea.

The Gray children think it’s great at first that their parents no longer tell them to go to bed and even let them stay up half the night, but soon, they’re falling asleep in the middle of the day, missing movies that they go to see when they fall asleep in the theater and missing out on fun activities with other kids either because they’re asleep or too tired to enjoy them.

The Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker Cure

A boy named Allen has suddenly become obsessed with eating his food very slowly, taking super-tiny bites. It’s a very odd habit, and it makes meal times difficult because he eats very little and take a very long time to do it. I’d be worried if he was having difficulty swallowing, but his mother calls Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle gives his mother sets of dishes in different sizes, from fairly large to ridiculously tiny. At each meal, Allen’s mother uses progressively smaller dishes. Allen is fascinated by the tiny dishes, which fit his new dainty eating, but he’s getting weaker because he’s been hardly eating anything.

I actually found the descriptions of his weakness a little alarming, but his mother then reverses the order of the dishes she gives him, starting with the smallest and then moving to the biggest. As Allen realizes that he feels better when he starts eating more food, his appetite returns, and he gets his strength back.

The Fighter-Quarrelers Cure

Twins Joan and Anne Russell have been fighting with each other a lot, and it’s driving their parents crazy. The twins argue with each other over everything, like who is wearing whose clothing and who had more bacon or the biggest slice of melon on their plate at breakfast, and they even pinch and slap each other. Sibling quarrels are pretty common, but Mrs. Russell asks Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle if there’s anything they can do to end this constant fighting.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle advises the girls’ parents to make notes about the types of petty things that the girls argue about and spend a day having staged arguments of their own in front of the girls to show them what it’s like to be around that type of arguing all the time.

From the moment they wake up the next day, the twins suddenly find themselves in the awkward position of trying to reason with their parents and referee their quarrels as they become witnesses to the same kinds of petty behavior they’ve been doing themselves. Finally, the girls have had their fill of fighting, and with their petty quarrels now in perspective, the entire family promises each other that they won’t fight like that again.

The 13 Clocks

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber, 1950.

An evil Duke lives with his niece, Princess Saralinda in a castle with 13 clocks that do not work. The Duke is a cold-hearted man, so cold that his hands are always cold, and he has frozen all of the clocks. Time itself seems frozen in the cold castle. The Duke some to believe that he has actually “murdered” time, that it will never again be “Now” in the castle. The Duke is afraid of “Now.” “Now” has urgency and consequences, and he hopes that by stopping time, he will never have to confront “Now.”

One of the Duke’s fears is of his niece’s suitors. Princess Saralinda is lovely and as warm as the Duke is cold, so the Duke does not want to let her go. He needs her warmth as relief from his own coldness. Every time a potential suitor attempts to call on Princess Saralinda and ask for her hand, the Duke thinks up some impossible task for the suitor to accomplish with a sentence of death for failing to accomplish the impossible so Princess Saralinda will never be married.

Then, a prince comes to town disguised as a minstrel named Xingu, which is dangerous because using a name that starts with ‘X’ is one of the things that the Duke sometimes kills people for doing. The prince is a youngest son, and as youngest sons often do in fairy tales, he has gone into the world to seek his fortune, adventure, and the lady of his dreams. At the town’s inn, the minstrel prince hears stories about Princess Saralinda, her suitors, and the Duke’s impossible challenges. In spite of the gruesome consequences for failing to complete the impossible tasks, the prince finds himself contemplating how he might be able to gain entrance to the castle and try his hand at defeating the Duke and winning the princess.

The minstrel prince begins making up a joking song about the Duke, and the people in town are nervous because the Duke kills people for any form of impertinence. One of the Duke’s spies, known as Whisper, witnesses the song and runs off to tell the Duke about it. Then, the prince is approached by a strange little man who calls himself the Golux, who offers to help him, although he freely admits that he makes up stories and often forgets what’s made up and what’s real. The prince doubts how helpful he can be, but the Golux suggests a story he can tell the Duke when the Duke considers killing him and feeding him to his geese, that Princess Saralinda can only be married two days after his death. The Duke would do almost anything to prevent Princess Saralinda’s marriage, so he wouldn’t tell him if his death might be the omen that causes her marriage to happen.

Soon, the Duke’s guards come to arrest the minstrel prince and take him to the dungeon. When he is brought before the Duke, the minstrel prince tells him what the Golux told him to say. The Duke isn’t sure whether he’s telling the truth or not, but since he’s not sure if he can kill him outright, he decides to set one of his impossible tasks for the minstrel to complete. The minstrel says that he can’t do an impossible task because he’s not a prince (as far as the Duke knows), but the Duke says that they’ll make him one just so he can do it.

As the guards escort the minstrel prince back to the dungeon, he sees Princess Saralinda, and she wishes him well, which is all that she can say in her uncle’s presence because she’s under a spell. The minstrel prince falls in love with her, and he realizes that his love is returned when she later manages to give him a rose.

In the dungeon, the minstrel prince encounters the Golux again and asks him how he got in and if there’s a way out, but the Golux is evasive, just telling another one of his stories about his mother being a witch and his father a wizard. However, the Golux has a useful suggestion for managing the Duke’s next impossible task: control what the task is through reverse psychology. He doesn’t use those exact words, but he tells the minstrel prince to beg the Duke to set him any task he likes but not to send him out in search of a thousand jewels. The Duke, being evil, will automatically set him the one task he begs not to be given. The minstrel prince says that he still can’t give the Duke a thousand jewels because he doesn’t have any jewels. The Golux points out that he’s no ordinary minstrel. He is actually Prince Zorn of Zorna, and his father will surely supply the jewels he needs. That’s all very well, but the prince isn’t sure if the Duke will give him the time he needs to reach his father and return.

Sure enough, the Duke sets the prince the task of getting a thousand jewels, but the matter is complicated because it turns out that he’s aware of who the prince really is. Knowing that it would take Prince Zorn 99 days to get the required jewels from his father and return, the Duke gives him only 99 hours to do it, and he further requires that all of the 13 clocks in the castle strike five o’clock (they are frozen at 10 minutes before five o’clock) when he returns with the thousand jewels.

The stakes of the task are high for both the Prince and the Duke because, as a guard explains to Prince Zorn, the Todal, which is a kind of blob monster in the service of the devil, waits to gobble up the Duke if the Duke fails to be sufficiently evil. If Prince Zorn passes whatever test the Duke sets for him, rescues the princess, and escapes, the Todal will surely put an end to the Duke.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

This isn’t a princess book for young children because it has some dark content in it. The Duke is cruel to animals and has even killed children. The cruelty and killing isn’t described in detail, but the story is better for older elementary school children or middle school level. I’d say about 9 or 10 years old and older.

Through the course of the story, it’s revealed that Princess Saralinda isn’t actually the Duke’s niece. He later confesses that he actually abducted her from a castle as an infant, and even he isn’t completely sure of her true identity. Even as a child, she had that magical, glowing warmth that the Duke craves. He’s been raising her with the idea of marrying her himself when she’s old enough. He’s been unable to marry her up to this point because her former nurse was a witch and cast a spell that prevents him from marrying her until she’s 21 years old, and that time is approaching soon.

Part of the fun of this book is that it draws on many elements from fairy tales, like the woman who can cry jewels, which somewhat resembles the fairy tale about the kind girl whose words produce jewels and flowers when she speaks. The solutions to many of the problems in the story are also riddles. For example, if nothing makes a person laugh or cry, then literally nothing is what you have to provide. In the case of how to get the clocks moving again, Princess Saralinda has been the key all along. The clocks aren’t dead, merely frozen, and her warmth can get them moving again.

Of course, it all ends happily. Princess Saralinda’s true identity is established by the end of the story, and Prince Zorn is able to marry her. The Duke is thwarted and eaten by the Todal.

Tom’s Midnight Garden

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, 1958.

This is one of the most famous time slip stories for children! I remember either reading it or having it read to me when I was a kid, but I have to admit that I really remembered only the broad strokes of the story until I reread it as an adult.

When the story begins, Tom Long is sad and angry because his brother, Peter, has caught the measles, and it’s going to ruin their summer holidays. The two of them originally planned to spend the summer building a tree house in the apple tree in their backyard garden, but now, Tom is being rushed away from the house (sent into exile, as he thinks of it) so that he won’t catch the measles from his brother. Tom thinks that he would rather be sick with Peter than sent away by himself.

Tom is going to stay with his Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen. His aunt and uncle are kind people who like kids, and in a way, it makes Tom feel worse because it makes him seem unreasonable for resenting spending the summer with them. If they were cruel, he could run away and everyone would tell him he was right for doing so, but when people are nice to you, there’s less to complain about, and Tom is in a complaining mood. The major problem with staying with Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen is that they live in a small flat with no garden. Tom can’t even get out and see the sights of the city because he’s supposed to be in quarantine for awhile, just in case he’s already caught the measles from Peter and it hasn’t started to show yet. (It takes about 10 to 14 days after infection before measles symptoms start to show, so Tom has to stay in quarantine that long to be sure he’s not sick. Anybody with experience of coronavirus quarantines knows the drill, even if they didn’t before.) So, basically, Tom is going to be temporarily shut up like he’s sick, with the goal of making sure that he’s not sick and not going to be, but without the company of his brother or the comforts of his own home. They’re doing it for Tom’s welfare because measles can have serious side effects, and it’s not something anybody wants to get. There are sound reasons for trying to both protect Tom from infection if he hasn’t been infected already and also trying to protect others that Tom might infect while they’re waiting to make sure that he’s really okay, but it’s still a depressing situation. They’re planning on Tom quarantining for ten days with his aunt and uncle, just about a week and a half, provided that he doesn’t show any symptoms that would force him to quarantine for longer. The only people Tom is allowed to see during his quarantine period are people who have already had measles and are now immune to it, like his aunt and uncle.

(Note: I have never actually seen a live case of the measles in my entire life, as of this posting. I was born in the early 1980s, and growing up, everyone I knew who had the measles was an older person who had it as a child in the 1950s or earlier, before the time that this story was written. Vaccines against measles have been available in the United States since the early 1960s, too late for my parents but well before I was born. I know that this disease still exists, but I grew up in a community where measles vaccines were required for going to public schools. Because all of the kids I knew when I was young went to the same school with the same requirement, everybody I knew in my own generation was vaccinated, and none of us ever got measles. I’m pointing this out because the first generation of children to read this story would have found the situation familiar, but it’s not something that happened to me or anybody else I knew as a kid. When I was a kid, I used to think of measles as an old-timey old people’s disease, one of the diseases that your characters could get in the Oregon Trail computer game that could either delay or kill your characters, but not something that I ever expected to encounter in the real, modern world. The closest equivalent from my youth was chicken pox because that was a spot-causing disease that I knew people had to be quarantined for, and it was unavoidable because there was no vaccine available in my earliest years. I did have chicken pox, which is why I have a scar on my face now, and I was isolated from other children when it became obvious that I had it. However, my younger cousins were vaccinated for chicken pox when that vaccine became available in the 1990s, so they’ve never experienced the disease that afflicted me. For the next generation, I get to be the older person who has a story about an old-timey disease because life moves on. It’s just part of the cycle of time and history. But, just as background for my mindset as a child reader, when I was a kid, I pictured measles as a kind of old-fashioned but more serious chicken pox. That’s not medically true because they’re separate diseases, but I just never saw or experienced actual measles, and that was the closest equivalent I could imagine at that age.)

The flat where Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen live is in an old house in or near Ely, England that has been divided up into flats. It’s not a bad house, but Tom doesn’t think it seems particularly welcoming. He’s also a little offended that the guest room where he’s supposed to be staying used to be a nursery and has the characteristic bars on the windows that old-fashioned nurseries have to keep children from falling out. Aunt Gwen explains that those are left over from when the house used to be a private home and aren’t meant for him, but Tom is in no mood to be treated like he’s a baby. The one feature of the house he likes is the old grandfather clock that belongs to Mrs. Bartholomew, the owner of the house and his aunt and uncle’s landlady, who lives upstairs. The clock’s chimes can be heard all over the house, and it’s something of a joke and a source of irritation to the people living in the house because, even though the clock keeps perfect time, it never chimes the right number. The chimes are always some random number for no apparent reason. Of course, there is a reason.

Tom is bored and restless. All he has for entertainment is crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and his aunt’s old books from when she was a kid, and the books are just school stories for girls, so Tom doesn’t find them interesting. Tom helps his aunt in the kitchen, and he loves her cooking, but it’s a bit rich and gives him indigestion. Because of that, he often has trouble sleeping, but his aunt and uncle insist that he get ten hours of sleep a night because that’s what kids his age are supposed to need. They won’t let him read or get up or do anything when he can’t sleep, so he just has to lie awake, bored.

One night, while lying awake in bed, Tom hears the clock downstairs strike thirteen. That strikes him as odd because he’s never heard a clock strike thirteen times before, and he didn’t even think it was possible for a wrong clock to do that. He starts considering that maybe there is actually a hidden, thirteenth hour of night that his uncle knows nothing about, so that one free hour should belong to Tom, to with as he wishes. He’s not sure that idea really makes sense, but he feels compelled to get up and go downstairs to investigate.

When Tom gets downstairs, he can’t read the clock because it’s too dark, and he can’t find the light switch. Then, he gets the idea to open the back door so he can read the clock by moonlight. However, when he opens the back door, he sees a beautiful lawn and garden instead of the empty yard his aunt and uncle told him was there. At first, Tom is angry that they lied to him about there not being a garden. He thinks to himself that he’s going to come back and see the garden in daylight. As he’s heading back inside to look at the clock, he encounters a young maid. He’s surprised to see the girl enter someone else’s flat without knocking or ringing the bell in the middle of the night. Then, he begins to notice that the house is different from the way he saw it during the day. The grandfather clock is still there, but the laundry box, milk bottles, and travel posters have been replaced by an umbrella stand, a dinner gong, an air gun, and a fishing rod. The girl calls out that she’s lit a fire in “the parlour,” and Tom watches as she crosses to another room, kind of melting through the door instead of opening it like a living person would. Is Tom seeing a ghost? Then, the vision fades, all of the old-fashioned furnishing are gone, and everything in the downstairs hall looks the way Tom remembered it from his arrival.

In spite of realizing that the house might be haunted, Tom is happier from his adventures and knowing about the beautiful garden outside. He now has something more exciting to think about than just being bored. However, he’s still mad at his aunt and uncle for keeping him in the dark about the garden outside. He tries to hint to them that he knows about it, but when he mentions seeing hyacinths blooming, his aunt tells him that’s impossible because it’s summer, and hyacinths are out of season. Tom is unsettled by that, and he runs downstairs to check. When he gets there, the lock on the back door is different from what he remembered the night before, and when he opens the back door, there’s no garden there, only the dust bins his aunt and uncle mentioned and a man working on a car. Tom asks the man, who lives in the flat where Tom saw the maid enter to light a fire if he has a maid, and man tells him no. Tom tries to ask him about the garden, but he starts crying when he realizes that the garden couldn’t have been real. The man tries to ask him what’s wrong, but Tom doesn’t want to explain it. He stops Tom from running into old Mrs. Bartholomew, who has come downstairs to wind the grandfather clock. Tom watches the winding process with fascination and feels calmer.

Tom begins to reason out how he could have seen a garden the night before when there isn’t one there now. He’s sure that he didn’t just dream it or imagine it, so he decides to conduct an investigation. He considers the different pieces of the puzzle – the house that looks different at night, the clock that chimes thirteen times, and trees that are now in the backyards of neighboring houses but which must have been part of the large garden he saw. Tom begins writing a series of letters to his brother about what he’s experiencing and his investigations into it, which he asks Peter to burn after reading. At night, he stays up, waiting for the clock to chime thirteen again … and it does. When it does, everything is as he saw it before – the different furnishings downstairs, the different latch on the back door, and best of all, the garden.

Tom visits the garden every night, noting that every time he goes, it’s a different time of day or a different season of the year. Time in the garden doesn’t correspond to time in the real world. Months can pass between his visits, even though Tom goes there every single night. It seems like, no matter how long Tom spends there, exploring, only a few minutes of the night has passed when he returns. One night, he sees a tree struck by lightning, but the next time he looks, the tree is just fine. Tom starts a discussion with his aunt and uncle about time without fully explaining why he wants to know how time works. When he poses the question of how a tree could fall over and then be standing upright again later, his aunt thinks that he’s talking about fairy tale or something he dreamed or imagined. His uncle says that it’s impossible without turning back the clock. The mention of a clock being turned back intrigues Tom, but his uncle says that’s just an expression, meaning to relive the past, which nobody can actually do. It’s a clue to Tom, though, about what’s really happening in the garden.

Tom also quickly realizes that he seems to have little substance when he’s in the garden. He can climb trees in the garden, but he can’t open doors by himself, for some reason. If he concentrates hard, he can walk through doors like a ghost, which is both frightening and fascinating. Also, most of the people he encounters can’t see him. Animals react to his presence, but people tend to look through him or past him and don’t seen to hear anything he says. There are three brothers who spend time in the garden, and Tom thinks that he’d like to be friends with the middle boy, James, but James never sees or hears him. The boys have a younger cousin, Hatty, who follows them around. They’re not very nice to her and often ignore her or exclude her from their activities, but Tom discovers, to his surprise, that Hatty can both see and hear him. Hatty becomes Tom’s friend, and they begin talking to each other, playing, and exploring the garden together.

Hatty is a sad and lonely girl who often plays imaginary games by herself in the garden. She tells Tom that she’s a captive princess, that the cruel woman who claims to be her aunt isn’t really her aunt, and that the mean boys aren’t her real cousins. The truth is that Hatty is an orphan and that her aunt resents her being her responsibility. Hatty’s aunt and cousins have money and servants, but Hatty is emotionally neglected. She has no one to be close to and share secrets with except for Tom.

Tom is so captivated by his shared time in the garden with Hatty that he tells his aunt that he’d like to stay longer. His uncle is mystified that Tom is really that interested in staying with them because he knows their apartment is boring, but his aunt is enthusiastic about him spending an extra week beyond his quarantine so she can show him some of the sights of the city. Then, Tom catches a cold that requires him to stay in bed for longer, but he is still able to visit the garden at night.

By this time, Tom has figured out that the garden once existed in the history of the house and that Hatty was someone who lived in the house at some point in the past, but he doesn’t really understand how or why he is able to visit her in the no-longer-existing garden at night. He still thinks that Hatty might be a ghost and even the garden might be some kind of ghost that haunts the house. However, Hatty tells Tom that she thinks he’s the ghost. Tom denies it, knowing that he’s not dead in his own time, but it’s true that, whenever he’s in the garden with Hatty, he is somewhat non-corporeal, unable to affect physical objects but able to walk through solid objects when he tries, and he is invisible to most people. Tom says that the only reason why he can walk through closed doors is that the garden itself, and every physical thing in it, is a ghost – he’s not passing through them so much as they’re passing through him because he’s solid, and they’re not really. Tom and Hatty argue about who’s a ghost and who’s not because, from each of their perspectives, they’re both real and alive, but yet, the entire situation is unreal. Tom sees pieces of the past changing and disappearing, and he knows what’s real in his time. However, Hatty can also say the same – she knows what’s real in her time, and Tom has a definite ghostly quality when he’s in her garden. What is the truth, and how long can the two of them continue meeting like this?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies, including one in Chinese). It’s been made into tv versions (parts sometimes appear on YouTube) and a movie in 1999. The movie is also available online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction and Spoilers

Things to Do

First of all, I just have to get it out of my system: Tom’s family is not a creative bunch. I know the aunt and uncle took Tom in on short notice, but I’m just saying that with a little imagination, they could find more things for Tom to do during his quarantine. Two weeks is not that long if you have things to do and think about. There were always art supplies at my house when I was a kid, and even if you don’t have them on hand, paper and colored pencils or crayons aren’t very expensive. The cooking is a good activity, and maybe the aunt could teach Tom some new recipes that he could make by himself. With as much as the aunt is cooking, she’s also probably using things that come in boxes and cans, and boxes and cans can be made into things. Also, they could get the kid a book on something more interesting he can learn and use, like magic tricks he can practice or secret codes. They could teach him how to fold different kinds of paper airplanes or carve things out of soap or make a kite he can fly in the park when his quarantine ends. Heck, if he had a deck of cards, he could at least learn different types of solitaire games. There are over one hundred variations, and the kid just has to be entertained for a couple of weeks. The activities don’t have to be very impressive if you can think of enough of them to have a different one each day for him to try to break up the monotony of the the more usual stand-bys, like reading and puzzles. Just to prove that it’s possible, I made a list:

  1. Drawing – I mentioned before that paper and crayons or colored pencils aren’t too expensive, and he doesn’t need to be any good at it. It’s just a challenge and would give him something creative to do, maybe while listening to music on the radio or something. Bonus points if you know enough about art to tell him about different styles of art and suggest that he try some different styles, like cubism or surrealism. He could also use art supplies to map out things, like a plan of the tree house he and Peter want to build. After he’s done that, he could draw a creative map of an imaginary castle or mansion or a haunted house or an entire amusement park or an elaborate clubhouse he would build if there were no restrictions on space or money. It doesn’t have to be possible or even drawn particularly well as long as it’s entertaining.
  2. Paper airplanes or origami – You can make some fun things out of folded paper, and if you know how to make different styles of paper airplanes or can find a book about it, you can conduct tests to determine which styles fly the best. Yes, you then have a lot of paper airplanes laying around, but if your goal is to pass the time, cleaning up also takes up time.
  3. Card games – I covered that. There are a lot of things you can do with a deck of cards, even if you’re just playing solitaire. He could try to build a house of a cards. He could also learn card tricks and the order of poker hands. (I know that not every family would be okay with a kid learning the rules to a gambling game, but my parents never minded as long as we didn’t gamble with money, and it’s the sort of mildly daring activity that appeals to kids. Besides, this kid has nobody else to play with right now, except for his aunt and uncle.)
  4. Magic tricks – I covered this one. There are (and were back then) books of magic tricks that a boy could study, many of which use ordinary objects that a person could find around the house. He could practice a new trick each day or spend an entire day with one book, trying anything that looks interesting.
  5. Secret codes – Again, they had books about this even back then, and once you know a few principles, you can start making your own codes. When I was a kid, I liked to experiment with basic alphabet shifts, and secret codes often formed the basis of treasure hunts that I had with my brother. Tom can’t have a treasure hunt for his brother yet, but he could be encouraged to plan one. Give him a notebook where he can practice his codes and make notes of possible hiding places. He can also write coded messages to send to his brother and challenge him to read them.
  6. Current events – Kids don’t often read the newspaper, but his aunt and uncle could introduce him to features of the newspaper and what’s happening in the world. A new newspaper arrives every day, and it’s a source of reading material. At least, he could look at the comics or the sports pages, if he likes sports.
  7. Model town or castle – As I said, there are probably cardboard boxes and cans being thrown out of this house, and they could be appropriated for some kind of craft project, ideally one that would take awhile for Tom to build and that he could add to each day. One of the best things to make out of random junk would be a town or a castle. Tin cans are towers and turrets, and cardboard boxes are the main buildings. Cover the outsides of the cans and boxes with plain paper and draw on them for decoration. Make people out of paper and cardboard. It could turn out amazing if he’s willing to put the time into making it as detailed as possible, but if it doesn’t turn out amazing, it’s okay because it was just junk anyway.
  8. Plan for the future – This quarantine will end. Tom can mark off days on the calendar until he’s in the clear. Give Tom a guidebook to the city and tell him to make a list of places he wants to go and things he wants to do when the quarantine is over. It could be amusing for at least an afternoon. He’ll learn about the sights and landmarks of the city and be mildly entertained thinking of fun things to do in the near future. It will give him something to look forward to. It’s also an incentive for Tom to behave himself because his aunt and uncle can tell him that they’ll take him places he wants to go if he’s good about abiding by the rules of the quarantine until it’s over. Admittedly, Ely is one of the smallest cities in England, so there wouldn’t be as many sights to see as in London, and Tom already knows about the Cathedral, but there are shops, restaurants, and museums there. Some of them were founded after the 1950s, but there were some in Tom’s time, too. He visits at least one museum with his aunt at the end of the quarantine and goes to the movies with her. If they can’t find enough to do just in Ely when Tom’s quarantine is over, they could also spend a day visiting surrounding towns.
  9. Discover or develop your mental powers – The amusement potential with this one depends on whether the kid has reached that phase where kids get fascinated by things like psychic abilities. Many kids go through a phase like that, and since Tom seems to like the idea of being in a haunted house, he’s probably the right age. If you can get him a book about psychic powers or telekinesis, he’d probably find it a fascinating read. The aunt and uncle could talk to him about whether or not such things actually exist, and he could try to test himself to see if he has any such powers. I had an English teacher in middle school who actually did that with us. There was only one test I really did well. Most people don’t do those types of tests well at all, but it’s amusing for at least an hour or two to try or talk about. If he happens to do better than average on anything, he could brag about it to his brother and his friends, telling them that he discovered and honed his psychic powers in a spooky old house during his vacation.
  10. Write a story or poem – All you need is paper, a pencil, and some imagination. Writing a long story and trying to do it well could cover the entire quarantine period by itself, it would give him something to think about, and he’d have something to show for his relative isolation. Of course, the real goal is to be entertained and pass the time, so the story or poem doesn’t have to be great. It can be as crazy as Tom wants to make it, as long as he’s amused.
  11. Start learning a language – Two weeks isn’t enough to really learn to speak a language, but it’s enough to learn a few words and phrases. If his aunt or uncle has an old textbook lying around from their student days, they could use that, or they could pick up a used one cheaply. It might make Tom groan because it’s a little like school, but it would be a challenge to practice using words from another language.
  12. Board games – A classic! If they’re not into card games, Tom can spend evenings playing board games with his aunt and uncle. Most people have chess and checkers sets (his uncle does offer to teach him chess later in his visit), and Monopoly and Clue (or Cluedo) were common back then. Monopoly games are notorious for taking a long time to finish.
  13. Invent a game – There are a lot of things you can do if you have paper and pencils, and one of them is to design your own board game. It can be about anything, and the rules can be anything you want. When you think you’ve got it the way you want, try playing it and see if there are any adjustments you need to make. Tom can also make his own jigsaw puzzles by cutting up a picture he’s drawn or gluing a magazine picture to a piece of cardboard and cutting it up. The cardboard can come from an empty cardboard box or he can remove the cardboard back of a drawing pad, if he no longer needs it.
  14. Jokes – Get Tom a joke book and have him mail his brother a new joke every day. When he’s done reading the book, they could challenge him to try to make up some jokes of his own.
  15. Learn to dance – This is assuming that the aunt and uncle also know how to dance, but I think it was pretty common back then for people to know at least a couple of basic dances. Tom could practice with his aunt in their living room (if they have to rearrange the furniture to do it, that’s another activity), and it would give him something to do for some mild exercise. Even if a boy might be embarrassed to dance with his aunt, nobody’s going to see them while he’s in quarantine, he doesn’t have to tell people who taught him, and if he’s willing to learn, it could help him later at school dances.

See? If you think about it, there are plenty of things to do for just a couple of weeks. There are even more if you’re willing to invest in buying things like craft kits or model kits or other things necessary to start a new hobby, but I was trying to be as basic as possible, mostly relying on inexpensive books and paper and pencils. However, the plot of the book requires Tom to be bored and lonely, so they can’t do those things, and that brings us back to the story.

The Truth About Hatty

So, what is the truth about Hatty and the midnight garden? This is a time slip story, not a ghost story, although sometimes the two of those go together in books. In this case, the time slip is not based around ghosts but around memory. When Tom is seeing the garden as it was in the past, he is seeing it as it existed in Hatty’s memories. He is somewhat correct in saying that he is non-corporeal there because the garden itself is non-corporeal – it’s a memory. Hatty is still alive in Tom’s time, and Tom is able to enter the garden when she revisits it in her memories and when she remembers him.

The twist in the book (spoiler) is that Hatty is Mrs. Bartholomew, the current owner of the house and the landlady of the flats. When Tom is trying to figure out whether Hatty’s a ghost, he briefly considers asking Mrs. Bartholomew about the history of the house, but he rejects the idea because his aunt and uncle told him that Mrs. Bartholomew only moved to this house fairly recently, after the death of her husband, so Tom assumes that she has no connection with or knowledge of Hatty and her family.

I liked the part where Tom tries to do some research and figure out what time period child Hatty lives in based on the types of clothes people wear in her time. He has some difficulty finding a good source with details about the variations in clothing styles over the years. He does realize that Hatty was a child in the Victorian era, between the 1830s and the early 1900s, but he ends up guessing earlier in the Victorian era than she actually lived, which is why he thinks she’s definitely dead and a ghost instead of an elderly lady in the 1950s.

As Tom continues his time travels into the past, Hatty gradually ages because Mrs. Bartholomew is remembering different times in her life. Eventually, Tom sees Hatty fall in love with a young man she calls “Barty.” Tom is hurt because, when she falls in love with Barty, Hatty seems to forget about him and is suddenly unable to see him any more. It’s because Mrs. Bartholomew’s focus is shifting in her memories, focusing more on remembering Barty than remembering Tom. The last time when Tom tries to go back in time, the garden is suddenly not there, and he crashes into the dust bins outside. His aunt and uncle think he was walking in his sleep, and Tom is depressed that Hatty seems like she’s gone forever. He learns the truth when Mrs. Bartholomew insists that he come upstairs and apologize for waking her by knocking over the dust bins.

Mrs. Bartholomew thought for years that Tom was some kind of ghost who became harder and harder to see as she got older, probably because, as she got older and started thinking about other things, like Barty, she wasn’t concentrating so much on Tom. The night when the garden didn’t appear, Mrs. Bartholomew was dreaming about her wedding, so she wasn’t thinking about the garden. When Tom crashed into the dust bins, he called out her name, and she woke up and recognized his voice. Tom is happy that Hatty remembered him all these years, that she didn’t deliberately forget him, and that she’s not dead or a ghost. Mrs. Bartholomew tells him about what happened in her life after to marriage to John Bartholomew/Barty. Hatty and her husband moved away from the house, and they had two sons, who both later died during World War I. She and her husband continued living together for many years, until his death, when she returned to the house where she’d grown up.

The Time Traveling

So, now you know who Hatty is, but what does the clock and its thirteen chimes have to do with her memories and Tom’s time traveling? The mechanics of the time traveling in time slip stories are rarely fully explained, but the characters do consider and discuss the possibilities. Part of it seems to involve the Biblical reference engraved on the clock about “Time no longer” from Rev. 10 1:6. I thought it was an interesting approach, bringing religious references into the story. When Tom tries to talk to his uncle about how time works, his uncle goes into scientific theories of time and gets annoyed with him when he tries to talk about the angel in the Bible. After talking to his aunt, Tom gets a sense that his uncle believes in a different version of “Truth”, and that makes it difficult to talk to him. Most of what his uncle says about more philosophical and scientific explanations of time goes over Tom’s head.

What Tom eventually figures out from bits and pieces of his uncle’s explanation and his own reflection about his time-traveling experiences, is that perspective matters in relation to time. He has his perspective of how time moves – he’s been traveling back to the garden every night for a few weeks during the summer. However, Hatty has her own perspective of time – Tom has appeared to her in the garden roughly every few months over a period of about ten years of her life. When Tom considers the situation from Hatty’s point of view, he decides that people’s individual experiences of time are just pieces of the much larger experience of time and history. This is the point when Tom realizes that neither he nor Hatty are ghosts, just two people whose experiences of time have crossed. When Tom enters into Hatty’s time, she perceives it as the present and him as a ghost because he’s outside of his natural time period and not fully a part of her present. Similarly, the maid appeared ghost-like to Tom at first because she had somewhat entered into Tom’s present before fading back to her present, appearing to vanish like a ghost. Time in the garden appears to jump around because Tom is entering into different sections of Hatty’s time. That’s why he sees the tree in the garden standing, then struck by lightning and fallen, and then standing again, and it’s also why he sees Hatty as being around his age, then younger, and then getting older. All of those things he sees are just sections of Hatty’s timeline that Tom experiences in isolation from each other, a different one every night.

Toward the end of the book, Tom tries to take advantage of the way time seems to stand still in his own time while he’s in the garden, so he can stay longer with Hatty. He thinks maybe he’ll stay for days or even forever, safe in the knowledge that time back home is standing still, and he can return there whenever he wants, enjoying carefree days of playing in the garden forever. However, he has not fully reckoned that time is still passing for Hatty even when it seems to pause for him while he’s in her time. Hatty has gradually grown up, and is moving forward with her life. She can’t stay a little girl, playing in the garden forever.

When Tom talks to the elderly Mrs. Bartholomew later, she observes that “nothing stands still, except in our memory.” When she was younger, she had always thought that the garden would stay the same forever, but it didn’t. She realized that when she saw the tree in the garden get struck by lightning. Everything changes, sometimes gradually, and sometimes suddenly, but time always moves forward. The property had been split up by her cousin James when he was having trouble with his business and needed money. He sold off pieces of land at a time, so parts of the garden were built over by new houses. Eventually, all that was left was the main house and part of the old yard. When James decided to sell off what was left and move to another country to start over, Hatty and Barty bought the old house and some of Hatty’s favorite things, including the grandfather clock. Hatty admits to Tom that she used to intentionally misunderstand what time it was chiming on the clock and often got up extra early in the morning to go play in the garden. This is apparently the source of the clock’s weird chimes that don’t match the real hour. The clock is now connected to Hatty’s memories of the house and the garden, and Hatty’s memories are what controlled what time it was in the garden when Tom made his nightly visits.

Old Hatty was controlling the timing of Tom’s visits through her memories, although young Hatty was unaware of it. However, Tom realizes that even old Hatty wasn’t completely in control, either. Old Hatty comments that this summer, she’s thought of the garden far more than she ever had before and how much she wanted someone to play with when she was little. Tom realizes that old Hatty is describing his desires. When he first came to his aunt and uncle, he was bored and lonely and just wanted to play with someone, like he would have with his brother in their garden. It seems like Tom’s mood influenced Mrs. Bartholomew’s memories and dreams of the past, and their shared wish for friendship produced the midnight garden, so they could play there again.

In the end, Tom decides that “Time no longer” means that both the past and the present are both real and connected, not separate from each other, just as he and Hatty were always both real and connected to each other through their sharing of the same time. They were not separated by time but joined each other in it.

According to Wikipedia, the theory of how time works in this story is based on a book called An Experiment with Time by J. W. Dunne. When he was young during the late 19th century, Dunne had dreams that seemed to be visions of the future, seeing himself flying in a sort of airplane before airplanes had even been invented. He eventually became an airplane designer, and he also theorized about the nature of time. Dunne’s theory of time, called serialism, postulates that human beings are only conscious of traveling along a base timeline, where we experience the past, present, and future of our physical lives, but that there is also a higher level of time that can be experienced by a higher level of the mind or human spirit. Part of his theory states that, while people eventually die a physical death in the lower timeline, their spirit or consciousness lives on in the higher timeline for eternity. This is partly the conclusion Tom comes to when he starts seeing his time and Hatty’s as being part of some bigger timeline, and it’s referenced by the phrases “time no longer” and “exchanged time for eternity.”

Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines

Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines by Margery Sharp, illustrated by Garth Williams, 1966.

This book is part of the Rescuers series.

When this story begins, Miss Bianca, who is Perpetual Madam President of the Mouse Prisoners’ Aid Society, is evaluating candidates for the Tybalt Stars award, which is given for mice who are brave in the face of cats. Bernard, the secretary of the society, is helping her. Each of the candidates is undeniably brave, but Miss Bianca notices that each of them also had a self-serving motive behind their bravery, which seems disappointing for a benevolent society. When they stop for lunch and Bernard goes to fetch some salt for them, he finds a note in the salt that says, “Someone please get me out of the salt mines.” The note is signed “Teddy (age 8).” Naturally, Miss Bianca is eager to help the poor boy! Bernard is a little more doubtful about the mission because the salt mines are about a thousand miles away, extremely dangerous, and extremely well guarded. Nevertheless, the Mouse Prisoners’ Aid Society cannot refuse to help a prisoner, and neither can its President.

Soon, Miss Bianca has members of the society trying to learn anything they can about a missing boy named Teddy, but apparently, no one has reported a boy by that name or age as missing. Bianca uses the lessons of the boy who owns her to learn more about the salt mines and how to get there. In order to get to the salt mines, they’d have to go by train, and it’s a very dangerous route. At the next meeting of the society, Miss Bianca asks for volunteers to go rescue Teddy, but everyone is reluctant to go, and many members of the society don’t like it that Miss Bianca doesn’t even seem to have any facts about Teddy or his situation that could help them. Miss Bianca says that, even though she can’t be more specific about Teddy’s background or how he came to be in the salt mines, the important fact is that he shouldn’t be there, and he needs help getting out. Since no one else wants to volunteer for the rescue mission, Miss Bianca says that she’ll go herself, and of course, Bernard insists on coming with her.

To Miss Bianca’s surprise, her biggest opponent, a curmudgeonly mouse called the Professor (his real name is George) who teaches mathematics, also volunteers to join the mission. Bernard and Miss Bianca are even more surprised when the Professor insists on bringing his friend Caerphilly along. Caerphilly is very elderly, but he’s also a professor of geology. Caerphilly has never actually been to the salt mines before, but he’s always wanted to see them and study them. Bernard and Miss Bianca aren’t sure that Caerphilly is up to handling the dangers that they’re likely to encounter on the mission. Miss Bianca reminds Caerphilly that this is supposed to be a rescue mission, not a scientific expedition. Caerphilly is unconcerned, saying that they can handle the rescue, and he’ll handle the science. Miss Bianca says that the Professor should warn his friend just what risks a rescue mission involves, but the Professor is also unconcerned, saying that the geology department at the university thinks too much of itself, and he wouldn’t mind seeing his friend chased by bloodhounds. (Some friend he is.) Miss Bianca is concerned both because of the danger and because their self-serving motives are just what she was concerned about before.

In spite of that, they decide to proceed with the mission, bringing the two professors. They take some time to make their preparations. Bernard and Bianca research the trains they’ll need to take. The Finance Committee allows them to take along the society’s Treasure – there’s only one, a single gold coin they found in a ruined building. Teddy might need this to pay for his train fare after they get him out of the mines. The Ladies’ Guild also knits mittens for the unfortunate boy because the salt mines are reportedly very cold. Miss Bianca tells the boy she lives with not to worry if he doesn’t see her for a week or so because she’s going to be writing an epic poem and needs privacy.

As they finally set out on their mission, the Professor is pessimistic, but the train journey is uneventful. When they arrive at the salt mines’ train station, it’s a very bare and gloomy building. Bernard finds a wooden door with some steps heading down.

At the bottom of the steps, they find themselves in an underground cavern filled with stalactites and stalagmites. There is also an underground lake surrounded by crusts of salt. The Professor realizes that they have entered the salt mines through a disused and forgotten entrance. In the distance, they hear the sounds of prisoners mining the salt.

It’s a long walk to the active part of the mine, but along the way, they make an important discovery – a mouse-sized city carved out of salt! Each of the buildings in the miniature town are unique and resemble famous buildings from around the world. Miss Bianca thinks that the buildings were probably carved by prisoners who made buildings to resemble the places where they used to live. It’s the perfect place for the mice to stay, though.

Bernard, inspired by this strange place, tries to write a poem for the first time in his life, which isn’t very good. Miss Bianca tries to be nice about it, but he can tell that she doesn’t like it. Bernard is upset enough to try to drown himself (that part of the story struck me as rather shocking, although it’s handled so matter-of-factly as just a product of the weird atmosphere of this place), but he can’t because he just floats in the salt water. It seems like most of the members of the expedition temporarily forget about Teddy. Only Miss Bianca isn’t affected by this strange little town because she lives in a porcelain pagoda at home that her boy gave to her, so these buildings are very much like what she already knows.

Fortunately, the expedition gets some help from some friendly bats who live in the mines. The younger bats in the group say that they’ve seen little Teddy serving the governor of the salt mines, who tends to stay apart from most of the prisoners because the prisoners have attacked him before. This is fortunate news because it means that Teddy is closer to the little salt town than they thought, and it won’t be as difficult to find him as they anticipated. He’s on an island in the middle of the lake of salt water, and that’s not too difficult to reach because Bernard has already proven that it’s easy to float in salt water.

Once they find Teddy, they also have to get him onto a train to get him away from the salt mines, which may not be as easy.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

I generally prefer the plots of the Disney movies to the original books in this series, but this was still a fun story. I was a little disappointed that they never actually used the two professors’ specialties. I thought at first that they would use the geology professor to spout some interesting and useful facts about caves or mines, but they didn’t, and there was nothing in the story where a mathematics professor would be particularly useful. It just seems like a missed opportunity there.

There were some funny moments in the story. I liked the part where one of the bats, not really seeing Bianca clearly because bats are near-sighted, comments to another that, whatever it, if it moves, you should salute it, and if it doesn’t, you should paint it. Bianca takes that as a sign that this particular bat has completed his National Service, also noting that being near-sighted isn’t a barrier for bat National Service because, if it was, no bat would be able to participate.

In a twist at the end of the story, it turns out that Teddy used to live with his uncle and that Teddy’s uncle is the tutor for the boy that Miss Bianca lives with. Once Teddy is restored to his uncle, he comes to the house with his tutor and becomes friends with Miss Bianca’s boy.

Ben and Me

Ben and Me by Robert Lawson, 1939, 1967.

I remember reading this book in elementary school. It’s about Benjamin Franklin’s friendship with a talking mouse (fictional, of course), and how his mouse friend helped inspire him in his work.

The book begins with the author saying that this manuscript, supposedly written by Amos the mouse, was found in a small compartment in a room in an old house that was being renovated. The little compartment was furnished with miniature pieces of Colonial style furniture. The author goes on to say further that the manuscript has been authenticated as being early American and that the National Museum of Natural History has confirmed that the handwriting of the manuscript was done by a mouse. (I’d love to see comparisons of different animals’ handwriting and hear their explanation of how the handwriting of a mouse differs from the handwriting of other members of the rodent family, but trust us, kids, this is all very scientific.) The author says that this account of Benjamin Franklin’s life differs from the stories told by later scholars, but he trusts the descriptions of this mouse who was so close to Benjamin Franklin. (Yeah, sure, why not?)

In the “manuscript”, Amos says that he’s writing not long after the death of his friend, Benjamin Franklin, and some people have attempted to write about the life of Benjamin Franklin, but Amos isn’t satisfied with their accounts of his life and wants to write the truth himself. (Benjamin Franklin also wrote a famous autobiography, but they don’t mention that. I know that this is a story about a talking, writing mouse, but I’m just saying.) Amos says that, much as he liked Ben Franklin, Franklin was kind of stupid at times and that, as Franklin’s secret adviser, he was actually the source of many of Franklin’s greatest ideas.

Amos says that he was born into a large family of poor church mice. Then, during the winter of 1745, food grew scarce, and as the oldest of his siblings, Amos decided to set out to seek his fortune and maybe a way to help provide for the rest of his family. It’s a cold night, and lured by the smell of cheese, Amos finds his way into the house where Ben Franklin lives. He finds Franklin sitting and sneezing in a chilly room near a small fireplace. Ben is trying to write, but because of the sneezing, he’s not making much progress. Amos, cold and tired, climbs up on Ben and curls up in his fur cap and goes to sleep.

When Amos wakes up in the morning, the fur cap is hanging on the bedpost, and the room is still cold. Amos talks to Ben, recommending that he put more wood on the fire. Ben doesn’t question why a mouse is talking to him and just retorts, “Waste not, want not.” Amos points out that there will be plenty of waste and extra expenses if the cold makes him sick. Ben agrees with that and decides to use more wood on the fire. Then, Amos points out to him that the fireplace would be more effective at heating if it was in the middle of the room, explaining how his family used to gather around a hot chestnut to warm themselves. Ben is intrigued by the idea, and they discuss how a fireplace could be located in the middle of the room and how to handle the smoke from the fire. Ben excited sets to work building the stove according to Amos’s suggestions. His first attempt is a bit crude, but the stove works much better at heating the room than the fireplace did, and Ben is pleased. He shares some bread and cheese with Amos, and the two of them become friends.

Ben begins writing about the design of the stove as if he had created it all by himself, but Amos points out that Ben had acknowledged his contribution. Amos doesn’t care about getting fame or public credit for his contribution, but he needs food and has a large family to help provide for, so he and Ben work out an agreement: in exchange for Amos’s companionship and help, Ben agrees to leave regular supplies of food at the church for Amos’s family and to provide Amos and any descendants he may have food and a home in his fur cap. Ben sews some special compartments in the fur cap so that Amos has secure places to sleep and store a little food. There’s also a little compartment near Ben’s ear where Amos can quietly whisper suggestions to Ben.

Life with Ben isn’t easy. Amos hates it when Ben goes swimming and leaves his cap on the ground. One day, a dog steals the cap (along with Amos), and Ben has to chase the dog in order to get the cap and Amos back. Ben promises not to take the cap off his head ever again.

Amos also doesn’t like Poor Richard’s Almanack and doesn’t consider the facts or maxims it offers to be worth much. Ben points out that people do use his paper and its predictions of sunrise, sunset, and high and low tide, and the money the paper makes helps support them both. It also seems weird to Amos that Ben attributes everything to do “Poor Richard” when there is no such person. Amos starts substituting his own name for “Poor Richard” in the paper, and he also changes some of the predictions of times for the tides. It turns out that this is one area where Ben knows better than Amos because Amos predicts the wrong time for high tide and some ships are stranded. Confronted by the angry men from the ships, Ben points out that the paper with the wrong time says “Amos” instead of “Poor Richard”, so it can’t be his work. The angry people realize that Ben is right, and Amos realizes that he shouldn’t interfere with the paper.

Amos also hates it when Ben starts to experiment with electricity and Ben shocks him. He tells Ben to leave him out of his electrical experiments. However, Ben continues his experiments with a group of other interested people, disappointed that Amos doesn’t seem to understand what he’s trying to accomplish. Amos finally reads Ben’s writings about electricity and his experiment, and when a boy Ben got to assist him at one of his meetings uses Ben’s electrical device to shock the governor, Amos urgently whispers to Ben to stop the boy. Ben doesn’t consider the experiment to be a failure because it very effectively demonstrated how electricity affects human beings, although some people, including the governor, start avoiding Ben after the experience.

Then, Ben starts wondering if lightning and electricity are the same thing. Amos says he doesn’t care because both to those things should be avoided, whether they’re the same or not, and Ben says that he has “no vision.” Ben’s first experiment with lightning rods is frightening, even terrifying Ben to the point where he modestly refuses to take credit for the invention. In spite of that scare, Ben continues to wonder about the nature of lightning. He starts taking Amos with him while he flies kites for fun, and he rigs up a little car on the kite string for Amos so Amos can ride on the kite and come down when he wants to. Ben suggests that Amos that he could get a better view of lightning and describe it to him if he stays on the kite during a storm, and Amos refuses to consider it, but one day, Ben tricks him into doing it anyway. Amos is angry at Ben for making him suffer through the storm while he took shelter in a shed and refuses to discuss what he experienced with him. Burned with electrical shocks from the storm, Amos returns to his family at the church, where they dress his wounds, and he rests.

Ben comes to see Amos about their earlier agreement. Amos tells him that the electrical experiments were never part of the agreement and he will never return to him while he is doing these things. Ben agrees to stop all of the electrical experiments, and he and Amos write a new agreement with each other.

At this time, troubles are arising between England and the Colonies, and Ben is concerned. He tells Amos that he needs his skills for gathering information and asks him to accompany him to England to present the Colonies’ case before the King and Parliament. Amos initially agrees to go, but he backs out of the voyage when he sees that Ben has attached lightning rods to the ship. Pointing out to Ben that the lightning rods are a violation of their agreement, he returns to the church and lets Ben go to England alone.

While Ben is gone, Amos hears the people of Philadelphia talking about current events, like the stamp taxes, and how they feel about them. Amos finds himself siding with the colonists and wanting to do something to help, and he realizes that Ben is his best chance for helping to accomplish something. When Ben returns from England, Amos rejoins him, and he goes with Ben to the committee meetings he attends, including the one for writing the Declaration of Independence. Amos helps Ben by gathering information from other people. Amos meets another mouse named Red, who comes to Philadelphia with Thomas Jefferson and starts preaching revolution to the mice in town. Amos borrows some of the pieces of writing from Red’s Manifesto and tells them to Ben, who in turn, tells them to other members of his committee so they get included in the Declaration of Independence.

Then, George Washington says that the Colonies could really use some help and support from another country. Amos persuades Ben to suggest France. George Washington accepts the suggestion, and Amos accompanies Ben to France to ask for help from the French government. Ben enjoys the attention he gets from the ladies in France, frequently dining with his admirers. Amos is afraid of the ladies’ pet dogs and cats, though, so he persuades Ben to put most of his attention on a woman who doesn’t have cats. It turns out that this lady also has a mouse who lives with her named Sophia. Sophia is actually married, but her husband has been exiled to the United States, and her children are being held in the palace of Versailles. Amos wants to help Sophia, but he’s not sure how until after the Revolutionary War ends and Red arrives in France with Thomas Jefferson. Amos explains the situation to Red, and Red is more than eager to help assemble a force to stand up to the oppressive aristocratic French mice.

The mouse battle that follows terrifies the human French court, but the mice successfully rescue Sophia’s children. Ben suddenly finds himself a social outcast for bringing mice to the royal court, so he’s ready to return home, bringing Sophia and her children with them. Ben is welcomed home as a hero by the humans. Sophia is reunited with her husband, and Amos remains a friend of the family. Three of Sophia’s oldest children marry Amos’s three youngest siblings, tying their families together.

The story ends with the mice giving Ben a nice, new hat for his birthday. Ben keeps the old one just as a house for Amos to live in, but Amos is mostly retired, his time occupied by teaching his young nieces and nephews.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). There is also a Disney film based on the book that is also on Internet Archive (about 21 minutes long).

My Reaction

I remembered liking this story when I was a kid, but I’m not as fond of it now. I don’t like books with intentionally stupid characters, and in this case, the intentionally stupid character is a real, historical person, which doesn’t seem fair. I know it’s supposed to seem humorous, but it just doesn’t seem to hold up after all these years.

I also hated the part where Ben intentionally kept the poor mouse up in a kite for half an hour during a terrifying storm. It’s just so cruel, even though it’s supposed to humorous. What can I say? I have a soft spot for cute, fuzzy animals, and I just don’t like to think of any little animal suffering, even if it’s in blatantly ridiculous circumstances.

I had forgotten about the Disney cartoon, although I think I remember seeing that when I was a kid, too.

Mystery of the Empty House

Mystery of the Empty House by Dorothy Sterling, 1960.

Patricia Harrison’s family has recently moved from their apartment in New York to a house in Haven. Her father used to live in Haven when he was a boy. His mother still lives in town, and he still knows some of the other people who live there. Patricia, called Pat, is still unpacking her belongings when a boy from across the street, Jim Gray, calls to invite her to play ball with him and some of his friends in the field behind her house because his mother used to know his father when they were kids. Pat isn’t very used to playing with boys because she went to an all-girls school when she was in New York, but she agrees to go play ball with the boys.

When she goes to meet the boys, some of the other boys, the Paine brothers, don’t want her to play with them. When Jim said they were meeting “Pat”, they assumed that “Pat” was another boy. Jim says he doesn’t care if Pat is a girl or not because they could really use another player. Pat thinks they’re rude, and since they don’t seem to want her, she starts to leave, but Jim stops her and persuades her to stay. Even though Pat is usually good at baseball at school, she finds herself making clumsy mistakes when she plays with the boys, probably because she feels uncomfortable with them. Finally, she hits a home run, which is great, but there’s a problem. She accidentally hit the ball into the window of an old, abandoned house nearby that looks haunted.

The boys are mad because it’s the only baseball they have. Pat says they could just go get the ball, but the boys say they can’t. When she asks them if they’re scared, they say that’s not the problem; they’ve just promised that they won’t go near the old house. Pat says that, since she didn’t promise, she can just go get the ball, but Jim stops her from going into the house. He tells her that they can just buy a new ball. When Pat asks him why he doesn’t want her to go in, Jim says that it’s a secret having to do with the Paines. Pat says that she’s sick of the Paines and insists on going into the old house.

The old house is dark and spooky. When she climbs in through the window, Pat is startled when she runs into another person inside. At first, she can’t see the other person too clearly because it’s dark, but when she asks the girl who she is, the girl tells her that she’s Patricia Harrison. Pat is shocked and tells her that she can’t be Patricia Harrison because that’s her name. The girl finally laughs and admits that her real name is Barbara Thomas. Barbara lives next door to Pat’s grandmother and decided to stop by and meet her. When she saw Pat playing with the boys, she decided to go explore the old house instead.

Barbara is the one who explains the history of the house and the Paines’ attitude to Pat. The Paine family used to live in the old house. It’s the oldest house in town, dating back to the Colonial era. Nat Paine, the oldest of the Paine boys, was always proud of his family’s old home and used to brag about how George Washington and Lafayette visited the house during the Revolutionary War. It was even occupied by British soldiers at one time. Unfortunately, the father of the Paine boys was killed during the Korean War several years earlier (dating this story to the late 1950s or 1960, the year it was published). Since then, the family has fallen on hard times, and they’ve been unable to pay the taxes on the house. Now, because of the unpaid taxes, the town council is threatening to sell the old house to pay the unpaid taxes. The Paines have been forced to move out of the house and into a much smaller place, and Nat is very upset about it. Plus, he’s been going through this phase where he’s decided that he hates girls because he’s just getting into middle school, where all the boys either start developing crushes or decide that they hate girls. His younger brothers are being pests because they’re following his lead.

Barbara says that her father felt bad about what happened to the family and tried to convince other people in town to help the Paines pay the taxes on the old place. They could have helped, but they’ve made it plain that they just don’t want to. As Barbara’s father put it, “people in Haven are a bunch of rock-ribbed, rugged individualists who wouldn’t help their own grandmas.” (I have strong feelings about that, and I’ll explain them in the reaction section.) Barbara reveals right away that the secret Jim is keeping for the Paine brothers is that Nat made his brothers take a vow with him that they wouldn’t enter that house again “until it was rightfully theirs.” Barbara says that Nat’s sense of pride talking, and “You know how boys are.” She thinks Nat’s being overly dramatic, although she sympathizes with the family’s plight. When Pat suggests that maybe they shouldn’t be in the house, either, Barbara says that she comes there all the time to explore. Barbara thinks the old house is fascinating and that there might be a secret passage somewhere. She invites Pat to help her look for it sometime.

At dinner that night, Pat finds out that her parents already know about the death of the boys’ father and the trouble that the family is having over their old house. Pat’s mother says that the old house is a good example of the saltbox style of house that was popular in Colonial New England. (I remember my old high school history teacher explaining how the slope of the roof was meant to help snow slide off during the winter, but the uneven slope also allows more living space to be added onto an existing house.) However, Pat’s mother says that there probably aren’t any secret passages in the house because houses from that time were built pretty simply and didn’t even have closets or bathrooms. She doesn’t think that there’s any place in the old house to conceal a secret passage.

Now that Pat knows the issues with the Paine family, she begins to feel better about them, and they start being nicer to her. As Pat begins settling in, she becomes better friends with Barbara and is happy that she has another girl as a friend. They ride their bikes downtown together, and Barbara sleeps over at Pat’s house. As the girls are getting ready for bed, Pat looks out the window and sees a light in the old Paine house when no one is supposed to be there. Barbara says that whoever’s in the house is probably looking for the secret passage and the treasure. When Pat asks what she means by “treasure”, Barbara says that there’s a rumor that there’s treasure hidden in the house from Revolutionary times. The family used to be rich, but after the American Revolution, when the children of the family returned to the house after their parents were killed, the family fortune had vanished. People think that the ancestors of the Paines hid their fortune somewhere during the war and that it’s still waiting to be found. (I already had some misgivings about the people of Haven and their intentions in kicking the Paines out of their house, and now, suddenly, my suspicions are even worse.)

Barbara says that they can’t just let this mystery sneak steal what should rightfully belong to the Paines and ruin the only chance they have left of regaining their house. The girls sneak over to the house to spy on the intruder, and they end up frightening him away. The girls tell the boys about what they witnessed the next day, and they persuade the Paine brothers to come into the house with them in spite of their “vow” to look around and see what the intruder was searching for. As they inspect the kitchen fireplace, where the man was searching, and look at the flashlight he dropped, the man shows up again. It turns out that he’s a college student doing research on the Paine family.

Back in Revolutionary times, the family that lived in the house was the Woodruff family. (A Paine ancestor married into the Woodruff family, changing the family name, but the Woodruffs are also ancestors of the current Paines. It’s the same family.) The college student, Robert Popham, found some old papers that indicate that the head of the Woodruff family, the first Nathaniel Woodruff, was a Tory. Nat, who was named for this ancestor (full name Nathaniel Woodruff Paine IV), angrily denies it, saying that his family was known to associate with George Washington and Lafayette, hosting them at their house. Robert explains more about the papers he found, but he also says that the last letter Nathaniel Woodruff wrote to his wife before he was killed indicates that he feared for his life and left something hidden in an old post box to pass on to his young son. However, as Nat points out, the date on this final letter was shortly after Nathaniel Woodruff’s wife was murdered by unknown assailants. (She was found scalped, so people blamed her death on American Indians, but it’s also possible that she was killed by someone else who just wanted to make it look that way to cover up the real reason for her murder.) Nathaniel Woodruff didn’t know his wife was already dead, and since she never got the letter and he was also killed soon after, the box is probably still hidden somewhere. Robert thinks that what Nathaniel hid was proof that he was actually a spy for the Patriots and that he feared for his life because he suspected that the British knew he was a spy. He says that he wants to find this hidden box and the information it holds because it would make a fantastic historical research paper.

The kids are completely on board with the search for the hidden box, both because the Paines want to preserve the reputation of their ancestors and because there may be valuables hidden in the box that will help the Paines pay their taxes and keep their home. However, they only have until August 15, the date that the town council has set for selling the Paine house. They only have until the end of summer to figure it out!

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive. The book is also known by the title Secret of the Old Post Box.

My Reaction and Spoilers

To begin with, I didn’t like the people of Haven right from Barbara’s description of them as “rugged individuals who wouldn’t help their own grandmas.” It is pretty cold to turn out a war widow who is working as an underpaid nurse in the community and her children after their father was killed serving his country. I completely agreed with Barbara’s father’s assessment of the townspeople’s levels of generosity from the first. I suppose at least some of the townspeople of Haven probably thought they were actually being kind, giving Mrs. Paine several years after her husband’s death to come up with the mounting tax money, while doing nothing to help her and not actually paying her enough to manage and letting her family sink deeper into the hole until there was no way for them to escape, but in realistic terms, that’s not really kind at all.

We don’t actually hear the townspeople express their own feelings because the children don’t talk to the adults about their search and discoveries until they’re sure of what they found. When Barbara explained how her father felt about the townspeople’s unwillingness to help the Paines, I was also a little suspicious of their motives, and when Barbara mentioned that there’s been a popular rumor about hidden treasure in the Paine household for years and everyone has heard of it, I got really suspicious. Basically, I started looking for thieves among the townspeople. I immediately suspected that the “rugged individuals”, or at least some influential ones in the community, wanted to steal some historical treasure from a veteran’s widow and orphans because people who would would kick the widow and orphans out of their home might as well be out to steal their legacy, too.

If that was part of their plan, they weren’t very good at it, and they never even show up in the story. Perhaps I’m judging them a bit harshly, although in a way, I’m a little disappointed because that kind of Machiavellian plot would have made the story much more exciting. From the way the story goes, the townspeople might just not believe that there’s any treasure to be found because that rumor has been going around for so long and nothing has come of it. Still, I was suspicious of them for a good part of the book because it looked like the author was setting them up to be suspicious.

I was also annoyed by the townspeople because I found them ineffectual and uncreative in their approach to a community problem. They miss opportunities, and worse, they deny opportunities to others because they’re apparently stuck in their “rugged individual” mindset and won’t even entertain ideas that might help themselves as well as others when people like Barbara Thomas’s father suggest them. I often think that high-and-mighty rugged individualistic attitude cuts out so many genuinely fun, creative, and amazing possibilities that can make a community rich in character as well as money. It’s maddening to a person who thrives on creativity and likes to consider possibilities.

When I started getting really irritated at the townspeople, I guessed that, before the end of the story, they would do something to redeem themselves that would simultaneously leave me unsatisfied. I figured that the point where the townspeople finally come together would probably result in something that I thought they should have been working on from the beginning, and then, they’d act like it was such an amazing idea that they’d never thought of before and I’d be really irritated with them all over again because I thought of something like it very early in the story. Actually, that’s not how the story goes, and it’s still irritating to me.

So, what would I want them to do in this situation? Basically, the community wants its tax money, and the family wants to keep their house with a living wage that can support them. Fine. So, I asked myself, why not make this historic house, which is known to be the oldest house in town, into a community project which would actually contribute to the common good of the community (I don’t think “common good” is a dirty word, although I’m aware that some “rugged individualists” think so) and provide the Paine family with an additional source of income? If the town council invested in fixing up the house, which is also known to contain some very interesting Colonial antiques as well as fascinating architectural details and a unique history, the house could be turned into either a museum or a period bed-and-breakfast to encourage local tourism. (Sleep where George Washington and Lafayette slept!) Since it does have original furnishings and actual bedrooms, it probably wouldn’t take a lot to make the conversion for either of those projects.

The town and its business owners would benefit from the tourism, giving them an actual monetary return on their investment, and the Paine family could stay on with the house as its caretakers, receiving additional wages from visitors. People couldn’t say that the Paines simply received a handout because they would be doing valuable community work to support the town’s image and industry. It would satisfy Nat Paine’s family pride because he could talk to tour groups on the weekends and during the summer about his family’s great legacy to the history of his town. The whole community could even expand on the idea to further attract visitors, setting up a sort of local living history center, where people can learn Colonial crafts and recipes (something like what the Townsends demo on their YouTube channel), and schools from neighboring towns and cities could book field trips. Local business owners could support it with a themed restaurant and shops selling Colonial-era replicas and memorabilia and books about the time period. The town could hold special celebrations a few times a year to draw in more visitors, like a big Fourth of July parade or a Colonial Christmas celebration (although I known not all of the American colonies actually celebrated Christmas) or a re-creation of old harvest parties (more historically accurate) with plays by the local theater group (if they don’t have one, they could form one) or dramatic readings from Washington Irving at the local library or a themed fair with people selling local artisan crafts. They wouldn’t have to do all of this at once, but they could start with the matter of the house and build up from there. It’s an idea that has the potential for future expansion. This story is even set pre-Bicentenniel, so imagine what the town could do if they already had everything up and running by July 4th, 1776! Doesn’t anybody plan ahead? That’s creative use of resources. That’s community action. That’s job creation. Even if it’s not as big as Plimoth Plantation (now called Plimoth Patuxet to better incorporate the Native Americans) or Colonial Williamsburg (which both already existed by the time this story was written and could have provided inspiration), it’s still a money-making industry that is inherently built into the town’s very nature and won’t disappear tomorrow because some outside business decides to move or close a job-providing factory or something. Even if they didn’t get national or international attention, they would probably still be a destination for people from around their state and neighboring ones, and there’s potential for continued development. The project just need to be supported and promoted by the community.

Unfortunately, that’s not what they do. My griping aside, I guess if the solution was really that simple and the townspeople were more thoughtful and pro-active, we would lose the source of tension and the obstacle that our heroes have to overcome. The August 15th deadline is what pressures the kids to hurry up and find the treasure, so as irritating as it is to me, I have to put up with it.

The treasure hunt part is a lot of fun, and I liked the children’s logical, methodical approach to their search. When the children eventually find the hidden box, the story isn’t over. There are coded messages in the box that they have to decode to learn the full truth about Nathaniel Woodruff. Part of the story explains how they figure out how to decode the substitution code and the book code that compose parts of the message. The story they learn about Nathaniel Woodruff is better than anything the Paines had originally thought.

So, did they save the old house and do anything cool, like start a unique museum? Yes, and no. Although they don’t find any jewels, gold, or traditional sort of treasure, the letters that they find in the box are worth quite a bit. They sell them to a wealthy local business owner, and he donates them to a local university library. (So, you know, the wealthy business owner who never makes an actual appearance in this story and who wouldn’t have helped a war widow and her orphans for their sake can buy their family legacy and present it as his magnanimous gift to the university. I can’t say that he’s terrible for doing this because it does help, but I still think my idea was better.) The Paine family has enough money to keep their house and fix it up. It’s a pretty good ending, but I still prefer my vision. The story points out that it’s not a matter of everyone living happily ever after because they’re all their imperfect selves and still have some problems, but one lesson that they all learned from this experience is how to create their own book code to use for passing notes in class. It’s not profound, but codes are fun.

Medieval Places

Medieval Places by Sarah Howarth, 1991, 1992.

This book takes a unique approach to explaining life in the Middle Ages. It focuses on the types of places where people spent their time and what they did there. I like it that the author doesn’t rely on just one country for the descriptions of places, providing examples from various places around Europe, including Germany, France, Italy, and Iceland.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive. There is also a companion book to this one about Medieval People. The author has also written other books about people and places in different time periods.

The places described in the book are:

The Field

During the Middle Ages, most people lived in small farming communities, making their living through farming. This chapter describes the agricultural year and the feudal system, where peasants worked fields belonging to lords and gave the lords their services and food they produced in return for use of the land.

The Peasant’s Cottage

This chapter explains what a peasant’s house and living conditions were like.

The Castle

This chapter explains how castles were built and how they were used to control territory. There is also a brief description of what life in a castle was like.

The Battlefield

This chapter describes how warfare and sieges were conducted and what types of weapons were used.

The Forest

People hunted animals in forests for sport and food, but there were rules regarding who could hunt where and what types of animals they were permitted to hunt. Anyone caught breaking these rules would labeled a poacher and could suffer serious consequences.

The Law Court

There were different types of law courts in different places, and they could handle different types of cases or offenders. For example, clergy were often tried in special courts. Punishments for offenders varied with the nature of the offense. Prison wasn’t typically a punishment by itself. Dungeons were more for holding prisoners until their case was tried. After the trial, another punishment would be assigned, possibly a fine or some form of public humiliation. For more severe offenses, offenders might have a hand or an ear cut off or might be executed. However, there were some law breakers who had so many supporters that no one was ever able to bring them to justice.

The School

Most schools were church schools held in monasteries, cathedrals, and other churches. There, students would be taught Latin (the universal language of educated people all over Europe during the Middle Ages) and religious lessons. Students practiced writing lessons on wax tables or pieces of slate that could be reused. School was not a requirement, and most lower-class children did not attend, either simply helping their families on their farms or learning a trade. There were some secular trade school run by towns to teach the children of merchants some basic skills, like reading, writing, and keeping accounts.

The University

The format for modern universities began during the Middle Ages. Particularly skilled teachers, often ones who taught at church schools, who gained a reputation for their teaching ability sometimes attracted a following of scholars, and people would travel to the location where they were teaching in order to study with them. Universities grew because of the excellent reputations of individual teachers, who attracted students to come. As they grew, they developed sets of rules, sort of like the a trade guild, organizing courses for students to study and exams to test them on what they had learned. There were no age requirements for students, but they always started by studying some general knowledge subjects, like Latin and mathematics, before choosing a specialty to study, such as law, medicine, or theology.

The Road

There were various reasons why people had to travel during the Middle Ages. Nobles had to travel to to visit different parts of their estates, and peasants had to travel to bring their produce to markets. Merchants would travel in search of customers for their trades. Criminals and judges both had to travel to law courts. Messengers would carry letters. There were also soldiers and religious pilgrims. People from every level of society could be on the roads. However, the roads were rough, making travel uncomfortable, and there was always the danger of robbers.

The Port

People also traveled by ship, and merchants brought goods from other countries through ports.

The Parish Church

Local parish churches were important centers of life and religion in the community. The local church would perform baptisms, marriages, funerals, and other services for the parishioners. Because most people couldn’t understand Latin and many couldn’t read at all, priests had to use sermons and scenes painted on the walls of the church to teach people Biblical lessons. Sometimes, church buildings and the churchyards surrounding them were also used for other important community functions, like schools, hospitals, meetings to discuss local matters, and even markets, dances, and games.

The Market

People in towns practiced trades other than farming, so towns held regular market days when village farmers could come and sell their produce.

The Guildhall

Various types of merchants and craftsmen formed guilds to organize and regulate the standards for their trades and how much their goods and services would be worth. Guilds were also responsible for arranging apprenticeships for those wanting to learn specific trades.

Medieval People

Medieval People by Sarah Howarth, 1991, 1992.

This book looks at Medieval history in terms of the different types of people in Medieval society and what their lives were like. It has examples from different countries focusing mainly on western Europe.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive. There is also a companion book to this one about Medieval Places. The author has also written other books about people and places in different time periods.

The types people included in the book are:

The Chronicler

This is an important chapter because it explains how we know many of the things we know about the Middle Ages. Some people kept chronicles of events that happened in their time. Most of the chroniclers were monks because they were usually the ones who had both the education and the time to keep written chronicles. That’s part of the reason why many chronicles have religious overtones. People who wrote chronicles not only recorded events but also considered why certain important events may have happened, and they interpreted events through their religious beliefs.

The King

Medieval society was structured in levels, and the king was the person who held the most power and authority. However, he also depended on the nobles who supported him, so he had make sure that they were satisfied with his rule and rewarded for their loyalty. A successful king had to be a successful military leader, and he rewarded the nobles who served him with gifts of land. In turn, the nobles had to serve the king militarily and successfully manage their estates, and they could attract other people to serve them by granting them some of the land that they received from the king.

The Pope

The pope is the highest leader in the Catholic Church, and during the Middle Ages, Catholicism was the major Christian denomination in western Europe. (The Greek Orthodox Church was the major Christian group in eastern Europe, and Protestantism wasn’t an option until the Reformation.) Medieval popes were different from modern ones because they were political leaders as well as spiritual ones, and they clashed with secular kings about whose authority was greater.

The Bishop

Bishops were below the pope and the archbishops in authority, but they oversaw the lower religious officials within their territory or diocese. A bishop would make sure that church buildings in his diocese were being built and properly maintained and that the clergy were doing their jobs correctly and teaching and leading their parishioners properly. He would also oversee the training of new priests. In some ways, his position would be somewhat like that of a noble within the church, answerable to people higher than himself and in charge of people below him, but aside from his position in the church, a bishop would also have obligations to the king, owing services to him. Kings often used bishops as ambassadors and advisers and even as military leaders because they were among the most educated people available. However, this sometimes put bishops in an awkward position when their kings’ demands conflicted with their orders from the pope.

The Knight

A knight was a warrior who fought on horseback. Part of the service that nobles owed to their king in exchange for grants of land was supplying him with knights when he needed them. In the early Middle Ages, the status knighthood was a reward for excellent performance as a soldier, but later, there were rituals associated with knighthood, including that knighthood could only be granted by a king.

The Pilgrim

Pilgrims were travelers going to religious shrines. Some shrines were fairly close to the places where they lived, and some were far away, in major cities like Rome and Jerusalem. Pilgrims hoped to spiritually connect with the saints associated with the shrines they visited in order to ask for their help with some special purpose, such as recovery from an illness or the forgiveness of their sins.

The Lady

Women in Medieval society were subject to the authority of their fathers up until their marriage, and then, they were under the authority of their husbands. Money was a consideration when marriages were arranged, and marriages could be arranged for wealthy heiresses when they were very young. Married women had the task of managing their husband’s household and accounts, supervising the servants, and making cloth and clothing for her household. Women who did not marry might become nuns. Some liked the religious and scholarly life of a nun, but others simply became nuns because they had no other options and their families didn’t know what else to do with them.

The Herald

Knights always wore full armor when they fought, including a visor that covered the face. In order to know who was who, knights had special crests or coats of arms, which included identifying symbols and colors. Knights could wear their coat of arms on a tunic over their armor, have it displayed on a banner, and on coats on their horses. The herald was the person who kept track of everyone’s coat of arms, ensuring that they were all unique and settling disputes between knights who tried to claim the same combination of colors and symbols.

The Monk

Monks and nuns devoted their lives to prayer and meditation. Their days were organized around prayer, but they also performed manual labor, producing food for the monastery where they lived. Other tasks involved copying the Bible or prayer books and making clothing or medicine for the poor.

The Doctor

There were many dangers from illness during the Middle Ages, particularly the Black Death in the 14th century, when about a third of the population of Europe died. Doctors often didn’t understand the causes of illness, and not all doctors and healers even had any formal training. Wealthy people could afford doctors with more training. Cures often included combinations of herbs and various experimental substances, like crushed bugs or even gold and pearls. They had reasons for choosing the substances they did to put in medicine, but because they were lacking knowledge of the true nature of disease, their choices were often flawed.

The Heretic

Although the Catholic Church was the major form of Christianity in western Europe and widely regarded as the “true” Christian religion, religious beliefs were not completely uniform in the population. People whose beliefs seriously conflicted with the Church would be labeled as “heretics.” Because the Church believed that heretics’ souls were in danger, they could use severe punishments and even execution or the threat of it to force them to change or to stop spreading their messages to other people, thus endangering their souls.

The Mason

Masons were responsible for the great building projects of the Middle Ages, like castles and cathedrals. Some of these great buildings kept a staff on site to handle repairs, but some masons were itinerant, moving from site to site as necessary.

The Merchant

Merchants had to travel frequently to obtain and trade goods, some of them even from other countries. Towns would hold fairs at regular intervals where merchants would gather to sell their goods. Merchants with highly desirable goods could become very wealthy, and some people thought that they often got above their station in society, living like nobility.

Eyewitness Medieval Life


Medieval Life by Andrew Langley, photographed by Geoff Brightling and Geoff Dann, 1988, 2004.

I love books that explain the details of daily life in the past, and I especially like Eyewitness books because they include such great photographs to show objects that people would have used in the past.

This book begins by explaining the time period of the “Middle Ages”, which was the period between Ancient Greece and Rome and the Renaissance, when culture and knowledge from Ancient Greece and Rome came back into vogue. The Middle Ages lasted about 1000 years, roughly from 400 to about 1540 AD. (Estimates of the start and end dates vary because this was a period defined by cultural changes, which are gradual and don’t have precise start and end dates.) This long period of time can also be divided into smaller periods and contained many important events that helped to shape society and culture, including The Crusades and The Great Plague.

Medieval society was hierarchical and was based on land ownership. The king and the highest nobles controlled the land and allowed people in lower levels of society to use it or grant farming rights to peasants in exchange for rent in the form of their services and a share of what they produced. The peasants or serfs were tied to the land they farmed, and the land was owned by the lords they served. They were not regarded as “free” people, and they couldn’t leave their lord or the land except by raising enough money to buy some land for themselves or by marrying a free person from a higher level of society.

A lord’s manor included not only his manor house or castle but the nearby village, church, and the farmland where his serfs worked. Often, villages and manors had little contact with the outside world, so the people who lived there had to make most of what they needed themselves. Most people never left their land or were only able to travel a short distance from it, so the only new people they might meet would be traveling peddlers, soldiers, or pilgrims.

The book explains what would be found in a typical Medieval home. Poor people lived in houses that had only one or two rooms for the entire family. Few people could afford to buy glass windows. Poor people only had wooden shutters to cover their windows. Others might have tallow-coated linen over a lattice frame, which would let in light, and some wealthier people had pieces of polished horn in their windows, which also let in light, although you couldn’t really see through them well. What people ate varied depending on their social status. Wealthier people could afford a wider variety of foods, and poor people mostly ate what they produced themselves.

Women’s lives also varied depending on their social status. Pleasant women farmed and provided for their families alongside their husbands. Women in families of craftsmen and tradesmen often worked alongside the men in the family business. Wealthy women managed their husbands’ households or could rise to rank of influential abbess if they joined religious orders. However, the highest ranks in society were occupied by men.

While peasants served their lords, lords also owed services to higher nobles and, ultimately, to the king, although sometimes the king struggled to control powerful nobles and assert his authority over them. The king generally had to keep his nobles satisfied with his rule if he wanted to retain their loyalty because, while he was the source of their land and authority, they were effectively ruling over their own smaller lands with their own troops. While nobles owed their king military service and support, if they were dissatisfied with the state of their lands or were just unoccupied with other battles to fight and saw an opportunity, they would sometimes use their troops to raid the lands of neighboring nobles. Part of the king’s job involved preventing his nobles from being dangers to him and to each other. The king also made and enforced laws, settled disputes, and oversaw the collection of taxes.

Christianity, specifically in the form of Catholicism, was central to the lives of people in the Middle Ages. During this time, stonemasons and craftsmen developed new techniques for building impressive cathedrals that still stand today. These cathedrals were lavishly decorated with statues, frescoes, and stained glass windows that depicted Biblical stories and the lives of saints. These works of art were important for helping to teach people who did not have the ability to read the Bible themselves about their religion.

Religious orders of monks and nuns performed important functions for society, such as caring for people who were poor or sick, providing safe places for travelers to stay, and copying written texts by hand. In the centuries before the printing press was invented, there were only handwritten books, and they took time and skill to produce. It could take an entire year for someone to copy an entire Bible. Few people were able to own personal books, and much of the schooling in this period was provided by religious orders.

The book describes the rise of Islam during the early Middle Ages, increases in trade and commerce, the growth of towns, and guilds that controlled different professions. It also describes Medieval music and entertainment, such as plays and parades. One of my favorite parts of the book is about fairs and feast days.

The book ends by describing the beginning of the Renaissance and the rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman culture as well as the beginning of the Reformation and the development of new scientific discoveries and artistic styles.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

Eyewitness Castle


Castle by Christopher Gravett, photographed by Geoff Dann, 1994, 2004.

Eyewitness books are always great for the photographs that they use to illustrate the concepts in the book!

This book is all about Medieval castles. It starts by explaining the evolution of castle-building from early wooden motte-and-bailey castles to the great stone castles that we often think of as being the classic Medieval castle. However, stone castles could come in different shapes and styles, depending on where they were located.

The book shows examples of castles in different countries. Most of the focus of the book is on castles in European countries, including Spain, Germany, and France. However, the book also includes information about castles in Japan.

Castles were built for defense, and the book explains the types of defenses that castles would have, such as gatehouses, murder holes, lifting bridges, battlements with corbels and machicolations, and loopholes. It also explains what a siege was like, what types of weapons would have been used, and what knights and soldiers were like.

The parts of the book that I liked best were the parts that described the rooms in a castle and the daily lives of the people in a castle. Among the rooms in a castles were the great hall, kitchen, and chapel. I like how they show the objects that would be found in different rooms and how they would be used.

The book explains the lives of the lord of the castle and women and children who lived there. There is information about the types of foods they would eat in a Medieval castle and the types of games and entertainment they would have enjoyed.

There is also information about other workers in and around the castle, including the castle builders and people who tended the castle’s animals and worked in the agricultural fields around the castle, producing food and textiles for the population.

There are sections in the back of the book with additional facts and information about castles and the people who lived in them and a glossary.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).