The Vandemark Mummy by Cynthia Voigt, 1991.
The Vandemark Mummy is an exciting mystery with believable characters. The story includes a bit of history about Ancient Egypt and side plots about the complications of family life, the role of women in society, and the nature of ambition.
Twelve-year-old Phineas Hall and his fifteen-year-old sister, Althea, have recently moved to Maine with their father, Professor Hall, because he got a job working at the small Vandemark College. Moving and starting over in a new place is never easy, but the move is more difficult for the kids because their mother didn’t come with them. Their mother is an ambitious, career-oriented feminist, and when she was offered an important job working for a congressman in Oregon, she could not bring herself to turn it down in order to go to Maine with the rest of the family.
Although the entire family talked the situation over, and everyone agreed to the current arrangements, no one is really happy about it. Althea particularly feels hurt. Even though she has shared her mother’s feminist ideals, she’s hurt by her mother’s apparent selfishness and the seeming ease with which she abandoned the family. Althea believes that her mother should have compromised on her career this time because her husband has made compromises for her in the past. To make herself feel better, Althea spends her time studying one of the oldest feminists, the Greek poet Sappho. Phineas, on the other hand, is just trying to be a normal kid and fight off boredom while waiting for the summer to end and school to start. But, boredom is the last thing on Phineas’s mind when the mummy arrives at the college.
The wealthy patriarch of the Vandemark family dies and leaves his collection of Egyptian antiquities (one of many collections he had) to the college, including a real mummy. The Vandemark family is a little disappointed because they had hoped that the collection might go to a much more prestigious institution, even though Vandemark College is named for their family. To the joy of the Hall family, Professor Hall is put in charge of the collection, which will be put on display in a new addition to the college library. Professor Hall lets Phineas and Althea go through the collection with him and another professor, Ken Simard. Although at first the collection does not seem to be particularly valuable, except for the unusually good condition of the mummy and the funeral wreath, it seems to be a lot more valuable to someone. After a failed attempt to break into the collection, someone later manages to steal the mummy. Then, Althea suddenly disappears. The adults suspect that Althea might have run away because of the troubles in their family, but Phineas knows better and begins a desperate hunt to find his sister.
One of the best things about the book is that it really takes both kids to unravel the entire mystery: Phineas for his persistence and decisive action and Althea for her more mature understanding of the thief’s motives. Although, even at the end, their family’s situation isn’t completely resolved, the kids’ experiences give them a new perspective on things. It would be a great book for middle schoolers.
I debated about saying more because I didn’t want to spoil the story too much, but after thinking it over, I can’t give my full opinion of it in this review without talking a little more about what Althea and Phineas learned from their situation. If you’d rather not know more detail, you can skip the rest of this.
On the one hand, I was a little disappointed at the lack of complete resolution to the family’s troubles because, by the end of the book, I really cared about the characters and wanted to know what would happen to them, but I think the author purposely left the story open at the end so readers could imagine to themselves what the characters are going to do. However, there is one thing that is pretty well established at the end of the story: whatever happens to their parents, whether their separation is temporary, as they’d originally planned, or they end up divorcing, Althea and Phineas are going to be okay because they still have each other, their father, and their new friends in their new town.
In the beginning, their mother’s absence is worrying because they will now have to cope without her, and they don’t know what is going to happen to their family in the long run. But, part of the children’s self-sufficiency actually does come from their mother and things that she taught them, whether she is with them or not. The book does mention little things they learned from their mother. It’s subtle, but she’s still with them because of the influence she’s had in their lives. The kids also develop more of an appreciation for their own resources and abilities, which makes them less fearful. One of Althea’s early characteristics was a long-standing fear of the dark. After her ordeals, her father and brother expected her fear to be worse, but she tells them that she is actually less afraid now than she was before because she has learned something about circumstances she can control and ones she can’t. She says, “I think, there’s a difference between being scared and not knowing how you’ll do, and being scared but knowing you’ll do okay.” As she notes, if she goes to bed at home with the lights off and decides that she really can’t stand it, she can always get up and turn them on again. She has realized that she has control in her daily life and actions she can take to make things better, which she didn’t have during parts of their adventure. It gives her confidence.
The kids also learn lessons about the nature of ambition and about their own feelings. In the beginning, Althea is more vocal about how she feels about her parents’ separation. She feels betrayed because, although she learned her sense of idealism from her mother and thought that they shared the same views, her mother has now done something which she views as a selfish act, rejecting her family and her family’s needs solely in the name of her personal ambitions. Phineas, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to know what to feel or is afraid to show his true feelings at first, just trying to keep busy so he doesn’t have to think about it too much because he thinks that his parents’ marriage is only their business.
At the end, the two alter their positions somewhat, coming a little more into agreement with each other. Althea has the chance to contrast her parents’ marriage and ambitions with that of the villain’s (without naming names), and she sees the difference in the way they each of them responds to the same pressures. Although her father may have been hurt by his wife’s reluctance to make sacrifices in her ambitions for the sake of his and her preference for separation over compromise, he still genuinely cares about her and understands her ideals and what she really wants to achieve. The fact that it’s only a separation, not a divorce, is a sign that the parents still care about each other and respect each other and hope that they will be able to reconcile eventually. The villain doesn’t have those feelings, and unlike either of Althea and Phineas’s parents, really is motivated solely by selfish ambition.
Ambitions often require sacrifice in order to achieve them. Revealing what the villain sacrificed would say too much, but this person does end up losing pretty much everything in the end. For the sake of her ambitions, Althea’s mother sacrificed her place in the family. Although she thought that it would only be temporary, the hurt she caused her family members will probably have longer-lasting effects. When she calls them to find out what’s been happening, she learns what she’s been missing and the ordeals her children have faced without her, which leave her feeling both worried and left out, feelings that her husband understands and explains to the children (“One of the things she knew, without knowing how it would feel, is that we’d be able to get along fine without her.”), which shows that he is still in tune with his wife’s feelings. She is upset and seems hurt that Althea is too tired and busy talking to the police to talk to her much other than to briefly reassure her that she is now safe. At that point, Althea needs her mother’s comfort less than her mother needs reassurance from her. Althea feels a little bad about not being able to soothe her mother’s feelings because she is no longer as hurt and angry with her as she was before, but Phineas tells her not to worry if their mother’s feelings are hurt right now because she owes her daughter some hurt feelings. In other words, Phineas has finally learned that it’s okay for him to have feelings and an opinion about the things happening in his family and to show them. He recognizes how hurt and confused his sister was at their mother’s apparent betrayal, and he has decided that it’s okay for their mother to see that hurt and feel a little of it herself so that she will understand what’s really happening and what her children are really going through.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been focusing more on the mother’s ambitions and questioning her motives more than the father’s in the story. That’s partly because that is the focus of the story. The children do not see their father as abandoning the family for the sake of ambition because he didn’t. They make it clear that he has supported his wife’s ambitions in the past, often at the expense of his own. He mentions that the attraction of this new position that he has accepted is “the first job in fifteen years that I’m not over-qualified for, and I plan to enjoy it . . .” He is primarily a scholar and has felt under-challenged intellectually. Because he’s an academic, his schedule is more in tune with the children’s school schedule, which is why both of the children chose to go with him rather than with their mother. He also makes time for his children and involves them in his work when possible, supporting Althea’s interests in history and philosophy, which he shares. At one point, Althea says to her father, “You and Mom don’t have exactly the same set of values, you know.” The mother of the family is more concerned with money, climbing the occupational ladder, and achieving higher positions and more influence. She sees these things as ways of furthering the cause of feminism, and often works long hours away from her family for her jobs. In the past, she has used the fact that she earns higher salaries than her husband as ways to convince him and the rest for the family to make accommodations for the sake of her jobs. Althea says that her mother’s arguments aren’t honest and that her lack of support for her husband’s career as well as her own are a betrayal of the “equality” that she supposedly believes in. It isn’t that Althea is completely opposed to her mother’s ambitions so much as she disapproves of the way her mother goes about achieving them. So, that’s the situation for the Hall family, as the book describes it.
In the end, this book is bound to spark a lot of opinions and discussions about the characters and their views and much speculation about what will happen next for the Hall family. Will one or both of the parents change their view of the situation, just as Althea and Phineas have? Will the mother, who admits that the job she took wasn’t what she had expected it to be, decide to quit and rejoin her family? If she does, what will her role in the family be now that Althea and Phineas have become more independent than they once were? Another character, who I haven’t mentioned before, is a female reporter in the small town who befriends the family and helps them through their ordeals in the mother’s absence. In some ways, her values seem more in tune with the father’s than the mother’s are. Is it possible that she could be the children’s eventual stepmother if the parents separate permanently? Or will she only ever be just a supportive family friend? Families in real life experience changes like these as children grow older and begin to forge their own identities and values in the face of changes in their lives, reevaluating their parents’ decisions and making ones for themselves.
Sorry for the longer additions, but I thought that this complex story (more complex in the subtext than in the action) deserved more discussion!