Mystery Back of the Mountain by Mary C. Jane, 1960.
Anne and Stevie Ward are thrilled when they discover that their father has inherited a house in the country from a distant relative who has recently died. Neither of the children had met their father’s “Uncle” James (really a distant cousin of their great-grandfather), and even their father hadn’t seen him for years. Probably, the only reason Uncle James left him the old farm where he used to live was because he had no children of his own and the two of them shared the same name.
The children think that a country house would be a great place to spend the summer, and even their mother thinks that perhaps they should keep the house as a vacation home, but their father has some reservations about it. For starters, the old farm house, located outside of a small town in Maine, is kind of shabby and has no running water or electricity. It’s so isolated that people named the area Back of the Mountain. Then, there’s Uncle James’s reputation. Uncle James was the black sheep of the family, having apparently made his money in some unethical business dealings and then became involved in some kind of inappropriate romance that ended tragically. The children’s father isn’t completely sure of the details because he only heard whispered rumors about Uncle James when he was young, but he knows that the people of his town weren’t very fond of him, and he suspects that they might feel the same way about his relatives. He thinks that it might be better just to sell the house and forget about it. Nevertheless, he agrees with his wife that the family should go there and take a look at the house and decide what they’re going to do with it.
When they get to Maine, they meet Uncle James’s lawyer, Mr. Palmer, to collect the key to the house. Mr. Palmer tells them that the house has a few items in it that could be considered valuable antiques, including a portrait of the woman that Uncle James had wanted to marry, Drusilla Randall. The children’s father asks Mr. Palmer more about Drusilla Randall, and he says that all he knows is that she had an argument with Uncle James and then disappeared. He thinks that she just left town, although he says that there are rumors that Uncle James may have murdered her. Mr. Palmer thinks that the rumors are ridiculous and doesn’t take them seriously, but Stevie and Anne are disturbed at the idea that their relative may have been a murderer, or that people thought he was. Mr. Palmer also mentions that Drusilla’s sister, Marion, has decided to return to her family’s old house for the summer as well, so she’ll be living close to their farm.
The house is certainly an isolated place, and their closest neighbors, the Hodges have an old grudge against Uncle James. The unethical business deal that Uncle James did years ago involved buying some of the Hodges’s family’s best land. Bert Hodges, who was young at the time, says that the deal ruined his father’s life, and it’s making his miserable, too, because he really needs that land to make his farm profitable. Anne hears this from Bert’s young niece, Oleva, an orphan who has come to live with her aunt and uncle. Although Uncle Bert is strict with her and somewhat bitter about the past and the family’s circumstances, Oleva likes her aunt and uncle and wishes they would adopt her, giving her the stable home she’s longed for since her parents died and she began being traded around among her relatives. However, Bert doesn’t have much faith in other people, and even though he likes his young niece, is afraid to commit to adopting her.
Anne feels badly that Uncle James’s land deal seems to have ruined people’s lives. Oleva also tells her something disturbing about Drusilla, the girl that Uncle James loved. They were supposed to be married when Drusilla turned twenty, but she disappeared before that happened, and most people think that she drowned in the natural pool on Uncle James’s property. It’s deeper than it appears at first, and some things belonging to her were found nearby, so everyone thinks that she probably drowned and that her body is still somewhere at the bottom of the pool. Whether her death was an accident, suicide, or murder is still unknown.
Mysterious things are happening around Uncle James’s property. The portrait of Drusilla that Mr. Palmer said would be in the house is missing. The family hears eerie howls in the night. Oleva is sneaking around, doing something that she says her uncle would disapprove of, but which she insists that she can’t stop. Then, Anne finds a poem engraved on a stone in an old graveyard, apparently written by Uncle James in Drusilla’s memory that points to the secret of their quarrel and her death. The things that Uncle James did in his life still cast their shadow, and the only person who can tell them the full story of what really happened all those years ago and set things right . . . is Drusilla.
Uncle James’s problem, as the children eventually learn, was the nature of his ambitions. He wanted to be a big man more than a good one. It wasn’t that he was completely awful. Drusilla herself (once the children learn where she really is and who she is) tells them that he could be charming, and she knows he never really meant to do anything wrong. The problem was that he wanted to be important and admired by others to the point where “getting ahead” of others was all that really mattered to him. There was a point when he could have used what he had to help his neighbors when they were in trouble, but instead, he used their troubling situation to his own advantage to take what they had for himself. When he discovered something valuable on the land he’d acquired from Hodges family, something that would have saved them from their problems if they had known about it before the sale of the land, he could have turned it over to them to help make things right, but he refused to do it, which was the basis of his quarrel with Drusilla. As far as Uncle James was concerned, he was entitled to what he found because he had bought the land legally, but Drusilla argued against keeping it on moral grounds, out of compassion for the Hodges. In the end, Uncle James was admired by no one because of his selfishness, and Drusilla realized that wasn’t a quality that she wanted in the man she was going to marry. Uncle James’s attempts to make people admire him for being wealthy and important ended up costing him friendships, relationships with relatives, and ultimately, the woman he wanted to marry. Like others, Uncle James believed that Drusilla was dead, that she had drowned herself over their quarrel.
Uncle James’s drive to make people like him causes Anne to reconsider something that was bothering her as well. She isn’t as good at making friends as her brother because her brother is more outgoing and good at sports. The other kids always want Stevie to play for their team. Anne often wishes that she could be more athletic, “to come in first,” so that other kids will like her better and want her to play with them more, instead of picking her last for every game. However, she comes to realize that being “first” in things isn’t what really wins friends in the end. Caring about others and being there for them when they need you wins real friends. As Anne explores the old graveyard, she thinks about how just being alive and enjoying life is a great feeling by itself, whether you’re “first” or not, and sometimes, good things come to those who take their time instead of just rushing to be “first.”