Five Go to Demon’s Rocks

Famous Five

Five Go to Demon’s Rocks by Enid Blyton, 1961.

Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny are expecting their daughter George and her three cousins and dog to come for a visit because their parents are going away on a cruise when Uncle Quentin hears from a friend of his, a professor, who also wants to come for a visit to discuss his latest invention.  Aunt Fanny says that they won’t be able to accommodate the children and the professor at the same time, and Uncle Quentin had better tell the professor not to come. However, Professor Haling is already on his way, and he’s bringing his son with him.  The children have also already left home, so there’s nothing for them to do but try to accommodate their guests as well as they can.

It’s not going to be an easy visit.  Uncle Quentin and Professor Haling both want quiet to discuss their work, but the professor’s nine-year-old son, Tinker, is obsessed with cars and keeps making noises to imitate them.  Tinker has also brought his pet monkey, Mischief, with him.  At first, Mischief and George’s dog, Timmy, don’t get along with each other.  The animals eventually make peace with each other, but Uncle Quentin and Professor Haling decide that they can’t put up with the children’s noise.  Uncle Quentin insists that Aunt Fanny send the children away somewhere so they can continue their important work. 

Aunt Fanny doesn’t like it that such important men, who are admittedly working on things that will help people, don’t seem as interested in making their families happy, and George points out the hypocrisy that Uncle Quentin can’t stand their noise when he often slams doors that interrupt her studies and that he wants to push her out of the home where she lives, too.  Aunt Fanny says that part of the problem is that George and her father are too much alike, but the noise issue and overcrowding in the house are still problems that have to be solved.

The children ask if they can go camping, but Aunt Fanny says that it’s too cold for that.  Tinker suggests that they could all go to his lighthouse. They ask him what he means by “his” lighthouse, and Tinker happily explains that he owns a lighthouse. Actually, his father bought it when he was working on an important project and wanted a quiet place to stay where he wouldn’t be interrupted by phone calls or visitors or other distractions. When his project was finished, he no longer cared about the lighthouse, but Tinker love it, so his father gave him the key and told him that it could be his lighthouse now. The other children are amazed at the idea of a private lighthouse, and they agree to go there. Aunt Fanny agrees to let them go, and they begin planning for the trip. It’s at a place called Demon’s Rocks.

On the way to the lighthouse, their taxi driver, who was born at Demon’s Rocks tells them a little about the history and legends of the place. He says that it’s called Demon’s Rocks because there are formidable rocks there that people say could only have been placed by demons. The old lighthouse was meant to steer ships away from the rocks, but one time, some wreckers captured the lighthouse keeper and turned off the light to intentionally wreck a ship so they could raid the wreck for its cargo. The driver says that his great-grandfather still lives in the area, and if they ask him, he can tell them more stories about the place and maybe show them the cave where the wreckers used to hide out.

When the children meet the taxi driver’s great-grandfather, Jeremiah, he is an eccentric old man, but he likes children and even knows how to get along with Mischief the monkey. The children ask him about the wreckers, and he tells them the story about how One-Ear Bill and his wreckers put out the light in the lighthouse and used a lamp to misdirect a ship to make it crash. Jeremiah says he witnessed what they did and reported them, sending One-Ear Bill to prison. But, he says that One-Ear Bill didn’t care that much about going to prison because he hid the treasure that he took from the wrecked ship and expected to be rich when he got out. However, he died in prison, and nobody ever found the hidden treasure. The relatives of the other wreckers have tried to find it, but nobody has ever succeeded. The children are fascinated by the story and ask Jeremiah if he will show them the wreckers’ cave, and he agrees to show them sometime.

A local shopkeeper says that there is a kind of rivalry between Jeremiah and the descendants of the wreckers because the wreckers’ descendants make a marginal living by giving paid tours of the wreckers’ cave. The children don’t really expect that there’s still a treasure hidden in or around the cave. They think that, probably, someone found the treasure years ago and didn’t tell anyone or that the treasure might have been in some insecure spot and got washed out to sea.

However, strange things soon start happening. Someone steals the key to the lighthouse when Tinker leaves it in the lock and some other things from the lighthouse. The local police discover one of the wreckers’ descendants, Jacob, stole the things from the lighthouse, and the children get them back, but they can’t find the key on Jacob.

Then, when Jeremiah gives the children a tour of the cave, Mischief gets lost and finds a gold coin. The children aren’t sure where Mischief found the coin or if there are any others, but they begin to think that maybe the treasure is still in the cave after all. They also begin to consider that there may be a tunnel that leads from the lighthouse to the cave. However, someone else seems to have the same idea, and they’re trying to stop the children from finding the treasure before they do!

My Reaction

Part of the concept of the Famous Five series is that the children are very independent and have adventures that are unsupervised by adults. Children like stories about independent kids, but as an adult, I’m still struck by the family relationships the children have. I’ve noticed that the adults in Enid Blyton’s stories often have personal issues or dysfunctional relationships.

The reason why the children are having their independent adventure in this story is that the children’s fathers are too absorbed in their work and bothered by the presence of the children, so they just want them out of the house. Although George likes having adventures with her cousins, she does feel a little resentful that her father is basically pushing her and the others out of the house. I particularly noticed the part where Aunt Fanny reflects that important men who are working on things that will help people, don’t seem as interested in making their families happy. Uncle Quentin seems oblivious about the effect he has on his family, and when the children are getting ready to go to the lighthouse, he seems confused about where they are going, apparently having even forgotten that they were going anywhere. I keep getting the feeling that part of the reason why the children are so independent is that the adults in their family aren’t particularly nurturing and don’t make their home lives very pleasant.

Tinker’s home life isn’t terribly happy, either. His father is very permissive, letting him have a pet monkey and even giving him the lighthouse, but he also seems pretty oblivious to the things Tinker does. The other children find out that Tinker’s mother died giving birth to him, and with his father so utterly absorbed in his work, Tinker hasn’t had much supervision or guidance in how to behave, which is why he’s so wild. Tinker’s father takes him places and lets him have things or do things that other children can’t, but he doesn’t seem to get much personal attention or affection from his father. At one point, the other children are sending post cards home, and Tinker says there’s no point in sending one to his father because he won’t read it. That says a lot, and the other children feel sorry for him.

What I’m saying is, while I like the adventure and would have loved that sense of freedom as a kid, as an adult, I recognize that behind the children’s independence in many of the stories are some unresolved family issues and self-absorbed adults. The adults don’t worry as much about the children as most parents would, not only because they trust them on their own, but because they seem too absorbed in their own issues to think that much about what the children are doing and what could happen to them. The children go to boarding school much of the time, but their parents don’t seem too eager to spend time with them and bond as a family during their breaks, content to let them go off by themselves so they can get back to what they were doing. This also seems to be the case in other series by Blyton, like the Adventure series, which starts off with a pair of siblings going to stay with an aunt and uncle who seem to have a dysfunctional marriage and a pair of orphans who live with a strict uncle who seems to see them as a nuisance. Since the kids are fictional and the children’s circumstances are only there to set up their adventures, it’s not that big of an issue to enjoying the adventure, but yet, as an adult, these things do jump out at me.

Five Go to Mystery Moor

The Famous Five

Five Go to Mystery Moor by Enid Blyton, 1954, 1974.

The girls, George and Anne are attending a riding school, and the boys, Julian and Dick, are camping when George receives a letter that her father is ill, and her mother wants the girls to stay on at the riding school for a while longer. The girls are disappointed and think that the boys will probably stay on at their camp, but they soon get a letter that the boys will be coming to the riding school to join the girls. The children are hoping that they will find another adventure when they’re all together again.

At the riding school, George has developed a rivalry with another girl called Henry. Henry’s real name is Henrietta, like George’s real name is Georgina, and like George, Henry likes to dress and act like a boy. However, rather than bonding over their shared interests and styles, George and Henry resent each other. (George makes a big deal of not liking to be a girl and wanting other people to look at her and refer to her as a boy. I’ve wondered whether the implication is that she’s actually transgender, without using that word to describe her, or if she’s merely a tomboy who things girl things are sissy stuff. Enid Blyton’s books are often full of the implication that boys are tougher and braver than girls, and it seems to be a mark of praise for a girl to be like a boy. In this particular book, it seems like both George and Henry are trying hard to be “not like other girls“, and the reason why they resent each other is that they’re both disgruntled to realize that at least one other girl is like them, making each of them seem less exceptional. They each seem to feel like the other is horning in on their shtick.) In spite of the rivalry between George and Henry, the other children like Henry. Eventually, George and Henry settle their differences. Henry joins the other children on some of their rides and explorations.

While the children are still at the riding school, a gypsy boy comes to the stables with an injured horse, asking for help. (They’re referred to as “gypsies” all throughout the book, although that’s considered a kind of insult. The proper name is really Romani, and they’re also sometimes called “Travelers.” The name “Gypsy” comes from an earlier misunderstanding that their ancestors were originally from Egypt, kind of like how Native Americans were mistakenly referred to as “Indians”, and the name stuck. I only use the word “gypsy” here because the author does, and I want to make sure that fans of the original book understand what I’m talking about. This note is here to clarify the difference. Gypsies are stock characters in Enid Blyton books, and they’re all pretty stereotypical.) The boy is told that it will take a few days before the horse is able to walk, let alone pull a caravan wagon. The boy is very upset because his father has a nasty temper, and he’s not willing to wait. The other children soon see how abusive the boy’s father is, and they’re sympathetic to him. Julian and Dick catch the father trying to steal a horse or reclaim his in spite of its injury during the night. When they ask him why he needs a horse so badly and can’t wait until his is properly healed, and he tells them that his group needs to go to Mystery Moor. Seeing that he’s not going to get another horse, the father decides to move on with other members of their party, leaving his son behind to tend to their horse and catch up to them when he can.

Julian, Dick, George, and Anne are intrigued by Mystery Moor, although they can’t imagine what could be there that would make someone so desperate to go there. The name of the place intrigues them, and they are told that it used to be called Misty Moor until some strange things happened there years ago. A wealthy family established a sand quarry there and built a small railroad line that crossed the moor, but they had a dispute with the gypsies who lived on the moor. The gypsies sabotaged the railroad, and when the sons of the family went to deal with the situation, they all vanished and were never seen again. The local rumor is that the gypsies probably murdered the sons, but nothing was ever proven, and to be honest, nobody really misses the sons because they weren’t nice to anybody else, either.

The children think that this is the adventure that they’ve been looking for, and when the riding school becomes crowded because of the arrival of new students, they decide that they want to go camping on Mystery Moor. They look forward to heading out onto the moor to see if they can find any traces of what happened to the missing family. However, there’s a modern mystery on the moor as well. The children spot a plane that flies low and circles the area, seemingly guided by a mysterious light. The children discover that the plane dropped a package, and that package is stuffed with packets of US money! Who would drop that much money from an airplane, and who was supposed to come pick it up?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). There is also an audiobook on YouTube. As the cover of the book notes, the Famous Five series was made into a television series, and you can sometimes find clips or episodes on YouTube.

My Reaction and Spoilers

Old and New Versions

I find that many of Enid Blyton’s mystery/adventure stories, no matter which series, are very much on par with Stratemeyer Syndicate books (Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, etc.), especially the earlier ones. On the one hand, they contain many of the elements that children love in stories – mystery and adventure, independence from parents and other adults, spooky and mysterious happenings, kids who save the day, and a lovable dog. On the other, both Enid Blyton’s books and the Stratemeyer Syndicate books were revised in later reprintings to update the language and to remove or alter racially-insensitive and offensive terms.

I didn’t know how much some of the Stratemeyer books I read as a kid had changed from their original versions because I was born in the late 20th century, after many of these revisions had already taken place and didn’t read some of the original editions until I was an adult. I was surprised. Since I grew up in the US, I didn’t read any Enid Blyton books as a child at all. They’re available here, but not nearly as popular as the various Stratemeyer Syndicate series, and many American children don’t know about them at all. I’d heard of Enid Blyton books because they were referred in other books and movies I saw, but I didn’t read any until I was an adult. By that time, I wasn’t too shocked at some of the more problematic parts of the books.

“Gypsy” isn’t really a shocking word for me because there’s less emotional baggage attached to that word from the time and place where I grew up than there is attached to certain other racial words that I’d rather not mention. When I was a kid, I thought it was a more neutral, generic word than it really is, although someone did explain to me at some point what the name comes from and that it’s not really the proper name. However, when you find out that something really bothers people or that they don’t want to be called certain things, it’s better to just call them whatever they like to call themselves. I think the later reprintings of this book use the word Traveller (British spelling) instead, like this audiobook on YouTube.

As with Stratemeyer Syndicate books, I think the revised reprintings are fine for modern children, and the earlier versions are best kept for adults with an interest in vintage and nostalgic children’s literature. I find these books interesting particularly because they have the classic setup of a mystery-solving group of children and their dog, just like the Scooby-Doo mysteries, which is something that I grew up loving! The Scooby-Doo mysteries have a similar format to the Famous Five, and the working title for the original concept of the cartoon series was Mysteries Five, which might be an indication that the writers had Enid Blyton’s books in mind.

Interesting Information

One interesting piece of trivia is that the book discusses patrins, signs that the Travellers leave for each other to indicate which way they’re going. During the course of the story, the Traveller boy leaves patrins to help the other children.

The Mystery and spoilers

Like many vintage children’s mysteries, the story leans a little more toward adventure than mystery. The Travellers are definitely the ones who are there to get the dropped packets of money, and that’s why they were so worried about getting out on the moor in time. The real mystery is why they’re doing this and where the money comes from.

Toward the end of the book, the police reveal that the money is counterfeit, and that’s why it had to be smuggled into the country. Henry is helpful to the others at a point when they’re in danger, and that helps George to reconcile with her. Because the Traveller boy’s father is abusive and is about to be arrested for smuggling counterfeit money, he is likely to be sent to a foster home, which is actually good news for him because he was unhappy with his father and afraid of him. He says he would like to live a settled life in a house where he can ride his bike to school, and George promises to give him a bicycle as a reward for helping them when they needed it.

Five Go Off in a Caravan

The Famous Five

Five Go Off in a Caravan by Enid Blyton, 1946.

The children (Julian, Dick, Ann, George) and their dog, Timmy, are all looking forward to the summer holidays.  They’re not sure what they want to do, but they think that it would be more fun to go somewhere without the adults instead of going home, but they can’t think of anywhere they can go without adults.  They doze off in the sun while talking about it, but Timmy wakes them when a circus procession passes by.

The children are fascinated by the circus and call to a boy traveling with them, Nobby, asking him where they’re going to be performing.  Nobby says that the circus is on a break, and they’re going to be spending some time at a lake that allows them to camp there with their animals.

As the children watch the caravans of the circus going by, they think that it would be great if they could hire a caravan (horse-drawn travel trailer) and travel in it themselves.  They have a horse, Dobby, who could pull one.  The children ask their mother if they can hire a caravan, and she says that she’ll have to talk to their father about it.  It turns out that their father needs to go up north for part of the summer and wants their mother to come with them, so he thinks that it’s alright if the children want to take a caravan and camp out while they’re away.  The parents decide that the children will need to hire two caravans and borrow an extra horse because they don’t think one caravan will be enough for the four children and their dog, and they insist that the children sent them a message every day to tell them where they are and how they’re doing.

As the children discuss their plans in more detail, they decide that it will be fun to go to the lake where the circus is and get to know Nobby better.  Nobby lives with his uncle, who is the chief clown of the circus, and the children didn’t like what they saw of him before because he didn’t seem jolly at all, but they think it would be fun to be friends with Nobby and get another look at the circus animals. 

The children are eager to get started, but their parents make them pack and plan properly.  When the caravans arrive, the girls choose the red one, and the boys get the green one.  The girls take the new horse, Trotter, and the boys take Dobby for their caravan.  The adults give the children a map of places where they’re allowed to camp.  On their way to the lake, the children camp on farms that allow caravans.

When the children arrive at the lake, Nobby is glad to see them, and he introduces them to his chimpanzee, Pongo, and his terriers, Barker and Growler.  Nobby is friendly, but his Uncle Dan (called Tiger Dan) and Lou the acrobat are rough and unfriendly and don’t want the kids around.  When the children camp near the circus that night, Tiger Dan and Lou try to run them out of the campgrounds, but the children send their dog after them.  The campgrounds are public property, and there isn’t any reason why the children can’t be there.  The children think that Tiger Dan and Lou stumbled on their campsite by accident when they were trying to have some kind of secret meeting.

The next day, the children decide to go camp in the hills, as they had already planned because they know it will be cooler in the hills.  Lou takes an interest in where the children are going, but they don’t want to tell him much because they don’t want Lou and Tiger Dan coming after them to harass them again.  They find a nice place to camp up in the hills on some land belonging to a pleasant farmer and his wife, who also provide the children with food.

However, it isn’t long before Tiger Dan and Lou locate the children’s campsite and try to talk them out of camping at that spot also.  Nobby doesn’t know why Tiger Dan and Lou are up in the hills anyway.  The circus people have been buying some of their food from the farmer, but Nobby says that it’s always the women who go to the farm to buy things, not the men.  It seems like Tiger Dan and Lou are up to something suspicious, but the children don’t know what.

Then, suddenly, the men seem to change their views of the children, encouraging Nobby to be friends with them and to bring the children to visit the circus camp.  The children are suspicious and leave Timmy to guard their caravans while they visit the circus camp, just in case the men try to mess with their camp while they’re gone.  When they return to their own camp, the children discover that the men have tried to poison Timmy with tainted meat!  Fortunately, Timmy didn’t eat the meat, but unfortunately, one of Nobby’s dogs eats some and is violently ill.  The children aren’t sure whether the little dog will survive or not, and they don’t know why the bad men want to get rid of them so badly that they would try to kill their dog.  Whatever’s going on is serious, and they need to get to the bottom of it!

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

My Reaction

Traveling without parental supervision is the stuff of vintage children’s books and the dreams of children from every era! The kids in the Famous Five series have far more independence that modern children have, and in fact, the authorities might be concerned about children their age traveling without their parents. Actually, I would think that few adults even at the time of the writing of this book would even consider letting their children travel alone like that. That’s part of the appeal of this type of story, children being able to do things that real children never do.

I didn’t like the part about the dog being poisoned because I always hate it when bad things happen to animals in stories, but don’t worry! Nobby’s dog is fine in the end!

The Castle of Adventure

Enid Blyton’s Adventure Series

The Castle of Adventure by Enid Blyton, 1946.

Since the children’s last adventures, Philip and Dinah’s mother has used the children’s reward money to buy a home for them, so the children won’t have to continue staying with their aunt and uncle on school holidays.  They’ve also invited their friends, Jack and Lucy-Ann, to live with them, so they don’t have to return to their uncle’s house.  Now, the girls go to the same boarding school, and the boys go to their boarding school, and they’re all together on holidays.

When the children are out of school for the summer again, they and their mother go to stay in a cottage near an old castle on a hill.  The children are fascinated by the castle, but their mother doesn’t want them going near it because local people tell sinister stories about it.  She doesn’t explain about their stories, but she seems to think that it might be dangerous.  However, she does agree that the children can go have a look at an eagle’s nest near the castle, knowing how Jack feels about birds.  The children realize that they can use that to get a look at the castle anyway.

They make friends with a local girl named Tassie.  They call Tassie a “wild girl” because she’s a gypsy, has a pet fox, and runs around in old, dirty clothes and without shoes (she carries shoes with her but doesn’t wear them) and seems uneducated.  She doesn’t seem to know what an eagle is or what a bath is (although the children’s mother insists that she get one).  (No, I don’t believe that she’s ignorant for being a gypsy. I think it’s both a stereotype and a plot device.)  However, Tassie knows the area very well and helps the children find their way around.  Tassie is also afraid of the castle.  When the children ask her what stories people tell about the castle, she says that an evil man used to live there, and people would come to see him and never be seen again.  Still, the children want to explore the castle.

When they explore the castle, they find a water pump with a puddle beneath it, indicating that someone has been there recently to prime and use the pump.  Jack also realizes that the eagles in the next have a young eaglet who looks like it’s about ready to fly.  He persuades the children’s mother to let him build a hide (camouflaged shelter) so he can camp out and watch the birds.

While camping out, he realizes that there’s someone else in the castle besides himself.  At night, he hears someone moving around and using the pump, and he thinks he sees a flashing light, like someone signaling to someone else.  In the morning, he thinks maybe he dreamed it, but Lucy-Ann mentions seeing the flashing light.  Lucy-Ann thought that Jack was signaling to her, but Jack realizes that it was someone else and that he wasn’t dreaming.

Exploring the castle further, he finds a hidden room with old furniture and armor and realizes that someone has been hiding there.  Later, he sees some strange men in the castle and hears them speaking a language that he doesn’t recognize.  Who are they and what are they doing there?  Could they have something to do with the assignment that their friend Bill, an undercover investigator, is doing in a town nearby?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). It was also made into a tv movie serial. You can see it on YouTube.

My Reaction

Like other Enid Blyton books, there are racial issues in this book that were changed in reprintings. Enid Blyton books often feature stereotypical gypsies (more politely called Romany or Travelers these days) as characters and plot devices. Tassie is a pleasant and helpful character but still stereotypical.

I like the setting for the story. A supposedly abandoned castle makes an exciting place for our young heroes to explore. Even with the references to spooky stories about the place, the kids never really believe that the castle might be haunted. They very quickly realize that there are living people who have been hanging around the place. The sort of sinister characters using the place as a hideout are the same sort of villain characters as in the first book, which brings the kids’ friend Bill back into the story.

I enjoyed the movie serialization of the book, and I thought that it followed the story of the book well.

Island of Adventure

Enid Blyton’s Adventure Series

Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton, 1944.

Philip Mannering is spending part of his summer holidays at the home of one of his teachers, doing some extra studying, which is a bit depressing.  He has fallen behind in school because he recently suffered from Scarlet Fever and Measles, and he is trying to catch up.  He’s not the only boy studying at the teacher’s home, but he isn’t really friends with the others.

One day, he’s doing some studying on the hillside and hears a strange voice telling him to shut the door and not whistle.  There is no door on the hillside, and he wasn’t whistling.  Philip is very confused until he realizes that the voice is coming from a big, white parrot sitting in a tree.  Then, he hears a child’s voice calling the parrot from the garden of the teacher’s house.  Philip is happy, thinking that another boy has joined the study group, but it turns out that he’s only half right.

The voice in the garden belongs to Lucy-Ann Trent, who isn’t a student and isn’t there to study.  Her brother, Jack, is the one who needs to catch up in school because he never focuses on his studies.  Jack has only one interest in life, and that’s birds.  Jack owns the parrot, Kiki, and wants to be an ornithologist when he grows up.  He is bright but disinterested in anything that isn’t related to his chosen field.  Lucy-Ann is only there to spend time with him and keep him company while he gets extra tutoring.  The two of them are orphans.  They don’t remember their parents because they died in a plane crash when the children were very small.  Most of the time, they live at boarding school, which is why they don’t spend as much time together as they like.  Usually, during their holidays, they live with a fussy uncle, which is why the parrot is always barking orders at the children.

Philip also usually lives with an aunt and uncle when he’s not at school.  His father is dead. His mother is still alive, but she spends most of the time working at her art agency.  He also has a sister named Dinah, but they don’t usually get along.  Philip is surprised at how well Jack and Lucy-Ann get along with each other because he’s always fighting with his sister, who has a temper. (Although, admittedly, he does push Dinah to lose her temper.)  Strangely, Philip finds himself wishing that Dinah were also there because, when he becomes friends with Jack and Lucy-Ann, it occurs to him that she would nicely round out the group.

Philip, Jack, and Lucy-Ann become friends by bonding over their shared love of animals. Philip likes the parrot and tells Jack and Lucy-Ann that they would probably like his aunt and uncle’s house because they live by the sea, and there are many sea birds in the area.  Philip doesn’t know much about birds in general, but he likes collecting various small pets, including mice and caterpillars.  The teacher isn’t too happy about these animals because they disrupt study sessions.

Then, Jack and Lucy-Ann get a letter saying that they’re going to have to continue staying with the teacher through the rest of the summer because their uncle has broken his leg and can’t take them back.  The children aren’t happy about that and neither is the teacher because he had other plans after the summer tutoring session ended, even though the uncle has provided a generous check for the children’s care.

Then, Philip has a wonderful idea: maybe Jack and Lucy-Ann can come visit him and his sister at his aunt and uncle’s house.  Dinah has written to him that she’s bored and lonely and misses him, even though they usually fight.  She would like the company, and Philip knows that his aunt and uncle could use the money the children’s uncle is willing to offer for their boarding.  Jack and Lucy-Ann like that idea, but they’re not sure that their uncle and teacher would agree to let them go because they don’t know Philip’s aunt and uncle, and they think maybe Philip’s aunt and uncle wouldn’t want two strange children staying with them.  The children know their plan would be best for everyone, but since they’re not sure that they can persuade the adults, they take the attitude that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission and plot for Jack and Lucy-Ann to run away and join Philip on the train home.  Jack and Lucy-Ann secretly send their trunks to the train station along with Philip’s and tell the teacher that they’re just going down to the station to say goodbye to Philip when he goes.  Then, they quietly buy their train tickets and leave.

When the children arrive at Philip’s home, Aunt Polly is irritated because she isn’t prepared for unexpected guests.  There are no rooms or beds for them, and she says that they can’t stay.  However, she is surprisingly won over by Kiki, who says, “Poor Polly!” over and over in a sad tone.  Not knowing that Kiki is also sometimes called Polly, Aunt Polly thinks that the bird knows her name.  She often feels overworked and rarely gets any sympathy, so she appreciates this gesture from Kiki, who repeats the phrase more often, seeing that it pleases Aunt Polly.  Aunt Polly is also charmed that Polly tells people to get a handkerchief when they sniffle or sneeze because she’s always saying that to Dinah.  When she telephones the children’s teacher to discuss the situation and learns about the fee the children’s uncle is willing to pay for caring for the children, she decides that maybe the children can stay after all.  The relieved teacher promises to endorse the check over to her.

Aunt Polly is relieved to get the extra money, and she reveals to the children that she’s been very worried about expenses because Philip and Dinah’s mother has been ill and hasn’t been able to send the money she usually sends from her job.  Her doctor says that she’s run-down and needs a rest, but her job is an important source of money to the whole family.  Everyone is relying on her, but since she hasn’t been able to send her usual support money for the children, Aunt Polly is worried about how she will afford the children’s school fees.  Philip bravely says that he’s willing to quit school and get a job instead to help out the family, but Aunt Polly says he’s still too young.  Philip has wished before that he was old enough to be the man of the family and provide for his mother.  His uncle isn’t much help with money and doesn’t pay attention to family expenses, too absorbed in his academic work.  Aunt Polly says that the money she’ll get from boarding the Trent children will help out.

Philip says that part of the trouble is that the house where they live is really too large. About half the house is crumbling into ruins from neglect, and the other half is really too big for Aunt Polly to maintain.  Aunt Polly agrees but says that moving would be difficult because few people would want a house like this one, crumbling and located in a rather lonely spot along the coast.  Besides, the children’s uncle loves it because he knows all the history of the area, and he wouldn’t want to leave.  Philip thinks the only thing that will really help is when he and Dinah are old enough to get jobs.  Then, the two of them will be able to help their mother afford a place for three of them.

Philip’s aunt and uncle have a gloomy man named Joe working for them, and he tells the children that the tower room where the boys will sleep on an old mattress (a prospect that seems adventurous to them instead of an inconvenience) isn’t a good room because it’s the only room where they can see the Isle of Gloom.  He says that bad things are associated with the Isle of Gloom because bad people who did terrible things lived there.  Jack asks Philip about the Isle of Gloom.  Philip says that it’s difficult to see, even from the tower room, and it’s always covered in mist.  Nobody lives there now.  Jack thinks it sounds great because the birds on the island have probably never seen people before and won’t be afraid of them, so he could get some amazing pictures.  He thinks maybe he’ll even find some rare birds.  Philip says that he and Dinah have never been there before themselves, and he’s not sure whether there are birds there or not. 

Staying at the house by the sea isn’t easy.  All of the children are expected to help with the chores.  There is no electricity, and they use oil lamps that need to be cleaned.  The water has to be pumped from a well.  Still, Jack and Lucy-Ann think that it’s just part of the adventure.  They enjoy going swimming and fishing with Philip and Dinah, and Jack has fun bird-watching, but Joe the handyman is always spying on them and acting creepy.  He keeps telling the children spooky stories about things lurking in the dark.  For some reason, Joe tries to discourage the children from exploring the area or going out in a boat, but they soon make an interesting discovery. 

While the children are exploring a cave, Philip teases Dinah, and she hits him.  He stumbles back and ends up in a hidden tunnel.  Philip and Jack explore the tunnel and discover that it leads to some carved stone steps and trapdoor that leads up to a storeroom that’s part of the cellars at the house.  Philip says that he never knew this part of the cellar existed.  The boys discover that the door to the storeroom is usually hidden by boxes, but Joe has the key and comes in.  Kiki, who is with Jack as usual, makes some sounds that terrify Joe, who thinks that there are strange and spooky things in the cellar.  The boys think that it’s hilarious that Joe got scared when he’s always trying to scare them.  They steal the key that Joe left in the door so they can come and go whenever they like, but they wonder why Joe even hides the door to the storeroom in the first place.  Philip is sure that even his aunt doesn’t know about that storeroom, or she would have mentioned it before.

Joe is definitely doing something suspicious, going out at night in a boat, fearful that the children will find out what he’s doing. The children make friends with a nice man named Bill, who is staying in an old shack nearby. Bill says that he’s there for bird-watching, but he doesn’t seem to know that much about birds or talk about them as much as Jack does. Bill has a boat and takes the children out sailing, but he doesn’t want to take them to the island and warns them to be careful of Joe. Does Bill know something the children don’t, or does he have some dangerous secrets of his own?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). It was first published in Britain, and some US copies use the title Mystery Island instead. The book was made into a movie in the 1980s, and you can see it on YouTube. The movie has John Rhys-Davies as one of the villains.

My Reaction

First, I’d like to get it off my chest that I didn’t like many of the family relationships throughout the book. Aunt Polly’s marriage is a little disturbing because she doesn’t have enough money to run the household, but her husband not only says that he has none to give her and wouldn’t give her any even if he did have money. He doesn’t seem to care about the welfare of either Polly, who is eventually revealed to have a heart condition, or the children in his care. He buries himself in his study most of the time and has almost no idea of what’s going on in the rest of the house or even who’s there. He’s not just obsessed with his studies, but at times, it seems like he’s deliberately hostile toward everyone else, including his wife, like their existence in the house is a terrible inconvenience to him.

I didn’t like the way Philip and Dinah were portrayed as always fighting physically in the book. Admittedly, my brother and I got into physical fights when we were little, but Dinah is twelve years old, and Philip is older than she is. Both of them seem to be too old to be acting the way they do in the story. Dinah is very emotional and has a hair-trigger temper, and Philip, knowing this, intentionally baits her into losing his temper. He likes to put creepy-crawly creatures on her or act like he’s going to, knowing she doesn’t like it and that she’ll react, and then he’s not happy when she lashes out and hits him. While Dinah shouldn’t react by hurting people physically, I could sort of understand it if she constantly has to put up with this from Philip. Living with someone who is always baiting you and escalating his behavior until you break would probably leave anyone broken in the end, and I can’t help but think that Dinah’s emotions would stabilize more if she didn’t have to deal with someone always trying to throw her off balance. Maybe she’d still be an emotional person, but I notice that it’s particularly Philip who gets her to fight physically while nobody else does because they don’t bait her into it. I found that sibling relationship kind of disturbing because Philip seems to know exactly what he’s doing, and as I said, he’s too old to be doing this stuff innocently.

Jack and Lucy-Ann seem to have a more fond sibling relationship. Lucy-Ann sometimes seems a little clingy with Jack, but I think that might be because the children are orphans and are not fond of their stern uncle, so they don’t really have anybody else to be close to except each other.

My copy of the book is one of the later editions that had some of the names and language changed to remove racially-problematic aspects of the story. In the original version of the book, the sinister handyman was a black man called Jo-Jo, and his race was unduly emphasized. I prefer the version where he’s just a weird guy named Joe.

The mystery isn’t bad. I knew right away that Joe was suspicious because he kept acting suspiciously, but the mystery is one of those type where it’s not so much about “whodunnit” as about “What is this person doing?” Readers know that Joe is up to something, but it isn’t clear for much of the book what it is. I had a couple of ideas early in the story, but neither was right.

Bill is also an interesting addition to the story. For part of the book, he looks a little suspicious because readers can tell that he’s not the bird-watcher he pretends to be, but he doesn’t seem to be allied with Joe. Bill is actually a good character, although he’s not what he appears to be, and he becomes one of the important characters in other books in the series.

Mystery of the Inca Cave

Mystery of the Inca Cave by Lilla M. Waltch, 1968.

Thirteen-year-old Richard Granville has been living in Peru for the last two years. His family moved from California to a mining town in the Andes because his father is a manager for a mining company. Richard enjoys living in Peru because he’s developed an interest in archaeology and the history of the Incan civilization. Richard feels like the mountains are a connection to the distant past, and he loves the historical feel of the place. His parents don’t understand how he feels and would rather see him work harder at his schoolwork instead of spending all of his time exploring the mountains. Richard’s father tells him that he won’t become an archaeologist if he doesn’t apply himself to his studies, and his mother worries that something could happen to him in the mountains. They think he should finish school first and then decide if he wants to go into archaeology or not, but Richard’s mind is already made up, and he doesn’t want to waste this golden opportunity to do what he loves most right now. Richard feels hurt that his parents don’t really listen to him, don’t share his interests, and don’t appreciate the finds he’s already made.

Richard loves to explore the area with his friend, Todd Reilly, and see if they can find pieces of Incan relics. They’ve found some interesting bits of pottery and broken tools, but one day, they make a particularly exciting discovery – an ancient stone road mostly covered with grass. Although Richard knows that there are many other remains of Incan roads, this one is particularly tantalizing because it seems more hidden than most. Richard is fascinated with how neatly the stones of the road fit together so precisely without mortar, and he wonders where the road leads.

The boys explore the old road further, but they discover that at least part of the road was buried in a landslide. Todd doubts that they’ll ever be able to find where the road leads, but Richard wants to keep trying. When they return to the spot to try again, Richard spots the remains of an ancient building! Richard is sure that the building was once a chasqui station (also called tambos), which was a place where Incan messengers could stop, rest, and trade off with other messengers, who would continue to carry messages along the route, like the members of the Pony Express used to trade off with each other. Richard knows that stations like that were placed about 2.5 miles apart along roads, so there might be other stations located along this route.

The boys go a little further and find a stairway leading up the side of a cliff to a cave. On the stairs, Richard finds a small doll. The doll is puzzling because Richard isn’t sure if it’s an Incan relic that somehow managed to survive or if it’s a more modern doll made by the South American Indians in the area. He has trouble believing that any more modern person could have been at this spot recently because it’s pretty isolated and rough territory. It looks like other landslides could happen. He can’t tell his parents about his discovery because they probably wouldn’t let him return to the area to explore it further if they knew how dangerous it was, and he can’t bring himself to abandon the most exciting discovery he’s ever made.

On a trip to the marketplace, Richard and Todd spot a mine foreman, Jeb Harbison, yelling at a boy in Quechua. He stops as soon as he sees the other boys watching, and they wonder what that was about. Then, the boys spot a merchant selling dolls that are similar to the one they found at the ruins. They ask the merchant where the dolls came from and who made them, and he gives them the name of the doll maker, a woman named Deza. Todd thinks that the most likely explanation for the doll they found is that some young girl living in the area got a doll from the same doll maker, and she lost it while playing around the cave. However, Richard doesn’t think that’s likely because the cave is such an out-of-the-way place, not somewhere a young child could easily reach alone.

On another visit to the area of their discovery, the boys find a mine shaft that doesn’t belong to the company their fathers work for, even though it’s on land that they know the company owns. There are signs that someone is actively mining there, but who?

The boys also discover that the activity at the cave is connected to the mine when they see some men there, breaking up rocks and stuffing them inside of little dolls, like the one they found earlier. It seems like the miners are smuggling gold or other minerals in the dolls, but when the boys talk to Richard’s dad about what they’ve seen, the situation points to a possibly larger conspiracy.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive. The book was originally titled Cave of the Incas.

My Reaction

The first thing that I liked about this book was the pieces of information about the ancient Incas. Our knowledge of ancient civilizations has increased since the 1960s, but the information in this book is still good. I liked the book’s descriptions of Inca building techniques, how they used closely-fitted stones instead of mortar, and how their system of messengers was organized. There are also points where the characters notice parallels between the way the ancient Incas lived and the way their descendants live, such as their system of cooperative farming.

However, this story is also about human relationships as well as adventure, mystery, and ancient civilizations. Through most of the book, Richard is troubled about his relationship with his parents, especially his father. His parents are frustrated with him because he is absorbed by his interest in archaeology and exploring the countryside and isn’t applying himself to his schoolwork. At the same time, Richard hates it that his parents don’t understand what interests him and only seem to want him to focus on what they want. They’re having a clash of priorities.

When I was a kid, I hated homework with a vengeance. That might be a surprising revelation about an adult who willingly does what are essentially book reports on a regular basis as a hobby. Reading is fun. Research produces interesting information. I like knowing things and writing to other people about them. Basically, I was always good at the skills necessary for homework, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem is that there were many other things I wanted to do, and homework got in the way. I didn’t always get to read about what I wanted to read about in school because someone else was always choosing the school material for me, and I frequently hated their choices. Even the arts and crafts weren’t always the ones I wanted to learn, and I was usually told what to make instead of getting to make what I wanted. Because I was a good student, I ended up in the honors classes, so I always had more homework to do than everyone else. I was proud that I was a good student, but at the same time, I also hated it because I found it stifling. I’ve always been interested in many different subjects and handicrafts, but all through my childhood, I felt like I could never just take up all the different projects I wanted to do because I had to do my never-ending supply of homework first. Everything I wanted to do always had to wait. Even after I graduated, it was difficult for me to shake off the feeling that I had to wait on things I wanted to do , which was also kind of irritating.

I could sympathize with Richard’s attitude toward his own studies. He knows what he really wants to do, and he finds it infuriating that his parents want him to put it off and finish his homework and his education first. There is something to be said for making the most of finding himself in the very place he wants to be with direct access to what he knows he wants to study seriously. The move to Peru was an enriching experience for Richard that gave him a direction and life ambition, and I think he would regret it forever if he didn’t use this opportunity to explore it as much as possible. At the same time, though, my adult self knows that there is truth to what Richard’s parents say about his explorations in the mountains. The mountains are dangerous, like Richard’s mother says, and even Richard knows it. Also, Richard’s father is correct that if Richard seriously wants to be a professional archaeologist, he’s going to have to finish his education.

Nobody in modern times becomes a serious, professional archaeologist without a college degree, and even archaeologists need to study things beyond their specialist field. Archaeology isn’t just wandering around, digging, and seeing what you find. You have to recognize what you find, study its context, understand its significance, and know how to treat it to preserve it. You can’t study past lives and interpret artifacts without having real life and world knowledge. Archaeology is also where science and history intersect. Archaeologists need to know mathematics, geology, and how humans are affected by climate (which can and does change over time, for various reasons) and access to resources. There are legal and ethical principles to archaeology that Richard will also have to understand. Archaeologists can also benefit from learning drawing and photography to record and interpret finds and perfecting their writing skills to present their findings to the world. Richard has made a good start in his field of interest, but to get serious about it, he will need more education and greater depth and breadth of knowledge.

As annoying and stifling as homework feels, the skills it imparts are necessary for doing many more interesting things. Getting through the studying phase can be a pain, but sometimes, you really have to lay a solid foundation before you can build something solid on it. I still think that my past school assignments could have been more interesting and less stressful if I’d had more flexibility about them and more time for personal projects in between. However, I have realized over the years that, once you’ve really learned something, you will use it, even if you only use it indirectly as part of something else. I don’t regret learning the things I learned because, as hard as it was along the way, I have used things I learned in more interesting ways later in life. I’ve also realized that, if I had spent less time and emotions complaining about how stifling my homework situations were, I also could have used the time I spent lamenting about homework and procrastinating about it to accomplish some of the other things that I complained that I never had enough time to do. Not all of them, but more than I did when I was too busy being upset and resentful about homework. That’s also a lesson that Richard learns in the story.

At one point, Richard talks to Todd about his relationship with his own father, and Todd says that they get along pretty well. Richard realizes that Todd and his father don’t fight over his studies because Todd is an easy-going type who doesn’t mind doing his homework much and takes care of things without making anybody nag him to do it. Todd just accepts that there are some things that just need to be done, so he doesn’t waste time complaining or procrastinating about them. That’s harder for Richard because he feels the strong pull of what he really wants to do.

Todd admits that he and his parents don’t always get along perfectly because he doesn’t always do what he’s supposed to do. There are times when he leaves messes or physically fights with his brother or talks back to his mother, and his parents get angry or irritated about it. When Richard asks Todd what he does in those instances, Todd says that, eventually, after the initial argument, he typically apologizes or cleans up his mess or does whatever he needs to do to fix the situation. Todd’s reasoning is that, while people aren’t perfect and don’t always do what they should, “when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.” He accepts that, sometimes, he screws up and needs to do something to fix it without getting too overwrought about having been in the wrong. He sees it as just a normal part of life. When it happens, he can correct himself and move past it.

In the case of Richard and his father, each of them has to admit to being a little wrong and accept that the other is partly right. Both of them have to do some work to fix their relationship. Richard has to admit to his father that he does need to continue his education and apply himself to getting his work done. In return, his father needs to try harder to understand Richard’s interest in archaeology and allow him some time and opportunities to make the most of his time in Peru, getting the firsthand knowledge and experience he needs for the future he really wants and that won’t come from the standard classes he’s taking.

Through their adventures in the course of the story, Richard and his father come to a better understanding of each other and have an honest conversation about how to manage the conflicts in their relationship. Richard’s father admits that he needs to stop looking at his son as being just a younger version of himself and to see Richard for the independent person he is, with his own interests and goals in life. Meanwhile, Richard connects somewhat to his father’s interests through their investigation of the illegal mining operation he and Todd discovered.

This mystery story is a little unusual for children’s books, where kids often investigate mysteries on their own, having adventures without the adults, because Richard’s father joins the boys in their investigations and he stands up for them and what they’ve discovered when their discovery is challenged. The shared adventure becomes a bonding experience for Richard and his dad. At the end of the story, Richard’s father helps Richard connect with a museum curator, who helps the whole family to see the true value and significance of Richard’s archaeological finds. The curator also emphasizes to Richard that, while he has the potential to excel in his chosen field, he’s going to have to study and move on to higher education to get where he wants to go. Richard agrees, now having a greater understanding of its importance and satisfied that his parents understand the direction he’s chosen for his life.

The Illyrian Adventure

The Illyrian Adventure by Lloyd Alexander, 1986.

This is the first book in the Vesper Holly series. Vesper Holly is like a female Young Indiana Jones.

The story begins in 1872, when Professor Brinton Garrett and his wife, Mary, receive a letter saying that Professor Garrett’s colleague, Dr. Holly, has died overseas. Dr. Holly named Professor Garrett as executor of his will, gave him the rights to organize his person papers for publication, and made him the guardian of his 16-year-old daughter, Vesper. When Professor Garrett and his wife arrive at Dr. Holly’s country estate in Pennsylvania to meet Vesper and take charge, they at first expect that they will have to comfort a timid and grieving orphan. However, Vesper is anything but timid and seems to have gotten over whatever grief she was feeling and has quickly taken charge of the situation. She welcomes the professor and his wife, calling them Uncle Brinnie and Aunt Mary, and she quickly persuades them that, rather than her coming to live with them, it would be better for them to take up residence at the Holly estate, where there is plenty of room and Uncle Brinnie would have full access to her late father’s library and papers. At first, they’re reluctant to leave their own home, but Vesper Holly is practically a force of nature and very difficult to resist.

Vesper is intelligent and multi-talented, with interests in everything from science to women’s rights. (In some ways, she seems kind of like Mary Sue – impossibly talented and skilled at everything, with her main flaws seeming to be that she is difficult for everyone else to keep up with.) Uncle Brinnie quickly realizes that she is a daunting girl to have as his ward, and rather than he and his wife taking charge of her, Vesper has efficiently taken charge of them.

Soon after Professor Garrett and Mary settle in at the Holly estate, Vesper asks Uncle Brinnie if he’s read a piece of classic literature called the Illyriad and if he knows anything about Illyria. Professor Garrett has read this less-known classic piece, and while he’s never been to Illyria, he knows that it’s an incredibly unstable place. While the Illyriad is thought to be mostly legend, Vesper says that her father believed that there was more truth to it than most people know. He believed that the magical army described in the story may actually have been an army of clockwork automatons. Professor Garrett remembers Dr. Holly saying something like that before, but no one in the academic community took the theory seriously, and Professor Garrett says that he thought Dr. Holly had abandoned the idea. Vesper reveals that her father was still working on the theory and that, shortly before his death, he wrote to her, saying that he found something that seemed to support his ideas. Unfortunately, he died before revealing what he found. Vesper says that she wants Uncle Brinnie to take her on an expedition to Illyria so that she can finish her father’s work. Once again, Professor Garrett balks at the idea because of the dangerous political situation in the region, but also once again, Vesper’s powers of persuasion win.

Professor Garrett is sure that they won’t be granted permission to enter the country much less move around Illyria because of the unrest there, but to his astonishment, Vesper gets them permission to do both by writing to the king of Illyria himself. Although the king never met Vesper’s father, he has read Dr. Holly’s research and is fascinated by his theories, which is why he also grants Vesper a personal audience. Before their meeting with the king, Vesper and Professor Garrett are caught up in a riot while touring the city, and someone tries to stab Vesper! Although it could have been an accident during the riot, Vesper is sure that someone deliberately tried to kill her, and she tells the king about it at their meeting. The king is troubled by the news and admits that he had assigned someone to follow Vesper and Professor Garrett to protect them. It’s a failure on the part of his guard that they were attacked anyway.

The king’s vizier immediately says that they have to crack down harder on the native Illyrians, bringing up the cultural and political struggle that has made this country so dangerous. (Don’t worry too much about understanding it. This isn’t a real life historical situation with real groups of people.) Vesper boldly says that it doesn’t make sense to her that one half of the country crack down on the other half of the country, and she advocates for more respect for the native Illyrians and their wishes. The vizier is scandalized at a girl speaking up to the king like that, and the king tells Vesper that the situation isn’t that simple. The king has been trying to modernize and improve the infrastructure of the country with projects like building schools and railroads lines, but each of these projects has been ruthlessly sabotaged, apparently by the native Illyrians. The vizier has suggested hiring outside sources from other countries to complete the projects, but the king still thinks it’s important to keep the projects within the country. Hiring outsiders would be costly and would make Illyria dependent on outsiders. (Right about at this point, I was sure that I fully understood who the real villain of this story was and who was really responsible for the sabotage, and it wasn’t the native Illyrians. However, there is one more important character yet to be introduced.)

The king grants Vesper and Professor Garrett the ability to travel to the village Vesper wants to visit to pick up the trail of her father’s studies, but before they leave the palace, the king introduces them to anther visiting scholar, Dr. Desmond Helvitius. Dr. Helvitius is there to catalog the palace archives and conduct research for a book about the early history of Illyria. Dr. Helvitius says that, based on his studies, he believes that the army from the Illyriad Dr. Holly was researching never existed and was purely imaginary and says that the palace archives, which are thorough and complete, prove it. However, Vesper insists on seeing the archives herself, and she quickly notices that there is a gap in the records. Our heroes ponder what is missing and why Dr. Helvitius doesn’t want anyone to know that anything is missing.

As Vesper and Uncle Brinnie continue in pursuit of Dr. Holly’s theory, there are further attempts on their lives.

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

My Reaction and Spoilers

Although there are themes of history and archaeology in the Vesper Holly stories, I think it’s important to point out that all of the history and archaeology in the stories is fake. The locations they visit are fictional. The series takes place in the Victorian era, but this is not really a historical fiction series because they mostly focus on the history of places that don’t exist. The Indiana Jones and Young Indiana Jones franchise based their adventures on real places, people, artifacts, and legends that exist outside of the franchise, but that’s not the case with Vesper Holly. Really, the Vesper Holly series is just an adventure series. The locations and circumstances only exist to create the opportunities for adventure. That’s fine and fun, as long as readers understand that’s the case.

The name of Illyria comes from an ancient name for a region in the Balkans where people spoke a language that was called Illyrian, but Illyria didn’t exist as a country in the 1870s. People stopped referring to Illyria in the sense of a nation after the Ottomans invaded the region in the 15th century, and that was after it had already been under both Roman and Byzantine control. The term “Illyria” sometimes emerged after that in a cultural sense. The Illyriad doesn’t exist and seems to be based on the real piece of classical literature, the Iliad. I couldn’t find any references to a King Vartan, but there is a St. Vartan or Vardan, who was an Armenian military leader and martyr, who died in 451 AD. The political and social tensions in the story are between the ethnic Illyrians and the Zentans. The captial city of this fictional Illyria is Zenta, and I think it is based on the city now called Senta in modern day Serbia, which was the site of a battle in 1697, where the Ottomans were defeated and lost control of the region. So, my overall impression of the time period and location of the story is that it seems to take place in a sort of alternate reality of the Victorian world, semi-based on real places and historical concepts from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, especially the Balkans, but not adhering strictly to real history so the author could set up the adventure creatively.

The Illyrian characters in the book use words like “dragoman” (a term for a guide and interpreter, usually used in the Near East, particularly in areas with Arabic, Turkish, or Persian influence) and “effendi“, which is an honorific for a man of high status in eastern Mediterranean countries. It’s plausible that these terms would be used in the Balkans in the 19th century, but this isn’t really my area of expertise, so I can’t say how common that would have been.

The adventure in the story is good, and it has an element of mystery that adds an interesting twist to the ending. At the beginning of the story, Vesper and Professor Garrett explain that Dr. Holly had a theory about the historical events behind a legend described in a piece of classical literature. His theory was that this special army described in literature was actually some kind of mechanical or clockwork army, an army composed of something man-made rather than real humans. Professor Garrett and his colleagues never took Dr. Holly’s theory seriously because it does sound rather unbelievable, too technologically advanced for the time when the historical events took place. However, Vesper believes in her father and his theories, and now that he is dead, she wants to investigate and find the proof that her father wanted for the sake of his memory. If they had really found an amazing clockwork army, it would have been an incredible adventure, but I was pleased that what they actually found is a more plausible explanation that would have fit the time period. It turns out that Dr. Holly was half right; the legendary army was not composed of real people, but there is another kind of army that nobody considers until Vesper actually finds it. Legends tend to magnify things out of their original proportions. This particular legend not only exaggerated the army’s capabilities but also its size.

I liked the twists to the story, but Vesper herself got on my nerves a bit. Vesper only really makes sense if you look at her as being the kind of heroine of tall tales. She is overly perfect with no noticeable flaws. She rarely gets frightened or upset at anything, from the death of her own father to being threatened with death herself. She cheerfully pulls her new guardian into dangerous situations, and her guardian can’t even really get angry with her for doing it. Vesper is incredibly persuasive, whether it’s dealing with her guardian or a foreign king, and her guardian is adoring of her and constantly admires her intelligence and abilities. Like Sherlock Holmes with Watson, Uncle Brinnie is always one step behind both Vesper and the readers in figuring things out. Characters who are overly perfect can be a little grating, partly because there are times when they drag their friends into dangerous situations but, somehow, it’s never their fault because they’re perfect. In fiction, this kind of confidence and seeming perfection are strengths, but in real life, over-confidence is a sign of incompetence and lack of awareness. People who charge directly into dangerous situations in real life are just kind of clueless about the dangers they’re plunging into. The books in this series are just meant as fun adventure stories, not serious or true-to-life in either characterization or historical background, so Vesper’s amazing qualities, whether it’s her ability to eat all kinds of strange foods or learn new languages in barely any time at all or to compete intellectually with professional academics who are decades older than she is, fits with the story type. Vesper isn’t mean to be a real person so much as the ultimate teenage adventurer.

Kids can enjoy this teenage heroine who is on top of every situation, can rush into danger without any sense of fear, and gets her way with little argument from anyone. However, I think I would enjoy Vesper more if she did have a few more flaws and limitations. I would have liked it if Vesper had a definite fear of something, like Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes. It could be played for comedy, like in the Indiana Jones movies. I also would have liked it if Professor Garrett could have appeared more sharp than he did and provide more useful knowledge so that Vesper had to depend a little more on him professionally during their expedition. I felt like the story dumbed down the professor a bit so Vesper could appear more brilliant, and I don’t like it when characters are made to look stupid so another character can look more intelligent by comparison.

Vesper’s relationship with her deceased father is never really explained or developed, either. When we first meet her, she is well over being sad about his death and ready to embark on an adventure in his name. I would have liked it if she and her Uncle Brinnie had a heart-to-heart talk about her feelings during their travels. Dr. Holly seems to have spent a significant amount of time away from home or involved in his research work. Vesper is a motherless only child who does not seem to attend a regular school or have friends her own age. I would expect that this unconventional life would have an effect on her development and that she would have feelings about it. I would have liked her to explain more to Brinnie that her eclectic range of knowledge and expertise with languages comes from having been dragged around the world with her father from a young age, from spending time around her father’s professional colleagues and witnessing their discussions with each other, and from becoming an active research assistant to her father because their family consisted of only the two of them, and sharing his interests was a way for them to bond. I picture Dr. Holly reading pieces of classical literature to Vesper as bedtime stories because he would have little or no interest in the typical nursery rhymes or picture books.

If Vesper had more knowledge of ancient history and literature than things typical children know and like, that could also show character quirks and development. It might even be a flaw in the sense that Vesper knows more about how to speak to and relate to professional academics than girls her own age at a time when female academics were often not taken seriously. Vesper occupies an odd position in life but without the obvious awkwardness that would cause in real life. Her confidence and ability to stride forward in situations that would cause anyone else hesitation might actually come from the knowledge that, if she allowed anyone else time to think about what she’s barging into, she would never be able to accomplish what she wants to accomplish because other people wouldn’t accept it. She could be feeling more of the awkwardness of her position more than she lets on, and some discussion of her need to hide her own feelings, act more confident than she feels, or compensate for other people’s feelings about her would add depth to her character. It’s possible that later books in the series develop other sides of her personality and history more, but I would have liked more of that in this book.

Mystery at Kittiwake Bay

Mystery at Kittiwake Bay by Joyce A. Stengel, 2001.

Cassie Hartt has only recently moved to Kittiwake Bay, Maine with her mother and brother following her parents’ divorce. Her mother is a nurse, and she has found a job at the local hospital, which is actually 30 miles away from the little town where they were able to find a house. Because of her mother’s long commute, Cassie will need to look after her 7-year-old brother, Danny. Soon after arriving, she meets a nice boy named Marc Nolan, who is a little older than she is and loves boats, and a girl name Liz Painter, who likes photography and walks her cat on a leash. Liz is the one who introduces Cassie and Danny to the Beachcombers Club, which is a group for kids Danny’s age who like to go swimming and camping and the kids who hang out at the Sand Shack coffee shop. Marc is one of the Sand Shack kids, and so is a boy named Ryan Jerrick, who is Liz’s crush. Cassie is glad to be making friends and starting to get settled into her new home, but soon, there are complications.

One evening, on her way home from the grocery store with her dog, Sam (short for Samson), Cassie sees some mysterious figures sneaking around in the dark. She doesn’t know who they are, but the way they’re sneaking around worries her. She later learns that there have been robberies in the area.

Cassie develops a fascination for the large house that she saw on a cliff near the ocean, and Marc and Ryan tell her that’s a senior citizens’ residence called Waterview Manor. Both of them work there part time. Liz says that the house wasn’t always a senior citizens’ residence and that there are a lot of weird stories about the place. It was built by a rich man before the Civil War, but it became property of the town in the 1950s. One of the stories about the place is that it was once part of the Underground Railroad helping escaped slaves. The boys say that a woman named Mrs. Wentworth says that her grandfather was one of the people helping escaped slaves. There’s also a story about Captain Kidd hiding his treasure somewhere around the old house, although Ryan doesn’t believe any of these stories. He thinks Mrs. Wentworth just tells tall tales. Cassie thinks that she might like to volunteer at the house, like the boys did before they started working there as employees. If her little brother joins the Beachcombers Club, she’ll have some free time for volunteer work.

When Cassie goes to Waterview Manor to sign up, she witnesses an argument between Ryan and Mrs. Wentworth, who is confined to a wheelchair. Ryan was being disrespectful because Mrs. Wentworth was telling one of her stories about the history of the town that Ryan thinks is outlandish, and Mrs. Wentworth was telling him off. Ryan doesn’t actually like working at Waterview, but he has to keep his job because he needs the money. Cassie thinks he’s arrogant. Ryan has no patience for the fetching and carrying he has to do for the older people, and he thinks that Mrs. Wentworth’s mind is going. Cassie thinks that Mrs. Wentworth sounds like she still has her faculties and is sympathetic when Mrs. Wentworth laments about not being able to do things she used to do because her hands and feet won’t obey her anymore. Mrs. Wentworth is physically feeble these days, but she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to local history.

After she signs up to volunteer, Cassie can’t resist a peek into the forbidden East Wing of the house, and she meets Marc there. They both admit that they’re curious about the stories of treasure in the house. Unlike Ryan, Marc believes Mrs. Wentworth’s stories, and Cassie can’t wait to hear more!

Mrs. Wentworth used to be a history teacher, and she does know more about local history than Ryan gives her credit. She tells Cassie how her grandfather used to be a conductor on the Underground Railroad and how his friend, Mr. Palmer, who was the original owner of Waterview Manor, was a stationmaster, which meant that he hosted and hid the escaping slaves that Mrs. Wentworth’s grandfather conducted to him. Mrs. Wentworth’s grandfather told her about a secret room where they used to hide people and a secret tunnel that would take them to the landing site for the boat that would smuggle the runaways to Canada. When Cassie asks her about the story about Captain Kidd hiding his treasure somewhere in the area, Mrs. Wentworth said that her grandfather always believed he did, although Captain Kidd was much older than both her grandfather and the Manor. She explains a little about the life story of Captain Kidd and how it seems that most of his treasure was never found.

However, they soon have a more modern mystery on their hands. Whoever has been stealing things in the area recently seems to have started taking things from Waterview Manor. First, an expensive chess set belonging to one of residents disappears. Then, some jewelry and a coin collection disappear. Then, someone steals Mrs. Wentworth’s beloved lavaliere necklace, a special present from her late husband. For someone to both know about the residents’ valuables and to have access to them, the thief must be somebody working at the Manor! Who, could it be? Is it grumpy Ryan, who needs money? Is it John, another employee, who often acts a little strange? Could it even be helpful Marc, who seems nice but is often lurking around areas where both he and Cassie aren’t supposed to be? Or is it someone else Cassie wouldn’t even think to suspect?

The mysteries of the past start mingling with the mysteries of the present. Cassie sees signal lights from the tower of the old house that remind her of of the signals Mrs. Wentworth said the Underground Railroad used. Is someone now using them for a different purpose?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction

The Underground Railroad is a popular subject in US children’s books. There is something compelling about people sneaking around on clandestine missions and hiding in secret rooms and secrets passages, and since these things were used in the real life Underground Railroad, they make convenient devices for US children’s books with some historical flavor. The former Underground Railroad secret passage in Waterview Manor does play a role in this story. Someone is using it for a new purpose, just like they’re using signals from the tower.

The purpose of the Underground Railroad secret tunnel in the story is also to show that Mrs. Wentworth knows what she’s taking about when she tells her stories about local history. Ryan tries to discount her stories because some of them sound a little far-fetched and dramatic and because he thinks scornfully of the old people he serves in his job. Ryan has a negative attitude and looks at the elderly as being senile and demanding. Cassie feels differently because she has more empathy and, perhaps, because her mother is a nurse, which may make her more aware of the human condition and more comfortable helping other people. She seems to understand what Mrs. Wentworth means when she talks about finding it frustrating that she can’t do things she used to do, and she says that she agrees with Mrs. Wentworth when she says that she likes keeping her hair long even though a nurse at the Manor says it would be easier to care for if she cut it shorter. The nurse is probably thinking that short hair would be easier on those who might have to help Mrs. Wentworth wash and brush it, but Cassie understands when Mrs. Wentworth explains why she likes her hair long. Cassie thinks the people who live at Waterview Manor are interesting, and she admits to her mother that she likes to pretend that they’re her grandparents. She is fascinated by Mrs. Wentworth’s stories, and because she and Marc believe what she says, they are able to get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding the Manor.

I was pretty sure I knew who at least one of the thieves was, and I was also pretty sure I knew why. I was correct in my first guess, but there were enough red herrings along the way to give me some doubts, so there was plenty of suspense in the story. One of them wasn’t fully aware of what he was getting involved with at first, but he does bear responsibility for what he did even after he knew.

This book also deals with the subject of divorce and how it affects families and children. Books like this were once rare, but they have been very common staples of children’s literature since the late 20th century, reflecting changes in American society and a growing willingness to discuss difficult topics with children. Moving to a new state and starting over after the divorce wasn’t easy for Cassie, her mother, and her brother. Cassie quickly becomes interested in the history of her new town, and it doesn’t take her long to find some new friends and a volunteer activity to keep her occupied. However, other aspects of the changes in her life and family will take longer to get used to. Her mother has to work long hours with a long commute, so Cassie frequently has to be responsible for her younger brother when he’s not at activities of his own, and her mother often isn’t home for Cassie to discuss things with her.

There is also some tension between Cassie and her brother because the divorce has changed their relationship with each other. Because Cassie has become more of a caregiver to Danny because her mother has to work, she has to make arrangements for Danny before she can do anything on her own, which sometimes makes things awkward for her. Danny also becomes jealous because Cassie does have more ability to do things on her own than he does and because she makes friends and settles into their new town more easily than he does.

One part of this book that I hated was when Danny intentionally left Sam outside alone to spite Cassie, and Sam is poisoned by one of the villains and nearly dies. Cassie is very upset with Danny because of this incident, understandably so, but I didn’t like it that the other characters were pressuring her to be okay with Danny and forgive him too quickly. They do this because Danny is young, they think that he left the dog out by accident, and Danny feels really badly about almost getting the dog killed. Cassie knows, although Danny doesn’t initially admit it, that Danny left the dog outside on purpose. That purposefulness maliciousness is not a thing that I think should be too easily forgiven, especially not because someone just “feels bad.” Let’s insist on a little empathy here, Danny. Cassie feels bad because you almost got her dog killed. Sam really feels bad because he’s the one who almost died! Maybe your feelings shouldn’t be given first priority here, since you were the one who caused the harm. Sam is a dependent animal. Under no circumstances should animal abuse be excused, and leaving a dependent animal outside alone to be lost, hit by a car, or yes, harmed by some other malicious person is abusive. Danny should not be given a pass for malicious behavior or animal abuse just because he “feels bad.”

Giving people that type of excuse for malice and abuse just encourages more of it in real life because the person finds that there are no consequences for their actions and it gets them the forgiveness and attention they want, so they keep doing it. It’s a dangerous thing to allow. The story makes it clear that Danny was acting out on bad feelings that he already had about the divorce and feeling neglected by both his mother and Cassie, but I think it’s important to make it clear to him that, even if he’s “feeling bad”, that does not give him the right to hurt other people or animals. Nobody has the right to hurt others just because they’ve got mixed-up feelings. I hate it that the other characters don’t seem to feel that way.

The story ends happily when Danny tries to make it up to Cassie by investigating the situation and Cassie rescues him from the bad guys. They have a heart-to-heart talk that makes Cassie realize how important Danny is to her and that she has to make time for paying attention to him and supporting him more during this difficult time. Still, I feel very strongly that the story and the other characters should emphasize to Danny that causing hurt because you feel hurt is wrong and damaging to relationships. The way the other characters tried to make Cassie feel bad about the situation also really felt like gaslighting. She had a real and serious reason for being angry with her brother, and it just made me really angry when they acted like she was the bad one because Danny was “feeling bad” and she wanted him to be accountable for his actions. He knew what he was doing, and he should have known it was dangerous to Sam, even if he didn’t know that someone was going to deliberately try to kill the dog.

I know that Danny has some emotional issues that need to be addressed, but I’m saying that he also has some behavior issues that also need to be addressed. There are helpful ways to deal with emotions and destructive ways to deal with emotions. Danny is not too young to understand the consequences of his actions and to accept them. I don’t think that learning that it can take awhile to regain trust after betraying someone’s trust is also an unbearable lesson. In fact, I’d call it a life skill. If it helps him to develop more empathy and consider other people and the consequences of his actions before he lashes out, it is worth it.

Gone-Away Lake

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright, 1957.

Eleven-year-old Portia and her six-year-old brother Foster are traveling alone by train to visit their aunt and uncle and twelve-year-old cousin Julian in the country for the summer while their parents are on a trip. Portia likes spending time with Julian because Julian is an amateur naturalist and tells her things about animals and birds. When Portia and Foster arrive, their aunt, uncle, and cousin tell them that their dog has had puppies. Portia is allowed to name them, and if her parents agree, she and Foster will even be able to keep one!

While Portia is out exploring the countryside with Julian one day, they find some garnets in a rock. They start chipping some out to take to Julian’s mother, and they find a carved inscription in Latin on the rock with the date July 15, 1891. They’re not sure what the Latin words mean. They figure out that part of the inscription refers to the Philosopher’s Stone, which was supposed to turn different substances to gold. Portia asks if this stone could be the real Philosopher’s Stone, but Julian says that’s impossible because they’ve been using knives to pry out the garnets, and they haven’t turned to gold. They continue to wonder what the inscription really means and why someone put it there.

They explore the countryside further, getting lost. They aren’t too worried because they don’t need to be back soon. They follow a brook and find themselves in a swampy area. Strangely, they stumble over an old rowboat. Then, they spot a row of old, abandoned houses. The houses are in bad condition, but the kids can see that they were built in elaborate Victorian styles. The children wonder why those houses are there on the edge of swamp. Portia finds it a little creepy, but Julian wants to get a better look.

Then, the children hear a voice. Strangely, the voice is repeating an advertisement for medicine for indigestion. The children think it’s funny because no ghost would say something like that. Taking a closer look at the houses, they notice that one seems to be in better condition than the others that it has animals and a garden, so someone must be living there. Thinking about it more, Julian says that the swamp was probably once a pond or a lake, and that’s why it had houses and a rowboat. He hasn’t heard of a lake in the area, but he and his parents haven’t lived in the area for long. The children wonder who lives in the house and decide to find out.

They find an old woman in old-fashioned clothing, listening to a radio. The old lady is surprised to see them but welcomes them, saying that it’s been a long time since she has seen children. She invites them to come inside her house, and the children find themselves in a cluttered and chaotic parlor with each wall covered in a different kind of wall paper. The woman introduces herself as Minehaha Cheever.

The children explain how they ended up there by coming through the swamp, and Mrs. Cheever says that they shouldn’t go through the swamp because there is a dangerous sinkhole there that they call the Gulper. She says that when it’s time for the children to go home, she’ll have her brother show them a better and safer way. Mrs. Cheever says that there used to be a lake there, and that her family and about a dozen others had summer houses there, but the lake largely dried up when a new dam was built. After that, the summer houses were abandoned, and many of them were vandalized. However, her father and another woman locked up their houses with the furniture inside, thinking that they would come back and move them, but they never did. The large and fancy old Villa Caprice is still untouched, but Mrs. Cheever says that she supposes that much of the contents is probably deteriorated. She says that the Villa Caprice gives her the creeps.

The children ask Mrs. Cheever why she’s there, and she says that she used to live somewhere else. After her husband died, she didn’t have much money, and she remembered that the house at the former lake was still there. Her brother, Pindar, also wanted to retire somewhere quiet, so they decided to go live in their family’s old summer house. There was enough furniture and old clothes left there for the two of them, and it suits them. They keep animals. Pindar still has their old car, so he can sometimes go into town for things they need. “Pindar” was one of the words in the inscription on the rock.

Pindar explains that he and his best friend when he was a kid, Tarquin (another of the words on the rock), were the ones responsible for the inscription on the rock. Tarquin was three years older than Pindar, but they were still close friends. However, they had a temporary falling out when Tarquin was 13 years old. Tarquin had gone away to boarding school for the first time, and the next time they met at their summer homes, Tarquin had brought a friend from his new school with him, Edward. Tarquin and Edward were putting on airs and showing off how sophisticated they were because they were 13 years old and knew so much more now that they had been to boarding school. Pindar felt bad about his old friend shunning him and treating him like a little kid, so he started hanging out with his other best friend, Barney. Then, Pindar had the idea of showing Barney the big rock with garnets stuck in it where he and Tarquin used to meet and hang out together.

When Pindar and Barney got to the rock, they discovered that Tarquin and Edward were already there, and the older boys said that they had claimed the rock for themselves. They called the rock the philosopher’s stone and wrote the inscription labeling it as the philosopher’s stone in Latin, which they had learned at their boarding school. The older boys said that the younger ones were too little to be philosophers, like the two of them. Pindar’s feelings were hurt all over again, and he told his father about the situation. Pindar’s father was amused by the older boys and their sophisticated philosopher talk. He said that there was no age limit on who could be a philosopher and explained to Pindar what a philosopher’s stone was supposed to be and how it was supposed to turn things to gold. Then, he suggested a prank that Pindar and Barney could play on the older boys, convincing them that the stone really did have the power to turn things to gold. The older boys were temporarily fooled by the trick. At first, Tarquin was angry about being tricked, but then, he had to acknowledge that he had provoked Pindar and that the trick was a clever one. Tarquin made up with both Pindar and Barney, and he added Pindar’s name and his own to the inscription on the rock. Pindar still considers Tarquin and Barney to be his best friends, and they still write letters to each other in their old age.

Julian and Portia are fascinated by the stories that Pindar tells about the childhood summers he and his siblings and friends spent at this now-vanished lake. Mrs. Cheever said that she loves having children around the place again, and she suggests that Julian and Portia could use one of the old houses that is still in reasonably good condition as a kind of clubhouse. Julian and Portia love the idea, and Pindar and Mrs. Cheever suggest that they use the old house where Tarquin and his family used to stay. It’s in disrepair, but it’s much better than some of the other houses. There is plenty of furniture in the attic that the children can use, too. The children decide to invite some other kids to join them, and they call their club the Philosopher’s Club, after Pindar and Tarquin’s old group of friends.

Julian and Portia invite some other local children to join the Philosopher’s Club and spent a magical summer exploring this abandoned community, picking blackberries, learning about local plants and their uses, and scavenging things from old houses and trying on the clothes from Pindar and Mrs. Cheever’s youth. The boys help Pindar build a bridge over the large sinkhole they call “the Gulper” after Foster falls into it and has to be rescued. When Julian and Portia’s parents meet Uncle Pin and Aunt Min (as they come to call Pindar and Mrs. Cheever) and come to see Gone-Away Lake, the adults also experience the magical, dream-like qualities of this place, and Portia’s parents consider plans that may make the children’s future summers magical.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies – including a couple of copies of the sequel, Return to Gone-Away).

My Reaction

I remember a teacher reading this book or part of it to us when I was in elementary school, but I couldn’t remember much about the story except for the lake that had gone away and caused the town to be largely deserted. For some reason, I had thought this story was a mystery story, but it’s not.

In many ways, I think this is the perfect nostalgia book because a large part this story is about the nostalgia that the elderly brother and sister in the story have for the place where they used to have their childhood summer adventures, even though the place isn’t what it used to be. Through the stories that they tell the children and the children’s own adventures and explorations of this largely abandoned summer community, they begin building their own attachments to the place and their own nostalgic summer memories.

Because the story takes place in such a unique location, I think it would make a fun kids’ movie with a vibe of nostalgic summer adventure. Although, because the story is largely low-key slice-of-life and the flashbacks of Uncle Pin and Aunt Min to incidents in their youth, I can see that the story might have to be changed a bit to fit the usual movie format, focusing on one definite problem or a particular adventure to give the story its climax. I picture the kids and their Philosopher’s Club making it their mission to preserve this vanishing community, which fits with the way the original story goes, although the kids in the book enjoy the old community for the magic of its dilapidated state rather than wanting to fix it up and restore it to its former glory. I think they could lean into promoting the preservation of nature and the ecosystem of the area, with Julian in particular pointing out what makes this environment unique and how it has become home to animals and insects since the lake changed to a swamp and most of the people left. The Philosopher’s Club might connect with a local naturalist society, and they could build the bridge in the story together to make the swamp safer to traverse for nature lovers and bird watchers. Uncle Pin and Aunt Min could remain on the site as its caretakers. Perhaps, the kids might even find some old notes and drawings in one of the old houses that show some interesting aspects of how the environment has changed and some of the unique animals that make their home there. That didn’t happen in the book, but it would be a sort of environmentally-connected treasure the children could find.

Ruth Fielding at Silver Ranch

Ruth Fielding

Ruth Fielding at Silver Ranch, or Schoolgirls Among the Cowboys by Alice B. Emerson, 1915.

In the last Ruth Fielding book, Ruth and her friends met a girl named Jane Ann who had run away from home. In this book, Ruth and her friends go to Silver Ranch in Montana, Jane Ann’s home, which is owned by her uncle, Bill Hicks. Ruth’s best friend, Helen, is surprised that Ruth’s Uncle Jabez let her come on the trip because he’s been very upset about the money he lost investing in a mine. Helen says maybe the investment will turn out fine after all, and Ruth says that the mine he invested in, the Tintacker Mine, is coincidentally nearby. It’s supposed to be a silver mine, although Uncle Jabez now doubts whether the mine is real or some kind of scam. The young man who talked him into investing hasn’t answered Uncle Jabez’s letters for months. So, while they’re staying at the ranch, Ruth plans to ask some questions in the area about the mine and see what she can learn.

On their first evening at the ranch, while they’re playing music, singing, and enjoying themselves, they suddenly get word that there’s a prairie fire up by Tintacker, and a cowboy says that it was probably set by “Bughouse Johnny.” (“Bughouse” is an old-fashioned slang word meaning “crazy”, so this is a descriptive nickname.) Ruth and her friends go to help the cowboys with the fire, and they watch as they slaughter three steers and use the carasses to smother the flames.

Ruth asks some questions about Tintacker, and the cowboys mention a new man who’s been hanging around that area. They don’t know much about him, but he’s pretty young, and they call him “the tenderfoot.” Ruth thinks he might be the young man her uncle has been looking for. She also asks them about Bughouse Johnny, but they don’t tell her much more than he’s a crazy guy who camps out in the area of Tintacker.

Ruth explains her uncle’s situation to Jane Ann’s uncle. Bill Hicks says that, as far as he knows, there’s no more silver left in the Tintacker Mine, and he thinks that Ruth’s uncle has been cheated. Ruth asks him if there’s any way that she can see the official papers associated with the mine, and Bill Hicks introduces her to a friend of his who is a lawyer, Mr. Savage. Mr. Savage confirms that ownership of the mine belongs to a man named John Cox, who bought out the other heirs of the mine’s original owners. Like Bill Hicks, Mr. Savage thinks that the mine isn’t worth anything, but if the young man Uncle Jabez invested with is John Cox, the investment is valid, just not one that’s likely to see a return. Ruth says that she will give the lawyer’s information to her uncle and that her uncle may ask him to act on his behalf later, depending on how he decides to handle this investment.

Ruth and her friends have some Western-style fun and adventures with Jane Ann, the cowboys, and the other locals. Jane Ann gets to show off her riding and ranching skills, and they all attend a local dance, where Ruth and her friends play matchmaker between a shy cowboy and the haughty schoolmistress he admires. They have a hair-raising encounter with a wild bear, and the man who saves them by shooting the bear turns out to be the man from Tintacker who Ruth wants to see.

When Ruth and one of Hick’s men go to see this man later, they find him deathly ill. If the man doesn’t recover, and if the mine turns out to be worthless, Uncle Jabez will lose his money, and there will be no way for Ruth to continue attending the boarding school she loves with her friends! However, the answer to the truth about John Cox’s identity is closer than Ruth and her friends suspect.

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

My Reaction

Like many other early Stratemeyer books, this story contains elements of a mystery but is really more of an adventure. I didn’t like parts of the adventure because there were repeated instances of characters being attacked by animals and then the animals needing to be killed. At one point, Ruth herself beats an attacking wolf to death, and I thought that was a shockingly violent scene for a Stratemeyer Syndicate book! Although, earlier Stratemeyer Syndicate books are quite different from the later ones.

The mystery part of the story focuses on the identity of John Cox, the man who convinced Uncle Jabez to invest in his mine, and the truth about his mine. I actually felt a little silly for not figuring out the true identity of John Cox sooner because he actually shares the same last name as one of the other regular characters in this series, and it’s not a coincidence. John Cox is Mary Cox’s brother.

Mary Cox, nicknamed “The Fox” by her schoolmates for being sly, is along on the trip with the other Briarwood Hall girls, although she is a nasty rival for Ruth in particular. Even though she has gotten along better with some of the other girls in the past, her snooty attitude and bad behavior have finally gotten on everybody’s nerves in this book.

When Mary is temporarily in control of a wagon Ruth and Helen are in, she does something reckless and almost gets them all killed until Ruth takes control of the reins and saves them. Everyone knows that the situation was Mary’s fault and that Ruth saved the day, and this is not the first time that Ruth has saved Mary from something. (By my count, it’s the third time.) However, Mary is ungrateful for her help and in denial that she did anything wrong (as usual). Just when everyone has decided that they’re completely fed up with her, the discovery of her brother changes things. While Mary is unmoved by Ruth saving her life, she is genuinely grateful to Ruth for saving her brother when he was ill and alone, which is astonishing for a girl who has never seemed to genuinely care about anybody else before. John Cox is an honest man, and Uncle Jabez’s investment turns out better than expected, guaranteeing that Ruth will be able to return to boarding school with her friends.

I want to warn readers that this is one of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books that has characters using racial slurs. The Ruth Fielding books were written before the Stratemeyer Syndicate revised its books in the mid-20th century to remove language like that. As in other Stratemeyer books, the use of inappropriate racial language is used to show which characters are crude and antagonistic, and in the case of this book, that character is Mary.

Mary Cox sneers at one of Bill Hick’s men, Jib, because he is of Native American descent, although Helen’s brother Tom stands up for Jib, pointing out that he’s much better educated than most of the men Mary knows, even though he works as a cowboy, and that Native Americans used to own the entire country before white people came, which is nothing to sneer at. Mary still insists on calling him a “savage”, mostly because Mary’s habitual method of communicating with people is to put someone else down so that she can look superior. This entire exchange takes place during an episode when Mary is trying to flirt with Tom, and bringing up racial slurs to put someone down during a flirtation with someone else is a very weird thing to do. It’s mostly a part of the story to show why Mary is such a pain. Tom just ends up being disgusted with her. It’s not the last time Mary uses racial slurs. At one point, she also calls the ranch cook a “fat and greasy Mexican squaw.” It’s pretty bad to see that kind of language in a kid’s book, even though it’s there to show that Mary has a nasty personality and behaves badly, which irritates and embarrasses people around her.

On a lighter note, the story is peppered with all sorts of Western words and slang. Since slang changes over time, and I’m not sure how people said things in the 1910s, I’m not sure how accurate the slang is for the time, but I’d like to call attention to a couple of words in the story that will be familiar to readers, but not in the way that they usually see them. “Cañon” is actually the Spanish word for “canyon”, pronounced the same way that we say in English, but the little tilde symbol over the ‘n’ adds the ‘y’ sound. The word that confused me the most was “kiotes,”, not because I didn’t know what they were talking about, but because that is not the Spanish version of the word. It looks like a phonetic spelling of the way we pronounce “coyotes” in English, but the Spanish word is also spelled “coyotes”, just pronounced a little differently. I didn’t know where the spelling “kiotes” came from, and I’d never seen it anywhere else before. I tried Googling it to find out more, and I saw a few mentions of the word with that spelling. One mention said that it was a Native American word, but it didn’t explain much more than that, so I can’t be sure. The book also uses the plural of “beef”, which is “beeves“, a word that used to be a joke with my brother and my friends the first time we heard it years ago because we thought it sounded funny. It also mentions the girls wearing “furbelow“, a word that I’d never heard before that means ruffles, pleats, or flounces in women’s clothing.