We’re Going on a Ghost Hunt

We’re Going on a Ghost Hunt by Marcia Vaughan, illustrated by Ann Schweninger, 2001.

On Halloween night, two kids go out on a ghost hunt. This is a cute picture book, told as a poem, with a lot of repetition of phrases and sound words, like “thump” and “stomp.” The book also encourages children to notice details. The “ghost” appears in the scene where the children pass through the “swamp” and the ghost costume appears again at the end of the book.

As the kids go on their ghost hunt, passing through a swamp and past a haunted house and other scary things, they repeat that they’re not afraid.

The kids are brave, right up to the point where they finally find a ghost.

The kids run home to their mother, who gives them cupcakes and reads them a story.

Three guesses who the red-sneakered ghost was. Happy Halloween!

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

The Ankle Grabber

The Ankle Grabber by Rose Impey, 1989.

This book is part of the Creepies series, where children have fun imagining monsters. The stories are about the power of imagination and the fun of being a little scared. Sometimes, even though the children know that they made up the monsters themselves, they also get a little scared. Books in this series can be good for talking to children about how their imaginations can run away with them and scare them, but I’d use caution when introducing them to very young children because they can make nervous children more nervous by feeding their imaginations. These books would probably be best for ages seven and up. Fortunately, even when the kids’ imaginations run away with them, the stories always end in reality, and the hero of this story is … Dad!

Every night, a little girl has her mother check her room for monsters, but no matter how well she searches for them, the girl is still terrified of the monster who lives in an invisible swamp under her bed. She calls this monster the Ankle Grabber because she believes that if she isn’t careful, the monster will reach out from under the bed and pull her down into the swamp.

But, as is inevitable when you’ve got a monster under your bed, the girl realizes that she has to go to the bathroom. Getting in and out of bed without being caught by the Ankle Grabber is a tricky proposition. The girl tries to get into and out of bed by jumping so that she can avoid the monster.

When she misses her jump back into bed and lands on the floor, her father comes in to see what’s wrong. Her father has scared off monsters for the little girl before, so he sticks his head under the bed to scare off the Ankle Grabber, too.

Nothing is so scary that Dad can’t make it better!

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

My Sister the Witch

My Sister the Witch by Ellen Conford, 1995.

Norman Newman is convinced that his sister, Elaine, is a witch. When he goes to her room one evening to call her to dinner, he catches her all dressed in black and chanting strange words.

Norman likes to read horror and mystery books, and he uses some of the techniques that he has learned from reading his favorite mystery stories to investigate his sister. Some of these techniques don’t work as well for Norman as they do for the characters in his books, partly because he doesn’t really know how they work (like which end of a glass you’re supposed to put against a door when you’re trying to listen in on someone) and partly because the characters and situations in books are fictional and some of the things they do don’t work that well in real life.

Early in the story, Norman uses one of his scary stories for a book report for school, and his teacher tells him that she wants him to start to read other types of books. She makes him write an extra book report, telling him that he has a week to read something outside of his usual genre and report on it. That incident and some other pieces of bad luck cause Norman to think that maybe Elaine really is a witch and that she put a curse on him, just like a witch in the book he just read.

Norman’s friend, Milo, thinks that Norman’s imagination is just running away with him. It’s happened before because of the scary stories he reads. Once, he thought that their teacher might be an alien.

When Norman has a brief streak of good luck, he starts to think that whatever curse Elaine put on him may be over, but then, he gets sick to his stomach. He goes to the library to get a book for his new book report, and he also gets a non-fiction book about witches. Then, he overhears Elaine talking to her friend, Deirdre, about something being powerful and scaring Deirdre’s sister. The two of them begin chanting together. Norman decides that he was right about Elaine being a witch and that Deirdre must be a witch, too.

After some research, Norman and Milo learn that, to get rid of the effects of a magic spell, they need to learn the words to the spell and say it backwards. Norman doesn’t remember the whole spell from when he heard Elaine say it, so Milo says that he’ll just have to look for a copy of the spell in her room. The book they consult also says that a spell can be neutralized if the person it was cast on duplicates it, which means gathering all the materials used in the spell, but Norman doesn’t know where he would find things like newts’ eyes and frogs’ toes. Either way, it looks like Norman’s going to need a copy of Elaine’s spell. However, even when he gets it and tries to break the curse, things still go wrong. What can Norman do to get rid of this bad luck spell?

I particularly liked the character of Milo in the story. Milo uses a wheelchair because he was hit by a car when he was young and can’t walk. Norman notes that, although Milo can’t use his legs, he gets around very well in his wheelchair and that he has very strong arms. Milo is also more level-headed than Norman, pointing out to him how he has allowed his imagination to run away with him in the past.

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

Spoilers and Other Thoughts

I thought that the secret behind Elaine’s spell was pretty obvious from the beginning because the book repeatedly says that Elaine wants to be an actress. It reminded me of other stories I’ve seen where someone’s playacting was mistaken for some real life danger. Overall, I enjoyed the book, even though I figured out what was going on pretty quickly. Kids might be in suspense for longer.

By the end, Norman still hasn’t learned his lesson because the next scary story he reads leaves him looking at his dog suspiciously. There is at least one sequel to this story called Norman Newman and the Werewolf of Walnut Street.

The Witches of Hopper Street

The Witches of Hopper Street by Linda Gondosch, 1986.

Kelly McCoy and her friend, Jennifer, are offended that another girl from school, Rae Jean, is having a Halloween party and didn’t invite them. Jennifer says that they could just throw their own party on Halloween, but Kelly says that’s no good because everyone else they know is going to Rae Jean’s. It isn’t so much that Kelly really likes Rae Jean; it’s more that she hates being excluded.

The girls talk about what they want to dress as for Halloween, and Kelly suggests that they be witches because she’s fascinated by the witches she saw in a play of MacBeth. Kelly also has a book called “Magic and Witchcraft”, and she says that they could study the book and become real witches. Jennifer doesn’t see the attraction of becoming a witch, but Kelly promises that they’ll only perform white magic, where you use magic to perform good deeds, instead of black magic, which involves cursing people. Although, she might make an exception for just a few little black magic spells against Rae Jean. Jennifer says that Kelly can’t be serious, but Kelly says that she is because it’s awful being the only ones in the sixth grade not invited to Rae Jean’s party. Jennifer points out that Adelaide also wasn’t invited. The girls know that Adelaide isn’t popular because she’s overly tall and awkward and much smarter than the other kids. Then, Kelly gets an idea – there were three witches in MacBeth, so maybe they should invite Adelaide to become a witch with them.

When the girls see Adelaide on her way to Rae Jean’s house to help her with her math homework, they stop her and suggest to her that she join them as witches. Kelly tells her that Rae Jean is dangerous and that dangerous things will happen at her party. Adelaide says that she’s not going to the party anyway. Then, Kelly pretends to tell the future with a deck of cards, predicting that there will be a mysterious death in 24 hours. Her prediction comes shockingly true when Rae Jean’s cat kills her pet parakeet.

Kelly knows that the parakeet’s death was partly her fault for taking him out of his cage when Rae Jean brought her cat around, showing off her prize-winning pet, but she also blames Rae Jean for bringing her cat to her house in the first place, and the reason why they took the bird out of his cage was that Rae Jean was goading them about how dumb the bird was. (I think that the kids’ mother shouldn’t even have let Rae Jean bring her cat into the house. The other kids said that they didn’t want to talk to her, but the mother insisted that they let her in because she’s a “nice” girl. That was an irresponsible thing for the mother to do, and she’s not a good example to her children. When you have a pet in the house, you have to make the pet’s safety a priority, especially over being polite to someone who is rude and insulting anyway. Rae Jean shouldn’t have been allowed to bring a predatory pet into their house, uninvited, simply because she wanted to and the mother didn’t have the guts to say no and enforce some house rules. Of course, this is one of those annoying incidents in books that’s used to move the plot forward. If the parents acted anything like mine, it wouldn’t have happened, and this would be a different story.) Adelaide is impressed that Kelly’s prediction came true, and she agrees to be a witch with Kelly and Jennifer.

Kelly walks the others through rituals for being a witch, like signing their names in a Black Book (really, it’s an old brown science notebook), preparing their broomsticks (they’re supposed to be rubbed with the fat of a newborn piglet and belladonna, but the best they can do is strips of bacon and dieffenbachia), and preparing magical rings to protect themselves from evil creatures (Kelly got hers at an estate sale so she’d have one that belonged to a dead person, but the others just got their rings from the quarter machines at the supermarket). The girls pledge to keep their “coven” secret, but then someone leaves a message for them that says, “Midnight is the witching hour. Then you shall be in my power.” All of the girls deny having written it. So, who did? Who else knows about their witchy activities?

Kelly still hasn’t given up her plans to use this witch business to ruin Rae Jeans’ party. She soon acquires a new pet, a skunk, from her brother Ben’s friend Buster, whose father is a veterinarian. She calls the skunk Cinnamon and declares that he is her familiar. To keep the boys quiet about their activities, they have to let Ben and Buster join the coven as warlocks. As an initiation, all of the witches and warlocks have to drink salt water and eat beef liver. Kelly’s mother is perplexed by some of the odd things that they do, but she doesn’t question them too much, and none of the adults ever discover that the kids sometimes sneak out at night to perform rituals. (I could never have gotten away with this sort of stuff as a kid because my mother was always the type to ask a lot of questions about everything and get specific answers.)

Kelly gets the idea of making a voodoo doll of Rae Jean, using an old sweater of hers that Rae Jean’s mother gave her because she helped to get a box of old clothes down from the attic for a sale and because Rae Jean told her that the sweater was scratchy. To get Rae Jean’s hair and nails, the witches open a “spa” business at Kelly’s house. They succeed in getting hair and nail clippings, but Rae Jean gets scared away when their “spa” treatment involves mud that they just dug up in the backyard and has a worm in it. After they make the doll, they decide it looks really awful and sticking toothpicks in it is creepy, so they take the toothpicks out and get rid of it. Instead, they decide to focus on giving Rae Jean the “evil eye” – basically staring at her to make her feel uncomfortable. (That one works whether you’re a witch or not.) When Rae Jean and some others in class get sick, some of the other kids start to believe rumors that the girls have spread about a “poison plague.”

Eventually, Halloween comes, and Kelly gets the idea for her, Jennifer, and Adelaide to use their witch act while passing out candy to the trick-or-treaters. They put the candy in their “cauldron” (an old camping pot), give themselves fantastical names, and perform chants while handing out candy. They have fun with that, but they still feel left out of the party, so they decide to try one last witchy trick on Rae Jean. They decide to brew up a love potion (just apricot juice with honey, and they even think it tastes good themselves), sneak into the party as fortune tellers, and slip the potion into the party punch. Rae Jean’s mother is amused by their fortune telling act and lets them into the party, although Rae Jean isn’t happy to see them.

When Kelly’s new pet skunk gets loose in the party, there is some momentary chaos before Kelly manages to explain that the skunk is deodorized and can’t spray. During their time at the party, the girls learn the true identity of their mystery message writer and have an honest talk with Rae Jean about their feelings and apologize for the witchy things they’ve been doing. Rae Jean also tells them the reason why she didn’t invite them and how left out she felt when she didn’t get invited to a big party that Kelly had soon after she moved to the neighborhood. Rae Jean comes to realize how much she has provoked the other girls into hating her with some of her behavior, and she apologizes bringing cat to Kelly’s house and killing her parakeet. However, Kelly is also forced to acknowledge that she’s also provoked Rae Jean with her quick temper and attempts at revenge. All of the girls owe each other some apologies, and they make up. Kelly and her friends promise to give up all the witch stuff.

However, before they cut it out entirely, they have one last thing to do. Adelaide read about an old superstition that explains how to see a real witch at midnight on Halloween night, and before Halloween is over, the whole “coven” decides that they have to try it. What they see is a bit startling, and although it has an apparently logical explanation, gives the kids an appropriately witchy scare. Could there possibly be a real witch in their neighborhood?

I didn’t like the parts of this story about dead animals. I hated the part where the parakeet was killed, and later, I felt sorry for a cat that died (of natural causes, and it was a sickly stray, not Rae Jean’s cat). I never like stories where animals die, especially through human cruelty or carelessness. Yet, I have to admit that I have a particular attachment to this book, which I remember reading when I was ten years old. Some of their rituals are a little gross, but as I a kid, I think I was attracted to the idea of having a secret, mysterious club and intrigued by the identity of the mysterious message-writer. At the end of the story, they think they know who wrote the note, but their last midnight ritual causes them to have second thoughts.

This book is available to borrow for free online through Internet Archive.

My Halloween Story About My History With This Book:

This particular book and I have a history. This book was important to me as a kid because it sparked something formative, but to tell you what that something was, I have a confession to make: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a witch. I was in high school before the first Harry Potter books appeared, so it wasn’t about that. No, my introduction to witches was The Wizard of Oz, my favorite movie when I was five years old. I liked Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Dorothy was my favorite character, but I liked Glinda, too. Later, when I saw the movie of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, my interest in witches increased. I also read The Blue-Nosed Witch when I was young, and I was hooked. For a portion of my early childhood, my favorite Halloween costume was a traditional witch costume.

I didn’t want to curse people or be an evil witch, like the Wicked Witch of the West, in spite of my traditional witch costume with the pointy hat. No, I wanted to be a Good Witch and maybe ride a broom and bring suits of armor to life and maybe defeat Nazis in a way that is far less gross than melting them, like in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I had discernment. I had standards. I also had a fear of heights after falling off the monkey bars when I was four, so that probably should have been a clue that broomstick-riding was out for me, but when you’ve got magic, I guess these things aren’t much of a problem. I can’t say that I was really ambitious about wanting magical powers because I didn’t really do anything to acquire them, it was just that I kind of liked the idea … except for that one time, and that’s what this little side story is leading up to.

When I was about ten years old, I read this book with a friend, and we were both enchanted with the idea of making up our own rituals and becoming “witches” and maybe trying some spells on Halloween, just to see if magic works. I only had sort of a vague notion of what kind of spells that we could do. I guess I was picturing something like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, where you recite a rhyme and something is supposed to happen, but I didn’t know any real spells, just movie stuff, and I was clever enough to realize that the stuff in movies probably wasn’t real. Naturally, being a bookish person, I decided that the best way to learn more was at the library. PSAs on tv always told you to “Read more about it“, whatever “it” was. (This was the early 1990s, and I didn’t have access to the Internet yet. That wasn’t even an option.) If anybody had some real spells books, especially ones placed at a convenient height on shelves that a not-very-tall ten-year-old could reach, it would be my local public library, right? I was actually surprised myself when I found one in the library catalog. I really didn’t think it was going to be that easy. That wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was when I actually picked up the book and opened it.

Now, I have to admit here that I didn’t read the whole book, and years later, I can’t remember the title or even what the cover looked like. I kind of wish I did because there are people I would like to show this book to just to prove that it actually exists. When I told my mother about it later, she thought that I dreamed the whole thing, but I swear I didn’t.

This book did have “spells” of various kinds. I picked one from the table of contents (I forget what, but something that sounded like something two ten-year-old girls might want to do on Halloween) and looked at the instructions. It was disgusting. It involved things like animal entrails, which I wouldn’t have known where to get and wouldn’t have wanted to touch even if someone handed me a free bag full. There were other things about animal parts on different pages that disgusted me, too. Under no circumstances was I going to kill cute animals just to do some dumb trick on Halloween, and I wouldn’t have wanted these animals parts even if someone else had done the dirty work of getting them. I wasn’t a vegetarian, but these were definitely not things I could just buy at the grocery store, or better yet, cooked and yummy with a side of fries and a plastic toy.

As I was staring at this book, I suddenly realized that I had no desire to do anything it described and that I was never going to do anything it said. Then, I had a worse thought: someone else must have thought this was a good idea, or they wouldn’t have written it down. Maybe I didn’t want to mess with animal entrails and body parts to gain magical powers, but someone else obviously would. What kind of person would do such a thing? Whatever kind it was, it wasn’t me, and I knew it. The image of the type of person I would have to be in order to do any of this, in order to take any of this seriously, disturbed and repulsed me more than just what was written in the book itself. I slammed the book shut, shoved it back on the shelf, and ran away. I never saw it again, although I did try to find it again once to show it to my mother so that I could prove that I wasn’t dreaming. It wasn’t even in the catalog anymore then.

My guess is that, whatever this book was, either someone stole it from the library (it is the sort of thing an aspiring evil witch might do) or lost or damaged it or some parent or librarian realized that this might not be the best book for children and had it removed from the shelves. Since then, I’ve wondered who put that in the kids’ section in the first place. I’m not fond of censorship, but I have to admit that this book was pretty dang gross and creepy. Was that spell book really serious, or did I miss some introductory part that would have explained that it was all part of some larger ghost story or something? What was the point of the book? I’ve often wondered. All I really remember now is that it was in the first row of children’s non-fiction books at the library, probably the 100 or 200 section of the Dewey Decimal System.

I’m actually glad I did look at it, though, because it made me realize a few things about myself. I realized that there were limits to the things that I was willing to do and that I had the power to say no when something was beyond my limits. My friend was disappointed and thought I was a bit of a wimp for chickening out on our witch experiment so soon and not even showing her the book, but I didn’t care that much. I was firm. I also came to realize that sometimes, it’s the things we don’t do or won’t do that define who we really are. In the end, it may not matter what that book actually was so much as that it left me with a stronger sense of who I was. I should have paid more attention to the part in the Bedknobs and Broomsticks movie where Miss Price said that she realized a long time ago that she could never really be a witch because nobody who felt the way she did about “Poisoned Dragon’s Liver” could be a real witch. I came to appreciate the sentiment.

This experience didn’t completely scare me away from stories with witches in them, as evidenced by the Halloween stories I cover here. I was born close to Halloween, and I like the holiday because I enjoy the imaginative costumes and playing pretend. (Not to mention chocolate. I also enjoy chocolate.) I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, too. But, I know where the dividing line is between pretend and real. It doesn’t trouble me now because I already put the book back on the shelf and said no when it was asking too much, and some decisions stick for life. I don’t worry too much about giving fantasy books to kids, either. Everyone has decisions to make in life about who and what they want to be, and I figure that the younger generations might as well learn where the dividing line between fantasy and reality lies early in life. A bit of a scare now and then might even help them to think more deeply about life’s consequences and make better choices.

If that spell book had been less scary and disgusting, like something that Wiccans use that involves pretty things like crystals and herbs instead of entrails, I actually might have tried a few spells as a child, probably raiding the spice drawer in the kitchen or dismantling my rock collection for spell ingredients. However, Jenny Nicholson did a YouTube video, demonstrating how that typically goes for the aspiring witch. I thought it was hilarious, especially after my childhood escapade. I doubt that I would have had quite the range of objects that Jenny describes, and my parents would have been mad at me if I tried to throw eggs at trees, but I probably would have achieved similar levels of results if my friend and I had actually gone through with our experiment that Halloween. As an adult, I mostly think that things like that are more psychological tricks than anything else, and I find descriptions of them amusing now.

Anyway, that’s my creepy experience with “real” magic. If anyone thinks that they know what that creepy spell book was, feel free to tell me. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove magic-wise, but I still have people I’d like to convince that I didn’t just imagine that the book exists.

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E. L. Konigsburg, 1967.

Elizabeth tells the story about how she first met her friend Jennifer one Halloween. Elizabeth is new in town, and doesn’t know many people yet. She doesn’t have any friends to walk with to or from school, and she encounters Jennifer in the woods she passes through on her way to school. When they meet, Elizabeth is dressed as a Pilgrim for the school’s Halloween parade. Jennifer also happens to be wearing a Pilgrim costume, and she’s sitting in a tree. Elizabeth sees that Jennifer is about to lose a shoe because it’s too big for her, so she impulsively pushes the shoe back onto Jennifer’s foot. Jennifer says that witches don’t lose things, and Elizabeth tells her that she’s not dressed like a witch because she’s wearing a Pilgrim costume. Jennifer says that this is what real witches dress like, not like the silly pointed hat costumes. It becomes more clear later that Jennifer is referring to the accused witches at Salem, Massachusetts. Elizabeth admires Jennifer’s costume because it looks more authentically old-fashioned than hers does, like a real antique. Elizabeth points out that they’ll have to hurry or be late to school, and Jennifer says that she’ll walk with her in exchange for the cookies Elizabeth is carrying. Elizabeth gives her the cookies because she isn’t hungry and badly needs some company. Jennifer makes it barely on time to her class, but Elizabeth is slightly late because she’s in a different class that’s further down the hall.

Elizabeth describes the Halloween parade at school, and you can tell that this book was written decades ago because there are kids wearing cardboard boxes because their costume is a pack of cigarettes, which would never happen at a 21st century school. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a kid, nobody would have dressed as a pack of cigarettes, and with more exciting things to be like super heroes and Ninja Turtles as well as the traditional witches, ballerinas, robots, vampires, and monsters to be, why the heck would somebody want to be a pack of cigarettes anyway? Lung cancer may be scary, but dressing as a pack of cancer sticks isn’t exactly fun Halloween scary. If you want to be a box of something, at least pick crayons so you can tell people you’re the sharpest crayon in the box. But, I digress.

At the parade, Elizabeth sees Jennifer unsnap the tutu of school mean girl Cynthia, dressed as a ballerina, so it falls down. It’s not a serious embarrassment because she’s still wearing her leotard underneath, but Cynthia is one of those two-faced kids who are good-looking and act like perfect angels when adults are watching but turn into nasty little monsters when the adults look away, so this minor embarrassment pleases Elizabeth and many of the other kids. Jennifer also passes a note to Elizabeth to meet her for trick-or-treating that evening, telling her to bring two bags. As the students parade across the stage for the costume contest, Jennifer amazes everyone by wearing a paper bag over her head that doesn’t have any eye holes cut into it, yet she doesn’t have any trouble walking, somehow seeing where she’s going or knowing where to go anyway.

When the girls meet for trick-or-treating, Jennifer tells Elizabeth to give her the bigger bag of the two bags she brought. It’s a bit rude, but Elizabeth is fascinated by Jennifer and lets it go. Also, Jennifer has brought a small wagon with her. Jennifer has invented and mastered an act to get extra candy. At each house, she acts weak and breathless and asks for a drink of water. When the home owners give her a drink of water, she drops her empty bag, so the home owners will feel sorry for her and give her more candy. Then, out of sight of the home owner, Jennifer empties her bag of candy into the little wagon and does the same performance at the next house. Elizabeth wonders how Jennifer is able to drink so much water, but they collect an amazing amount candy from Jennifer’s act.

After Halloween, Jennifer tells Elizabeth to meet her at the library on Saturday, and she invites Elizabeth to become her apprentice witch. Elizabeth thinks it over and decides to accept. Jennifer begins leading Elizabeth through a series of rituals to make her into a witch. The first ritual involves both of them putting a drop of their blood on an old key that Jennifer was wearing around her neck. Afterward, Jennifer gives the old key to Elizabeth to wear. This ritual is kind of like a friendship pact.

Jennifer gives Elizabeth books to read from the library about witches and tells her to eat a raw egg every day for a week (she does it by mixing it into a milkshake), insisting that she also bring her a hard-boiled egg. From there, they progress through a list of other strange foods. When their grade starts rehearsing for their Christmas play, the food of the week is raw onions, which Elizabeth happens to love, in spite of being a notoriously picky eater. People notice the onions because Elizabeth is supposed to be a puppy in their school play that the princess played by nasty Cynthia gets for Christmas, and Cynthia can’t bear to get close to her.

Being Jennifer’s apprentice also means putting up with her rudeness and bossiness. When the girls decide to try making an ointment to change themselves into animals, they argue about what animals they’re going to be. Sometimes, Elizabeth finds Jennifer difficult to deal with because she isn’t considerate of her feelings, but she’s also fascinating because Jennifer is a serious reader and likes to talk about a wide range of interesting things, from witchcraft trials to Vincent Van Gogh to shipwrecks to the guillotines used in the French Revolution to secret codes. Their rituals continue through Christmas and the New Year and into the spring with Jennifer promoting Elizabeth to Journeymen Witch and assigning her various “taboos”, things that she isn’t supposed to do.

For most of the book, Elizabeth doesn’t tell her mother about being friends with Jennifer. Jennifer, as a witch, is rather odd, and Elizabeth’s mother wants her to be friends with nice, normal children. In particular, she wants her to be friends with Cynthia because, like other adults, Elizabeth’s mother has been taken in by Cynthia’s two-faced act and thinks that Cynthia is a sweet, well-behaved little girl. When Cynthia invites her to her birthday party, Elizabeth knows that the invitation was really from Cynthia’s mother because she and Cynthia aren’t friends. However, Elizabeth’s mother makes her accept the invitation. The party is a trial because, thanks to Jennifer’s taboos, there are many party activities that Elizabeth can’t do (no eating cake, no pin-the-tail-on-the donkey because she can’t touch pins, etc.), but Elizabeth decides to make the most of it and enjoy being an oddball. Elizabeth has some fun when she realizes that she can act mysterious and witchy about knowing certain things and winning at the games she plays. She knows where the treasure is in the treasure hunt because it was just behind a pillow on the couch and she accidentally sat on it earlier, she wins at the clothespin drop game because she’s shorter than the other girls and finds the game easier, and she knows who brought which gift to the party without looking at the tags because she was the first to arrive and remembered what everyone else brought when they came. Of course, she doesn’t explain this to anyone, she just acts mysterious and witchy, like Jennifer. When she talks to Jennifer about the party, Jennifer acts like Elizabeth has actually used her witch powers to do those things, but Elizabeth insists that they were just ordinary incidents and her good memory for remembering the presents. Jennifer seems a little disappointed that Elizabeth doesn’t seem to see what she’s getting at with the witch business, and Elizabeth is disappointed that Jennifer doesn’t seem interested in the gossip she’s collected about the “normal”, non-witchy girls at the party.

The girls get a toad, which they name Hilary Ezra, their first compromise with each other by combining the two names that they wanted. Jennifer says that the toad will help them with their flying spell. They treat the toad like a pet, giving it insects that they’ve caught and measuring how far he can jump. They both love Hilary Ezra, but when Jennifer plans to add Hilary Ezra to their flying potion, Elizabeth refuses to allow it. She makes Jennifer set Hilary Ezra free. Jennifer tells Elizabeth that she’ll never be a witch because she’s too sentimental and dismisses her as her student witch. Elizabeth is angry at Jennifer and thinks that their friendship is over as well as the witch business. However, after thinking it over, Elizabeth realizes something: Jennifer actually wanted Elizabeth to stop her from putting the toad in the pot with the other ingredients because she changed the order in which the ingredients were added from the order that was given in MacBeth, saving the toad for last and making a big show of dangling him over the pot, waiting for Elizabeth to stop her. Still, it makes Elizabeth mad that Jennifer made her stop her when she could have stopped herself and probably would have if Elizabeth hadn’t intervened.

Elizabeth has a right to be angry, but she also goes back to being lonely, and she doesn’t like that. While she’s alone at her family’s apartment one day, she spends some time looking at the greenhouses on a nearby farm called the Samellson Estate, and some of Jennifer’s cryptic comments about Hilary Ezra’s origins and her father being a “plant wizard” fall into place. The more Elizabeth thinks about it, the more the things Jennifer acquired for their “spells” make sense and the more Jennifer herself begins to make sense. Then, Jennifer makes the first move in repairing their friendship.

One of the important points about this story that helps make Jennifer more understandable as a character is that she’s African American and this book was written in the 1960s. The book doesn’t refer to Jennifer’s race or describe her physical appearance apart from her clothes until about halfway through the story, although she does appear in pictures before that. The 1960s was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, and in 1967, when this book was first published, Martin Luther King, Jr. was still live. School desegregations were a recent issue, and the only time in the book that Elizabeth mentions race is when she notices Jennifer’s mother at the performance of the school play for the PTA, when she says that she knew that the woman must be Jennifer’s mother because “she was the only Negro mother there.” This one line says, without really saying it, that Jennifer is the only African American kid in her class because if there was even one other, the black woman in the audience could have been somebody else’s mother. When the story begins, each of the girls has a reason to feel like an outcast – Elizabeth because she’s new at school and doesn’t know anybody and Jennifer because she’s the only black kid. Both of them are lonely, and they’re actually a good fit for each other in terms of their interests, but in order to become real friends, they have to learn to relate to each other without the cover of their made-up witchcraft rituals. After Elizabeth realizes where Jennifer actually lives and what her life is really like, and Jennifer shows that she cares about Elizabeth’s feelings, the two of them are able to bond as friends instead of witches.

Elizabeth never explains why Jennifer came up with the witch idea in the first place, and the book ends soon after their friendship is repaired, so it’s left up to the readers’ imaginations. It might have something to do with feeling like an outcast because of her race and because her father is a blue-collar worker when the kids who live in the nearby apartment building are the children of white-collar workers. Because Jennifer feels different from other kids and often spends time alone, reading books and playing games of pretend, she might have felt uncomfortable explaining herself to Elizabeth, fearing that she might not accept her. Training Elizabeth to be a witch gave the two girls a reason to see each other, adventures to share, and something interesting to talk about. As long as Elizabeth needed Jennifer to teach her witch things, Jennifer would feel confident that she’d stick around as a friend. The girls gave that up when Jennifer realized that Elizabeth would be her friend anyway and might actually like her better just as Jennifer instead of a witch.

The book is a Newbery Honor book. It’s available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

Cassie Bowen Takes Witch Lessons

Cassie Bowen Takes Witch Lessons by Anna Grossnickle Hines, 1985.

Cassie Bowen and Brenda Bolter have been friends for years, but lately, Brenda has been getting friendlier with Sylvia, another girl in their fourth grade class at school. Sylvia is a mean girl, and the favorite target of her meanness is Agatha Gifford, the new girl at school. Sylvia likes to call her “Saggy Aggy” and “Thrifty Gifford” because Agatha always comes to school wearing dresses that are too loose on her and Sylvia thinks that she probably got them at a thrift store. Most of the girls at school wear brand new jeans, not dresses. Agatha doesn’t bother to fight back when the other girls tease her, and Cassie doesn’t know what to say or do about it, even though the teasing makes her uncomfortable, too.

Even if the other girls are right about Agatha wearing used clothes, Cassie can understand. Cassie wears jeans like most of the other girls, but hers are actually hand-me-downs from an older cousin. (The story of my own youth, too. Thrift stores are the story of my present because I still don’t have much money, and anything I don’t spend on clothes is something I could potentially use to buy books, most of which will also be used because I like older books and because it maximizes my buying power. Life and budgets are about priorities.) Cassie’s mother hasn’t had money to buy new clothes since Cassie’s parents got divorced. The book is vague about what happened in Cassie’s family before the divorce, but Cassie’s father now lives in another state and doesn’t even write or communicate with the family, and he’s certainly not sending money. Cassie’s mother says that he’s got to sort out his life, and Cassie says that her father is kind of a “creep” now, but the book doesn’t go any deeper into it. It’s more important that Cassie’s family is now tight on money, and Cassie has mixed feelings about the divorce. On the one hand, she misses her father and wishes that the divorce had never happened, but on the other, she’s also angry with her father for his part in the divorce and the ways that he changed from the father she knew and loved before. Cassie’s mother says that everyone changes over time, and sometimes, when they change, they grow apart. Cassie will soon come to understand that better through her experiences with Brenda.

Cassie doesn’t like the ways that Brenda is changing, and she resents Brenda sharing the secret hideout they built with Sylvia without even talking it over with her. One day, when the girls are going to their secret fort, they pass the old house where Agatha lives with her grandmother. There are neighborhood rumors that Mrs. Gifford is actually a witch because her old house looks kind of creepy and she often does odd things, like talking to her plants. As the girls pass her house, they hear her talking to her flowers, and suddenly, Sylvia trips up Brenda so that she goes sprawling into the flower bed. As Mrs. Gifford laments about her flowers, Sylvia dramatically exclaims that they must pick some flowers and actually starts yanking more out of the bed until Mrs. Gifford angrily chases them off with a broom.

Cassie is appalled by the entire incident, although she admits that it was funny, watching Mrs. Gifford chase the other girls. Brenda is fascinated with Sylvia because of the daring way she likes to show off and grab attention, and it inspires her to do the same thing, finding ways to make fun of people or cause trouble. It upsets Cassie, who just wants Brenda to be the same Brenda she’s always known. Brenda also tells Cassie that Sylvia has amazing things in her room, like a collection of glass animal figurines. Sylvia even gives her one to keep. Also, Sylvia’s parents supposedly let her stay up as late as she wants, and she can usually get her way with them just by throwing a tantrum. Brenda thinks that all this is cool, which makes her different from the kids I knew growing up. Most self-respecting fourth graders were beyond tantrums and would have been called babies if they had admitted to having one at that age. Having great clothes and a lot of cool stuff in her room would have gone a long way, though.

When the children’s teacher, Mr. Gardner, assigns the kids partners to work on presenting a story to the rest of the class, Cassie hopes that she and Brenda will be partners so that things can be like they were before. However, Brenda and Sylvia end up being partners, and Cassie is assigned to Agatha. Cassie isn’t enthusiastic about it, and Agatha notices, but Cassie decides that she’s going to be as friendly as she can. She asks Agatha about which story she would like to present to the class because she doesn’t like reading that much, and Agatha says that she knows because she’s noticed that Cassie is better at math. Cassie is surprised that Agatha would know that, considering how new she is, and Agatha says that she envies her because she’s been having trouble with fractions. Agatha says that she really likes the story The Nightingale because it reminds her of a beautiful music box that her grandmother owns, and Cassie is fascinated.

One day, when Cassie’s brother is off playing baseball and Brenda and Sylvia are working on their project together, Cassie passes by Agatha’s house and is invited in. Cassie hesitates at first because the house is creepy, but she has to work on the project with Agatha, so she accepts. Agatha’s grandmother serves the girls rose hip tea and cookies. Cassie thinks that rose hip tea sounds weird at first, but it tastes nice. Mrs. Gifford is an eccentric lady, but rather sweet. She introduces Cassie to Roberto, her favorite plant. Part of the reason why she talks to plants is that she lived alone and was lonely before Agatha came to live with her. She is also a member of the same gardening club that Cassie’s mother belongs to. Cassie uses the cookies at tea to explain fractions to Agatha, and Mrs. Gifford shows Cassie her music box, which is beautiful. The music box is special to Mrs. Gifford because it was the last present her father gave her before his death, when she was about the age of the girls now. Cassie understands the feeling because she prizes the teddy bear that her father gave her before he went away.

The more Cassie learns about the Giffords, the less strange they seem, and she no longer believes that Mrs. Gifford is a witch. Agatha tells Cassie that she lives with her grandmother because her parents were killed in a car accident. The only other family she has is an older sister who is away at college, which is why Agatha can’t live with her. Cassie acknowledges that Agatha’s situation is worse than hers because, even though Cassie misses her father, she’s not an orphan. Agatha also explains that the reason why she wears those dresses to school is that her old school was a private church school, where all the girls were required to wear dresses. When Cassie explains to Agatha’s grandmother that there is no requirement about dresses at their school and that most of the girls wear jeans, Agatha’s grandmother is surprised and says that she didn’t realize, so she buys Agatha some new clothes, taking Cassie with them on their shopping trip.

The new clothes fit Agatha better, and Cassie hopes that they will help her fit in better at school, but Sylvia and Brenda won’t let up on the teasing. In fact, Sylvia seems irritated at Agatha dressing more normally and mocks her, saying, “What’s she trying to do? Act like a normal person?” Cassie tries to tell them that Agatha is normal, but they don’t believe her. Soon after, Brenda asks Cassie if she wants to hang out when she’s on her way to see Agatha again about their project. In an effort to get Brenda to ease up on Agatha, Cassie asks Brenda to come with her so that she can see for herself that Agatha and her grandmother are fine.

The Giffords are nice to Brenda, but during the visit, Mrs. Gifford’s special music box disappears. Agatha says that Brenda stole it, and Cassie gets offended by the accusation, saying that Agatha is making it up and telling her that she doesn’t want to be friends anymore out of loyalty to Brenda. Unfortunately … Agatha was right, and Cassie is shocked when she discovers the truth. Cassie retrieves the music box from Brenda, but with Brenda and Sylvia both angry at her for taking the music box back and Agatha and her grandmother probably mad at her for bringing Brenda to their house in the first place and siding with her over the theft, what is Cassie going to do?

I think the ending of the story is very realistic, although it does leave some things unresolved. Agatha does forgive Cassie for not believing her after Cassie returns the music box. Cassie doesn’t tattle on Brenda and Sylvia because they had accused her of being a tattletale earlier, but she does eventually tell her mother everything that has been happening with Sylvia and Brenda. Her mother reassures Cassie that she did the right thing, even if Brenda didn’t. She says that it sounds like Cassie is angry at Brenda for a lot of things besides this, and Cassie agrees that she doesn’t like it that Brenda is so mean sometimes. Cassie mother says that everyone changes, and sometimes, they change for the better and sometimes for the worse. Cassie doesn’t think she and Brenda will ever be friends again, and her mother says that someday Brenda will also get tired of Sylvia’s meanness, but even if she doesn’t, Cassie will find plenty of other friends. Cassie realizes that she and Agatha really do understand each other, and she’s glad when they make up. At school, Sylvia and Brenda both tease Cassie now, saying that she’s taking witch lessons from the Giffords. It hurts Cassie’s feelings to see her old friend turn against her, but she follows Agatha’s advice and ignores them.

Sylvia and Brenda are never punished for the things they’ve done, which is sadly the case for most of the little bullies I knew as a kid. However, it is nice that Cassie and Agatha realize that they are better friends for each other than either Brenda or Sylvia would have been. I noticed that there is also potential for them to be friends with other people in their class besides Brenda and Sylvia. When Cassie got to school at the end of the book, a girl named Stacy asked her if she wanted to play tether ball, which shows that other girls don’t think badly of her for hanging out with Agatha. I also wished that the book would show more of Pam, who had been Sylvia’s best friend at the beginning of the book before Sylvia and Brenda started hanging out. After being abandoned by Sylvia, perhaps she would also be open to making some new friends. Cassie and Agatha might have other options for making new friends.

There is no magic in the story or witchcraft of any kind. In fact, Brenda and Sylvia probably never really believed that Agatha or her grandmother are actually witches. It’s more that, for reasons of their own, Sylvia and Brenda were looking for someone to pick on, and the “witch” accusations were just their excuse. That’s why they were so irritated when Agatha started dressing like the other girls. If their excuse for bullying Agatha disappeared, they didn’t want to lose their ability to bully her. It was never about making Agatha dress or act like the other girls; it was always about Sylvia and Brenda’s need to have someone to victimize. The truth is that even if the Giffords had seemed less strange in the beginning, Sylvia and Brenda probably would either have picked on them anyway or maybe selected some other victim, perhaps going straight to Cassie as their first choice, because they were looking for a victim and would have found one eventually because that was always their goal.

Mystery of the Witches Bridge

Mystery of the Witches’ Bridge by Barbee Oliver Carleton, 1967.

Thirteen-year-old Dan Pride is an orphan. His father was an international correspondent, and during his early years, Dan lived in different European countries, as his parents traveled around to his father’s assignments. However, three years ago, his parents died in a plane crash. Since then, Dan has been living in a British boarding school. Now, he has returned to the United States to live with his father’s brother, Uncle Julian. Dan doesn’t know what to think about his new town because it’s very different from everything that he’s known before, but he likes the idea of belonging to a family once again because he has been lonely since his parents died.

The Pride family lives in a New England seacoast town. They were one of the founding families of the town in Puritan times, but Dan discovers that the local people aren’t particularly friendly with the Pride family. Billy Ben Corey, a man who works for his Uncle Julian, explains that the Pride family has been rather stand-offish with the townspeople, and there are also rumors and stories about witches that go back to Puritan times. Billy Ben says that most of the modern locals don’t really know all the details of the witch incidents, but the vague rumors that have circulated about the Pride family have caused the townspeople to treat them with suspicion.

This sounds like a somewhat sinister beginning to Dan’s life in York, Massachusetts as he comes to understand how much of life there is governed by the past relationships between the oldest families of the area. Billy Ben tells him that the Coreys have worked for the Prides for generations, but relations between the Prides and the Bishop family haven’t been good and that Dan should avoid them.

Dan presses Billy Ben for more information, and Billy Ben tells him the story of how one of his ancestors, Samuel Pride, was accused of witchcraft back in Puritan times. Some unfortunate happenings at the time, which were probably just the result of bad luck and bad weather, were blamed on him because he was kind of an odd, temperamental person. He was known for playing the fiddle extremely well, and people said that he used it to summon up the devil in the form of a black dog out of the marsh. The person who made the accusation and who led the group that came to arrest Samuel Pride was an ancestor of the Bishop family. Samuel came out to meet the group that came to apprehend them on the old stone bridge that leads to the island in the marsh where the Pride family has their house and farm, Pride’s Point. The story goes that when Samuel met the mob on the bridge, he placed a curse on them, that doom would come for them out of the night, out of the fog, and out of the marsh. Samuel and his wife were executed for witchcraft, and not only after, there was a terrible fog and a sickness that killed many people in town. People said that it was the result of Samuel’s curse. That’s why the Prides and the Bishops have a bad relationship even though they’re neighbors, why the townspeople are still a little suspicious of the Prides, why the Prides are somewhat standoffish of the townspeople (When you think about it, who really wants to be outgoing and friendly with people whose ancestors not only killed yours but who are not welcoming or friendly themselves because they have continually looked at you and your family with suspicion for generations, like you’re the weird ones? The townspeople basically created this situation and have been perpetuating it ever since, yet they act like the problem is with the Pride family instead of themselves. Gaslighting is a relatively new term from the 20th century, but the concept has been around forever, used even by people who don’t know what it is and that it’s what they’re really doing.), and why people in the area are afraid of the stone bridge that they call the Witches’ Bridge, the place where the curse was supposedly delivered. Even into modern times, people in the area see strange lights in the marsh and hear mysterious fiddle music or dog howls that they think might be Samuel’s ghost.

There is still more to come because the mysterious misfortunes of the Pride family have continued even into modern times. Dan is named for his grandfather, Daniel Pride, who died suddenly under very mysterious circumstances, something that still haunts his Uncle Julian. Young Dan learns the story from Mrs. Corey, a relative of Billy Ben’s, who is Uncle Julian’s housekeeper. Daniel Pride had been working to change the family’s image in the eyes of the local people, debunk all the old ghost and witch stories, and lay past quarrels to rest. To try to make peace with the Bishop family and restore the Pride family’s former fortunes, Daniel had been trying to arrange to buy the shipyards that the Bishop family owned, which had formerly been owned by the Pride family. The Bishop family initially agreed to the sale, and one foggy night, Daniel went to see the Bishops to finalize the sale. What happened after that is still a mystery. Daniel was found dead the next day near the old chapel with a look of terror on his face. It’s known that he had a heart condition, so he apparently had a heart attack, but from the marks on the ground, it also appears that he had been running before he collapsed, possibly deliberately frightened to death. Also, there were marks on the ground nearby where his briefcase fell, but the briefcase containing the sale papers was never found. The superstitious people in the area think that Daniel’s death was another symptom of the family’s curse, but it might also have been deliberate murder and theft. The Bishop family insist that they never finalized the sale of the shipyard with Daniel before his death, but Uncle Julian believes that the sale was finalized and that the Bishops are lying to take advantage of his father’s sudden death, just like their ancestors arranged the execution of Samuel for their own advantage. Uncle Julian remains suspicious and bitter about what has happened, just as the townspeople continue to look at the Prides suspiciously.

All of this makes York seem like it’s not the best place to raise a sensitive young orphan, and that’s basically what Uncle Julian says to Dan when Dan arrives at Pride’s Point. Uncle Julian seems elderly and physically frail, and Dan senses that he is a deeply troubled man. Uncle Julian tells Dan that the family and the old family home have a troubled history. That’s why Dan’s father decided to go away and live his life traveling to different places, and that’s why Uncle Julian delayed sending for Dan for so long after his parents’ deaths. Uncle Julian doesn’t seem to think that Pride’s Point is a very healthy place, and he hints at buried secrets. However, he does say that, now that Dan is there, there are going to have to be some changes.

Dan doesn’t think this sounds too hopeful, and he’s lonely and disappointed that he hasn’t found the happy family and home he was hoping for and that he doesn’t even seem particularly welcome there. He can’t even really enjoy playing his violin because of the connection people there seem to have between “fiddle” music, witchcraft, and his supposedly sinister ancestor. As Dan is looking around his new bedroom that night, he suddenly spots a mysterious flashing light from his window, outside in the marsh. It’s creepy because it not only supports all the ghost and witch stories that Dan has just heard but because he recognizes the patterns in the flashes of light as Morse Code … and the message being sent is his own name: D-A-N P-R-I-D-E.

Dan doesn’t believe that any supernatural force was using Morse Code to flash his name at night. It was obviously some human person, but who would do that and why? What is the truth about his grandfather’s death? Is Uncle Julian right that the Bishops caused Daniel Pride to die and then lied about the sale of the shipyard to cheat the Pride family? Or is someone else responsible?

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

My Reaction

I stand by my earlier statement that there is basically inter-generational gaslighting of the Pride family going on. It’s gone on for so long that the townspeople have trouble recognizing what they’re doing or stopping themselves from doing it, even though some of them seem to have the feeling that it isn’t right. At one point, some of the townspeople who come out to Pride’s Point to help fight a fire make jokes about the Pride curse. I could sense tension in them, and I think it was an attempt to lighten the mood, but under the circumstances, it wasn’t really appropriate for them to joke around, especially not about something that’s been a sensitive topic for the Prides, something that has literally caused members of their family to die and others to be persecuted for generations. Keep your audience in mind, and learn how to read a room, people of York!

Uncle Julian hates the stories and rumors that have circulated about his family since before he was born, but he doesn’t know what to do to stop it, and he sometimes wonders if it wouldn’t be better for the family to simply leave their old family home and start up again somewhere else. Mrs. Corey tells Dan that every single time anything bad happens in the area, people either look at the Prides suspiciously or find a way to blame them, even though they didn’t have anything to do with whatever it was. Dan can tell that Uncle Julian is so accustomed to having people blame him and his family for things and repeat scary stories about them that he halfway believes the stories in spite of himself, and he’s overly sensitive anytime it looks like the townspeople might be trying to blame the Prides for something yet again. That’s what makes this situation gaslighting, because the community’s constant untrue stories have warped even the Prides’ sense of reality and views of themselves. The community of York as a whole has created a situation that makes it difficult for the Prides to make friends with other people and get reality checks, and the most dangerous part of it is that among the few people that the Prides are in the habit of trusting is someone who turns out to be the person they should fear the most.

I couldn’t help but notice that there was someone in the story that Dan trusted too much in the beginning. It’s partly because Dan is young and in a situation where he is just getting to know the circumstances and people involved, but even when this person says things that are untrue, contradictory, or just plain mean, he doesn’t call him on it or seem to question within himself why this person is talking like that, at least not until about the middle of the book. Gaslighters will do this to a person, playing mind games, lying, alternately being friendly and praising their victim and then putting down their victim and/or trying to blacken their name to other people, discouraging them from getting close to people who care about them and might actually help them, acting like normal things that the victim does or feels are somehow weird or abnormal, trying to keep their victims in a constant state of confusion, unsure of what the reality of the situation really is. Although I found myself angry with the people of York in a general way for perpetuating something awful that their ancestors did for generations and for being apparently oblivious to what they’re doing in modern times, there is a definite villain in the story who is both deliberately and concretely evil.

There is a parallel drawn in the story between Uncle Julian’s big, black dog, Caliban, who is disfigured from an old injury and the Pride family themselves. Dan is afraid of the big dog, and Billy Ben tells him that it attacked him once, but Uncle Julian says that Caliban is just distrustful because he was badly abused and injured in his earlier life. People are like that, too. I understand that because I used to volunteer at an animal shelter, and that’s where I got my dog, Betty. (If you look at my About page, you’ll see a picture of Betty.)

I’ll never know Betty’s complete history because she was found wandering alone without a collar before she was brought to the shelter. However, I’m pretty good at reading between the lines, and I can read at least part of the story from her behavior. Betty is afraid of anyone, even me, walking behind her, and I’ve noticed since her shelter days that sometimes, her back end looks a little off-center when she runs. Her tail has an odd, permanent bend at the very tip that we didn’t discover until we had the hair on it trimmed. I think she’s been kicked hard from behind before, hard enough to leave permanent injury. She’s not as scared of things as she used to be after having lived with my family for a few years, but she used to be terrified of newspapers or anybody standing over her with anything in their hands, so I think she’s been hit with things before. Betty also gets scared when people laugh. She’s not as scared as she used to be because she’s gotten used to us laughing at something funny on tv, but there are times when she’s cringed and slunk away with her tail between her legs from people when they laugh and she can’t figure out why they’re laughing. Betty’s fear of laughter actually disturbs me because I think I know why it scares her. Based on her reaction, I’ve think that it’s likely that whoever hurt Betty before laughed when they did it. I think Betty has an association between laughter and pain, and that’s why she takes laughter as a bad sign, reacting fearfully to it when she thinks it might be directed at her. Laughing while inflicting pain is a sick thing to do, the product of a sick mind. There are stories in Betty’s reactions, and I’m disturbed by the mental picture I have of the person who had Betty before.

I have to admit that my own history has also both colored/given me insight into Betty’s behavior. If it isn’t obvious from comments in my previous reviews, I don’t see teasing as a positive thing. I’ve reacted to it in the past much like Betty does to sudden, unexplained laughter, which is why I understand the feeling behind it. Some people say that they like to tease their friends and people they like, but I just don’t like it, and I’ve learned to be more open and honest about how I never will like it. I do not have good feelings about people who tease others for fun, and I deeply resent being told that I have to like it because the people doing it are “just having fun.” It’s not a bonding activity, not with me, no matter who says it is. I absolutely refuse to “bond” with anyone who does it. Anyone telling me that I have to change myself to like people who tease is 100% guaranteed to get on my bad side. I have a bad history with teasing and bullying, I have a bad history with the people who do it, and I just don’t want to be around it. Teasing involves getting a laugh at someone else’s expense, benefiting from their discomfort, and getting a good feeling from making someone else feel bad. I don’t think any of that is right, and it doesn’t take much for it to get way out of hand, especially when people have the impulse press harder to get the reaction they want to their “jokes”, like the other person just didn’t get it, instead of cutting it out when their “jokes” just aren’t funny. It’s always awkward when it comes from people who don’t know the sore spots that they shouldn’t poke at and try to act like they’re special friends who should be cut some slack when the reality is that we don’t really know each other that well, we’re not really close friends, and no such special relationship actually exists between us. Real friends understand and demonstrate respect for each others’ feelings, and they don’t intentionally poke at a friend’s sore spots, like the people of York did to Uncle Julian with their jokes in this story.

What ties all of this together is that Betty’s reaction to laughter is like Uncle Julian’s reaction to the townspeople and their jokes and comments; it’s a conditioned response from long-term negative association. The townspeople are uneasy because Uncle Julian doesn’t laugh with them, but Uncle Julian doesn’t laugh with the townspeople because none of it was actually funny. By perpetuating these witch stories, even in the form of “jokes”, they’re constantly feeding the myths and ghost stories and making the situation worse, and they don’t seem to care about how he or his family feels or how it affects their lives. You can tell who respects you and who doesn’t by seeing who tries to treat you the way you want to be treated. The people of York were making jokes to soothe their own feelings, sharing in-jokes that they’ve had with each other at the Prides’ expense, and they got really uncomfortable when suddenly confronted with Uncle Julian’s, feelings that they helped to provoke and didn’t want to deal with.

Don’t worry about Betty. It’s sad that she’s been afraid of things and it’s kept her from being more outgoing and friendly, but we’re working through it. In non-pandemic times, I take her to places where I know she’s welcome, and she has acquired a fan club of people who like to see her and say hi whenever we visit. Anytime she seems uneasy because we’re laughing about something, I sit next to her, pet her, and praise her for being a Good Girl so she knows that nobody is trying to be mean to her and that we value her. When someone has been programmed through negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement is needed for balance. I’m trying to build more positive associations for her. It’s working, and she’s improving. She behaves very well and is very happy little dog when she’s treated well. Don’t worry about me, either. I’ve had some bad experiences, but I’m not the only one who’s had to deal with this stuff. There are lots of different kinds of people in the world, and I’ve learned some things about finding the kind of people I want to be around and making it clear how I want to be treated. I just gripe and vent now and then because I don’t like mean behavior or seeing others in these situations, and I’m all out of patience for it. I’ve learned what to do to help remedy such problems, but that doesn’t stop me from resenting the people who create problems that need to be solved.

The way both people and animals behave offers clues about what’s been happening with them. Sometimes, they offer warning signs of people to avoid, and sometimes, they are signs that the person or animal is in distress and needs some outside help and support. Caliban’s behavior in the story is more defensive than aggressive. That is, Caliban is reacting, not instigating … and if I saw what Dan saw in the story, I would know immediately to be very suspicious of the person Caliban hates the most because it explains where the source of harm in his life is. In a similar way, the Pride family is mostly reacting, not instigating. They have been harmed, both physically and psychologically, for an extended period of time, and while they seem to have the sense that’s the case, they’ve been too close to the problem for too long to see what the source of the greatest harm really is. But, about halfway through the book, Dan does learn to correctly read the people around him and comes to realize who is really his friend and how isn’t, based not on how others talk about them but by how they each actually treat him. When you pay attention and think about people’s actions in context, you can see who really has your best interests at heart and who doesn’t.

Dan spends much of the story, particularly at the beginning, feeling like he is unwanted, both in York and at Pride’s Point. At first, he thinks that his Uncle Julian doesn’t want him, but he gradually realizes that’s not it. There is someone else who doesn’t want Dan there, for reasons of their own. As I was reading, I noted times when this person said and did things that manipulated Dan’s feelings, even actively trying to make Dan feel bad while carefully seeming “honest” or “helpful” so Dan would continue to listen. I felt so much better when Dan finally realized the truth about this person. I have to say that I was really angry with Uncle Julian when I discovered that he was fully aware of who hurt his dog and that he still trusted this person. For me, the first hint of that would have caused me to permanently sever the relationship because it’s sick behavior and a sign of a disturbed mind, but I can only suppose that he felt unable to because he had been dependent on this person for too long, largely shunned by the wider community, who could have given him a reality check if they’d had a firmer grasp on reality themselves.

Dan, who had never heard of the Bishops before arriving in York, finds himself becoming angry and resentful of them, hating them for what they’ve done to his family for generations. His uncle even warns him not to get involved with the family, but that’s exactly what the real villain wants. When Dan makes friends with a boy named Pip Cole and his twin sister, Gilly, he confides his anger at the Bishops and how he blames them for this whole mess and for perpetuating it for generations, but Pip knows more about the situation than Dan suspects, and he has seen a different side of the problem. Pip tells Dan his family would have less problems if they would just forgive the Bishops, but Dan doesn’t believe it at first because, the way he sees it, the Bishops are the villains, who have actively profited from their villainy all along. I appreciate Dan’s situation. Pip doesn’t fully appreciate that, for Dan and his uncle, it’s not just about the past because they’re still actively suffering from the townspeople’s stories, rumors, and suspicions about them. It’s hard and maybe impossible to forgive something that’s ongoing from people who see no problem with the situation and aren’t particularly sorry. On the other hand, the resolution of this situation requires at least one of the parties involved to make the first move. Dan’s grandfather was trying, but his mysterious death prevented his mission from being completed. Even Uncle Julian reveals that he had been prepared to forgive the Bishops and marry their daughter, but some of the circumstances of his father’s death led him to believe that his fiance actually had a hand in it, and that apparent betrayal is what has left him such a haunted man all of these years.

The stories that Dan has heard about his family are not the complete story. Dan eventually comes to realize that the Prides and the Bishops each have only half of the real story, and because of their reluctance to associate with each other, the Bishops partly out of continued superstition and guilt, not knowing how to deal with the Prides’ anger, and the Prides, because they are both justifiably angry and accustomed to unfair treatment and being shunned by the community. However, it’s important that they do talk to each other because it’s the only way for each of them to get the complete picture of what’s really been happening and learn the real villain’s true motives.

The key to establishing the truth is in the missing briefcase, and both Dan and his enemy are searching for it. Dan needs to make peace with his family’s past, and he finds some help from a mysterious hermit called Lamie, who lives alone in the marsh. Lamie is another outcast of the York community. People avoid him because he has a reputation for being weird. People in this community in general may be “normal” in the sense that their behavior is fairly uniform, but uniformity by itself isn’t a virtue. When you’ve got an entire community doing something they shouldn’t, being the odd one out can be a good thing. Lamie helps Dan when he needs it, and Dan discovers that Lamie is actually a very kind and understanding person. Lamie’s solitary lifestyle is rather unorthodox, but he’s actually happy in his solitude because he knows who he is, he takes care of himself, he’s comfortable with himself, and he’s living the kind of life he likes, in touch with the natural world. When Dan talks to Lamie, he realizes that Lamie is comfortable with his own identity and at peace in his own mind in a way that his uncle isn’t. Even more importantly, Lamie sees things from a different perspective because he isn’t part of the groupthink of this community.

Lamie was friends with Dan’s grandfather, and he tells Dan about a hidden chamber built by the Prides’ ancestors, where Dan’s grandfather kept important family papers. However, Lamie tells Dan that he isn’t sure that he should look for it if his only motive is revenge. Dan does have a desire for revenge after all of the stories of injustice toward his family that he’s heard and what he’s suffered himself since he arrived in this area. Lamie helps to calm Dan’s desire for revenge by quoting from St. Francis of Assisi, emphasizing the importance of forgiveness instead of revenge. The part about truth speaks to Dan, and he comes to realize that what he really wants, more than revenge, is to know the truth about what happened to his grandfather. Lamie tells him that he saw some of what happened the night his grandfather died, from a distance. Because of the fog, he couldn’t see everything, but he knows that the Bishops were telling the truth that Dan’s grandfather didn’t make it to their place that night to complete their deal, defusing Dan’s anger at them for their supposed lies. Lamie’s memories also give him clues about the true identity of his grandfather’s attacker and the location of the secret hiding place. However, to find it and to evade his enemy, Dan will need the help of the very people his uncle has forbidden him to associate with.

I found the parts about the gaslighting of the Pride family and the poisonous duality of their true enemy frustrating and anger-inducing, but once Dan speaks to Lamie (really, my favorite charcter in the story) and begins to sort out who he can trust and who he can’t, I felt a lot better. The story is very atmospheric, with a grand old house and property, surrounded by a foggy marsh, and even when the characters know who their enemy really is, they are kind of trapped with him in a dangerous cat-and-mouse situation as they both race to find what they’re really looking for. By the end of the book, all of the old mysteries are wrapped up, including the source of the the mysterious “fiddler” music.

The Vanishing Scarecrow

The Vanishing Scarecrow by Phyllis A. Whitney, 1971.

Joan Lang and her mother are moving from their town in Connecticut to Rainbow Island, where Joan’s Great Uncle Agate Benson owned his own amusement park. However, the move is sad because Great Uncle Agate’s death in a skiing accident has so closely followed Joan’s father’s death from a long illness. Joan and her mother knew that they were going to have to move to a smaller house because they could no longer afford their bigger one, and Uncle Agate’s sudden death means that they will inherit his house on Rainbow Island and the amusement park that goes with it. Joan and Uncle Agate had been writing letters to each other since her father’s death, and he made her feel less lonely, so Joan knows that she will miss him, but she is looking forward to seeing the amusement park that he had described to her.

However, the terms of Uncle Agate’s will are unusual, and his lawyer is vague on some aspects of them. What they know is that they must live at Rainbow Island and manage the amusement park for three years in order to gain full ownership. If they decide to leave before that time, Uncle Agate has another plan for the amusement park, but the lawyer refuses to tell them what it is immediately.

When they arrive at Rainbow Island, they meet Mrs. Fuller, who works at the amusement park’s gift shop and lives there with her two sons, Peter and Kent. Mrs. Fuller hopes that Kent and Joan will be friends because they’re close in age. Kent doesn’t seem particularly friendly at first, and when Joan confronts him about that, he says that he’s just trying to figure out what she and her mother are going to be like. Kent, like other people who live and work at Rainbow Island, was very attached to Uncle Agate. He appreciated his vision and imagination, and he misses him now that he’s gone. He has trouble believing that things will ever be like they were with Uncle Agate.

Mrs. Fuller and Kent both mention strange things that have been happening at the amusement park recently, including a scarecrow that frightened Mrs. Riddell, the wife of Wilson Riddell, who manages the park, but she says that she’d better let Mr. Riddell explain the situation. When Joan and her mother go to Uncle Agate old house to begin unpacking their things, Mr. Riddell comes to talk to them. He doesn’t seem particularly or welcoming, either. When Joan’s mother tries to ask him about the scarecrow incident, he explains that someone, possibly a teenage prankster, has been pulling tricks around the park lately. Earlier that day, someone ran right through the Riddell house, terrifying Mrs. Riddell. Mrs. Riddell is described as being a very nervous person who is somewhat unwell, so Mr. Riddell seems uncertain whether his wife actually saw a person dressed as a scarecrow, as she described, or if that was her imagination. Earlier, she also claimed to see a witch. The idea of someone in a scarecrow costume is plausible because the amusement park includes a field of scarecrows, and they do have a spare scarecrow costume that they’ve used in the past to make it look like one of the scarecrows has come to life, to give guests a bit of a thrill. However, the employee who normally wears the costume hasn’t worn it for some time, and it seems like the work of a prankster.

As Kent shows Joan around the amusement park, they meet up with Peter in the Wizard’s Fortress, where he points out that someone has been messing around with the dioramas of historical scenes, moving some of the little figures around to scenes where they don’t belong. In the dungeon of the fortress, Joan meets up with Mr. Riddell’s daughter, Sheri, who is also about her age. Sheri has found the costume the scarecrow was wearing under some straw. Joan isn’t sure that she trusts Sheri because of the strange way she acts and how she seems to be sneaking around, keeping secrets, and playing weird pranks and tricks.

Could Sheri have something to do with the mysterious scarecrow, or could it be Emery Holt, the man who did odd jobs for Uncle Agate and sometimes wore the scarecrow costume as an act in the park? Another suspect could be Jud Millikin, an escaped convict who used to live in the area and who still has family living nearby. Joan and her mother hear people whispering about him, wondering if he might have come back to see his sick daughter, although people say it isn’t likely that he’d show his face in town since the police are looking for him. But why would he want to sabotage the Rainbow Island amusement park? Joan considers that there might be an answer closer to home when she learns that the Riddells and the Fullers don’t really get along, and there seems to be a silent power struggle between them for control of the park. Either of the families might want the other to leave, plus Joan and her mother, so they can be in charge.

Joan finds a message and an audio recording left behind by Uncle Agate for her, in which he seems to have had a premonition of his impending death and saying that the reason why he wants Joan and her mother to manage the park with Mr. Riddell is that the park needs someone with a fresh imagination to keep creating new exhibits and keep the park interesting for new generations of children. Joan wants to find out who is sabotaging the park and to keep Uncle Agate’s vision for the park alive, but her mother isn’t so sure that the situation is going to work for them.

Joan does have a fantastic imagination. She loves writing and making up stories, and she finds the atmosphere of the amusement park inspiring. However, Joan’s mother worries sometimes that Joan lives too much in her stories and doesn’t face up to reality enough. When Joan accuses her of not liking her stories, her mother says it’s not that, it’s just that writers also need a grounding in real life and the real world, and that it’s not good to use fantasies as a way of ignoring real life. She says that Uncle Agate was like that. Uncle Agate and his sister were orphaned from a young age, and while his sister was adopted by a family, Uncle Agate remained in the orphanage for the rest of his youth. When he grew up, he became successful in the toy industry, which was how he gained enough money and expertise to start his amusement park. However, Joan’s mother believes that much of what he did with the park was trying to live out childhood fantasies from his deprived youth and forget the hard realities of it. Joan’s mother says that she finds the real world outside of the amusement park more compelling, and she doesn’t want Joan to live too much in fantasy.

Joan is attracted to fantasy, but she’s realistic enough to know that there won’t be any hope for the park until she learns the true identity of the mysterious scarecrow that is trying to sabotage it. In the recorded message he left for Joan, Uncle Agate refers to a “right place” where Joan will find instructions that will tell her what to do. As Joan explores the the amusement park, familiarizing herself with the attractions and exhibits, she searches for the place that Uncle Agate referred to. Along the way, she has frightening encounters with someone dressed as a witch and the dangerous scarecrow among the regular figures in the exhibits.

The atmosphere of the story is great, and the author does a good job of making everyone Joan meets look like a potential villain or accomplice. All through the book, I kept changing my mind about who the real scarecrow was, and there are red herrings in the form of other people dressing up in costumes. Joan is never sure who to trust. There is a major twist toward the end of the book that turns the entire situation on its head. The rest of the ending after the scarecrow’s identity was revealed seemed a little abrupt to me, but the story has a good overall message.

At the beginning of the story, Joan does actually look at the amusement park on Rainbow Island as a kind of fantastic sanctuary from her problems, where she can escape from the sad loss of her father and uncle and the problems she’s been having at school. However, she learns that the amusement park isn’t really a sanctuary because it has problems of its own and the people associated with it also have their problems. However, these are problems that Joan is more motivated to solve because they are more exciting than her problems back home and the stakes are high. Joan and her mother have a frank discussion about facing up to life’s problems, and Joan points out that her mother’s impulse to run away from the park isn’t that different from her reluctance to face up to her problems with her schoolwork. Joan’s mother doesn’t find the park as interesting as Joan does, so she’s not as interested in trying to save it as Joan is. It’s similar to the way that Joan was unmotivated to work harder at school because it bored her, it was less imaginative than the creative writing she likes to do, and she was preoccupied with other major changes in her life. Joan’s mother acknowledges the truth of that, that it’s easier to try to solve a problem when you’re more motivated to work on it, and the two of them agree that, whatever else they do with their lives, they can’t just abandon the park without trying to catch the saboteur. All of the characters in the story get new perspectives on their lives, seeing how the park and their problems fit into a much bigger picture of life. Joan comes to understand that there are some problems that she’ll still have to face up to, like her school problems, no matter what else happens, and she sees that understanding the real problems that real people have is what will give her characters and stories greater depth.

A Spell is Cast

A Spell is Cast by Eleanor Cameron, 1974.

This story is fascinating and magical, partly because of other the stories that it reminds me of and partly because, at various points in the story, I was pretty sure that I knew what kind of book it was going to be, but I was never more than partly correct.

When young Cory Winterslow arrives at the airport in California, she expects to be met by her Uncle Dirk. Uncle Dirk has sent her letters before and a picture of himself, but they’ve never actually met in person. Cory is supposed to be spending Easter vacation with her relatives, the Van Heusens, a wealthy family living on an estate called Tarnhelm. Her mother, Stephanie, sent a telegram to the Van Heusens to tell them when Cory would arrive on the plane from New York, where they’ve been living, but no one shows up to meet Cory at the airport. This seems almost like the beginning of a gothic novel, with a young heroine on her way to meet people she’s never met who turn out to not really be expecting her and aren’t what they appear to be, but that’s not really the case here.

Fortunately, a sympathetic older woman who was also on the plane, Mrs. Smallwood, talks to Cory, who explains the situation. Mrs. Smallwood knows the Van Heusens, and she calls both the house at Tarnhelm and Uncle Dirk’s office. Apparently, Uncle Dirk never mentioned to his secretary that he needed to meet anyone that day, and he’s away on business until late. Nobody is home at Tarnhelm, but Mrs. Smallwood is optimistic that it’s all just an oversight, and she says that she’ll give Cory a ride to the house. Cory is hesitant to accept a ride from a stranger because she and Mrs. Smallwood have only just met, but it’s raining and she doesn’t know what else to do, so she goes with her. This part seems a bit worrying, but you don’t have to worry because it’s not a kidnapping story.

On the way to Tarnhelm, Mrs. Smallwood points out local sights, and Cory asks her a bit about her relatives. Cory’s mother has always been reluctant to talk about her relatives in California. Mrs. Smallwood describes Uncle Dirk as a young man who never smiles and his mother, Cory’s grandmother, as a high society woman who sometimes acknowledges acquaintances in public and sometimes doesn’t, depending on her mood, something that often offends Mrs. Smallwood, as one of those acquaintances. They also pick up a boy called Peter Hawthorne, who was out walking in the rain and needed a ride. He introduces himself to Cory as the president of the Explorers Club. His description of Cory’s Uncle Dirk doesn’t sound very favorable, either. However, he mentions that the sign for the mansion at Tarnhelm has a unicorn on it, just like the unicorn on the pendant that Cory wears, which she thinks of as her “amulet”, and Cory takes that as a hopeful sign.

Unfortunately, the Smallwoods’ car runs out of gas, but since it’s not raining anymore, Peter offers to walk Cory the rest of the way to Tarnhelm. Then, it starts to rain again, so they take shelter in a cave that Peter knows. While they wait out the storm, Peter asks Cory more about herself. Cory explains that she usually refers to her mother as “Stephanie” because she’s actually adopted. She later reveals that she doesn’t know anything about her birth parents because Stephanie doesn’t like to talk about them, saying that it makes her sad. Stephanie is an actress, and they’ve had to move around sometimes. Because she’s had to switch schools several times, Cory hasn’t made many friends her own age. Cory doesn’t always go with Stephanie when she travels for work, often staying at home with housekeepers (which she calls “lady-helps”) so she can continue going to school. Stephanie isn’t married, so Cory doesn’t have a father to take care of her. The reason why she has come to stay with her relatives during this school break is that Stephanie needs to travel again for her work and couldn’t manage to find new help to stay with Cory. This is the first mention that Cory’s “mother” isn’t really her mother and these relatives that she’s going to visit aren’t blood relatives. This is central to the plot of the book, but there’s a twist coming, and it’s not the twist that I expected. I had theories about the identities of Cory’s biological parents at this point that turned out to be completely wrong.

When the rain lets up a bit, Peter takes Cory the rest of the way to the house, although they leave her luggage in the cave because it’s too hard to carry it over the muddy ground. When they arrive at the house, the housekeeper, Fergie, welcomes Cory. She says that everyone has been in a tizzy about her because Stephanie actually sent multiple telegrams with different sets of instructions for picking up Cory, so nobody knew when she was really arriving. Fergie and her husband, Andrew Ferguson, both work for the Van Heusens, and they make Cory feel welcome at Tarnhelm, fussing over her and giving her and Peter a hot dinner. However, they tell Cory not to mention the cave to her grandmother because she wouldn’t understand and she might be unhappy about Cory showing up at the house wet and muddy. Peter promises to bring Cory’s luggage up to the house later. If this were a gothic novel style of story, the servants would be strict, unhappy, uncaring or putting on a facade of caring while being just plain sinister, but the Fergusons are exactly as caring and friendly as they seem to be.

The Fergusons are Scottish and a bit superstitious. At dinner, they notice that Cory is left-handed, “cawry-fisted”, as they call it. Peter is intrigued that “cawry” sounds like “Cory”, and the Fergusons say that there’s a superstition that left-handed people are enchanted or bewitched. However, the Fergusons don’t think it’s a bad thing that Cory is left-handed and possibly bewitched; it’s just more of an interesting idea to them. This story isn’t as supernatural as I originally expected.

The Fergusons tell Cory that her grandmother and uncle are good, kind people, but they aren’t used to children and are fussy about some things. Uncle Dirk is known to be moody, and Cory’s grandmother likes things quiet and orderly. Cory starts to think that she might be happier with just the Fergusons, although she is still curious about her relatives. She hopes that they will like her and, maybe if they like her enough, they’ll let her stay longer so she can go to Peter’s school and join his Explorers Club because she badly wants friends. Issues about how to make friends adds an element of teen drama to the story, but there’s more going on here than that.

The house is beautiful and charming, and Fergie gives Cory Stephanie’s old room, which Cory loves. It has beautiful, old-fashioned furniture and its own fireplace! She also shows Cory a collection of carved wooden masks hanging on the walls of the hallways that her Uncle Dirk made. Uncle Dirk is an architect, but he’s also been a wood carver. In Stephanie’s room, there is even a mask of Stephanie’s face, which Cory recognizes. During the night, she half wakes up and is aware of her grandmother and Uncle Dirk in her room, whispering about her, saying that she looks rather plain and something about somebody “getting used to” something. They don’t deny this conversion later when Cory asks them about it, and there is less sinister significance to it than it seems at first.

The next morning, Cory meets her grandmother and Uncle Dirk at breakfast. They greet her politely, but her grandmother says that she wants to have a word with Peter about how he should have taken her to his house until the rain stopped, not make her walk through the mud to Tarnhelm, ruining her shoes. Cory asks her not to say anything to Peter because she really wants to join the Explorers, and they wouldn’t let her in if they thought that she was afraid of a little mud. However, her grandmother reminds her that she’s only there for a short visit and she doesn’t want her getting hurt or doing anything dangerous. Uncle Dirk is more sympathetic and offers to teach her to swim.

Mrs. Van Heusen brings up the subject of Stephanie, and during the conversion, she lets slip that Stephanie has never legally adopted Cory. Now, we’re getting to a major plot point of the story! Stephanie is consumed by her acting work and not good with paperwork, and Mrs. Van Heusen thinks it’s about time that she took care of the issue of Cory’s legal adoption. The news comes as a shock to Cory, who thinks that, not being legally adopted, she doesn’t really belong to the family at Tarnhelm. Both her grandmother and Uncle Dirk hurriedly reassure her that she is family to them and belongs at Tarnhelm and that the official paperwork doesn’t really make a difference to them. There is no danger in the story of Cory being rejected by this family, and they don’t have any objection to her visit or Stephanie’s guardianship of her. However, this is one of the early indications that Stephanie is not as attentive as a guardian as she should be and that there are aspects of Cory’s life and well-being that are being neglected. Cory is starting to develop a new awareness of these issues.

Cory asks her grandmother and Uncle Dirk about her birth parents because Stephanie has never explained who they were or what happened to them, and her grandmother says that it’s only right that she knows and that Stephanie really should have told her before. Uncle Dirk explains to Cory that her parents’ names were Lawrence and Coralie Winterslow, and that they were friends of Stephanie’s when they were young, before they were even married, and they all liked to go skiing together. They lived in England for awhile after they were married, and Cory was actually born in London. Then, they were killed in a skiing accident in Switzerland. Stephanie had been with them on that skiing trip, and before Cory’s mother died from her injuries, she asked Stephanie to take three-year-old Cory because she had no living relatives on her father’s side and she didn’t want to leave her child with her own relatives, for some reason. Cory is glad to know the story of her parents but sad at the same time and worried about not being legally adopted. Fergie suggests to her that she write to Stephanie about it and see what she says.

Later, Cory also asks Uncle Dirk about the unicorn on the sign at Tarnhelm and about her own silver unicorn pendant. Uncle Dirk tells her that he has a fascination for British history and heraldry, which is why he carved the unicorn as the symbol of Tarnhelm. He also says that the pendant used to belong to Cory’s mother and that her father had a matching unicorn tie pin, although he doesn’t know what happened to it after his death. Cory wishes that she’d thought to ask Stephanie about it in her letter.

All of this explanation about Cory’s parents’ history sounds pretty straight-forward, although sad. However, the story doesn’t end there. Everyone has a history, and there are things about her Uncle Dirk that Cory doesn’t know yet as well as the reasons why Stephanie has never complete Cory’s adoption papers.

Cory becomes sick and feverish, spending a few days in bed. During this time, she has strange dreams, but not all of them are actually dreams. She remembers dreaming about a room with a chess set that has carved unicorns instead of horses as the knight pieces. Later, when Uncle Dirk plays chess with her, with a normal chess set, she mentions this dream, and both Uncle Dirk and her grandmother act strangely about it. Eventually, Cory comes to realize that her “dream” wasn’t just a dream, that she actually did get out of bed and wander around while she was feverish, but it takes some time before the full meaning of the chess set becomes clear to her.

Various people comment to Cory about Uncle Dirk’s moods and personality, hinting at past problems he’s had. Cory’s grandmother makes a comment to Cory about Uncle Dirk harming himself more than anyone else, except perhaps for one person, hinting at relationship troubles in Uncle Dirk’s past that contribute to his dark moods. Nosy Mrs. Smallwood also refers to the strange behavior of the Van Heusen family, often rude and unfriendly. While Mrs. Smallwood is a busy-body with issues of her own, she is correct in noticing the casual harm that various members of the Van Heusen family have done to people around them. It’s never intentional and they rarely notice the consequences of what they do, but that’s part of the problem because they are often selfish, thoughtless, and out-of-touch with other people’s feelings and the effects of their actions on others. Even Uncle Dirk acknowledges that members of the family are often hard on each other even when they care about one another. However, the Van Heusens aren’t all bad, and some of them have changed somewhat over time. Mr. Smallwood, who is a more optimistic and level-headed person than his wife, tells Cory that his wife likes to live in the past, and while Uncle Dirk was a rather thoughtless young man who wouldn’t have made a good husband, he’s grown up since then and has become friendlier and more thoughtful toward others, in spite of his occasional dark moods. But, since Uncle Dirk has never been married, what did Mr. Smallwood mean about him not making a good husband?

On the grounds of the Van Heusens’ estate, Cory spots what looks like the foundations of a house that was started to be built but never completed. Peter says that he and the other Explorers sometimes play around these foundations. Cory wonders who was planning to build a house there and why they never finished it. Uncle Dirk gets angry when he catches Cory and Peter snooping around the tower at Tarnhelm, where he keeps some of his old wood-carving things and where Peter finds some mysterious poetry.

Peter later takes Cory to visit Laurel Woodford, a young woman Cory met on the beach earlier, who helped Cory find her necklace when she lost it. Laurel is a weaver. Laurel lives by herself, but she says that she isn’t lonely because she has plenty of things to do that keep her busy. However, there is a kind of sadness about Laurel, and she has secrets of her own. She knows the Van Heusen family herself, and it wasn’t a happy experience.

Slowly, without Cory really doing any intentional investigating, the pieces of the past start coming together – Uncle Dirk, a marriage that didn’t take place, a house that wasn’t completed … and two identical unicorn pendants.

The story is haunting and magical, but not because of an real spells or magic. The only ghosts are the ghosts of the past. The book reminds me of a couple of other books that I’ve read, but explaining which ones involves some spoilers. I don’t mind giving spoilers for this story because I haven’t found a copy of this book that’s available to read online, and it’s something of a collector’s item now, with copies typically costing at least $20 and frequently more, although it’s sometimes possible to find one for less.

My Thoughts and A Few Spoilers

One of the interesting things about this book is that it reminds me of other books that I’ve read and liked. Some children’s book are mentioned in the course of the story because Cory likes to read, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and The Story of the Amulet, but these aren’t the books that the story reminds me of.

Throughout the book, the Fergusons use various Scottish words and phrases, sometimes singing old songs or quoting from poems. Mrs. Van Heusen says that she particularly likes the Fergusons because her family was also from Scotland, and they remind her of her youth, which is a comfort to her. The Scottish element and the young orphan learning to make friends and become close to a new family remind me of Mystery on the Isle of Skye, although that book was actually set in Scotland. The books also have a similar feel in the way they approach the element of mystery in the story and the element of “magic” and “spells” that aren’t really magic spells. Both books have an enchanting quality to them, but it’s because of the atmosphere of the stories, not because there’s any actual magic.

During the course of the story, Cory learns more about what it takes to make friends. Peter realizes that Cory isn’t particularly good at making friends and confronts her about the reasons why. It’s partly because Cory has had to change school multiple times, but Peter has also noticed that Cory always waits for other people to approach her with offers of friendship and invitations to join in. If they don’t, she just feels hurt and left out instead of voicing her desires to join in. Even when she gets an invitation, her impulse is to reject it if she thinks it was only offered out of pity. Peter finds it annoying that Cory seems to need people to practically beg her to be their friend and join in activities. It reminds Cory of advice that Stephanie has tried to offer her before that she should just join in and not worry or assume that people don’t want her around. Even Fergie told her that if she wants to make friends, she’ll have to drop her pride, meaning that she’ll have to learn to make the first move and approach other people instead of waiting for them to come to her. This criticism is partly true, but Cory’s experience of life is that many of the things she wants also depend on the decisions of other people, and Peter comes to rethink some of what he said when some of his friends are less than accepting of Cory. It isn’t nice to be welcomed into a place where you aren’t really made to feel welcome and accepted. This is also a fitting description of Cory’s life with Stephanie, being largely raised by her hired help.

When Cory finally receives Stephanie’s reply to her letter, Stephanie’s selfishness and detachment from Cory’s life become increasingly apparent. Cory shares the letter with her grandmother and Fergie and outright asks her grandmother if she can stay in California. Her grandmother asks her if she won’t miss Stephanie because Stephanie is the only mother she’s known since she was little, but Cory says she won’t because Stephanie is gone so much and busy with her acting, leaving her with hired help. Fergie, while being hired help herself, is more maternal and says that situation is unacceptable, but Cory’s grandmother says that she’s not sure that she’s up to raising another child, that she’s old and wants her peace and quiet now. Even while Cory’s grandmother knows that her daughter is self-centered, she has a kind of self-centeredness of her own. When her grandmother gets dramatic about the worry Cory puts her through when she’s running around the caves with her friends, Cory realizes that Stephanie has been imitating her during her dramatic acts.

Cory beings to get the answers about her past and Uncle Dirk’s when Peter shares some treasure with her that he and other members of the Explorers have found and are hiding in a cave on the Van Heusens’ property. This treasure is part of the reason why some of the other Explorers have been less than welcoming to Cory, not wanting to share it and their secret hiding place with her, especially because they’re worried that she’ll give their secrets away to the Van Heusens, and then, they’ll lose their treasure and their secret hiding place. However, among their treasures is a carved wooden box that Peter found, and it looks like Uncle Dirk’s carving work. Cory points out that the carved wooden box probably belongs to Uncle Dirk, and since it was on the Van Heusen land, he probably hid it in the cave himself. Peter, as the finder of the box lets Cory have it to return to Uncle Dirk.

In the box, Cory finds four colorful feathers, four pretty seashells, a poem about an angry quarrel signed with the initials “L.W.”, a carved wooden bracelet, a woman’s scarf, and a small silver pendant that is identical to the one that Cory wears. However, the back of this particular unicorn has a rough spot where it used to be mounted on something else, and Cory realizes that this is the one from the tie pin that Uncle Dirk told her about, turned into a necklace. From these pieces, Cory begins to realize that the contents of the box are Laurel’s – her initials on the poem and a necklace made for her that Cory thinks must have come from her father, and if that’s true, Laurel must be some kind of relation to her. She also explores the room off the tower in Tarnhelm that contains the amazing chess set with the unicorn knights, and now that she’s no longer sick, she sees that the room also holds other furniture that Uncle Dirk made. Uncle Dirk was the person who started to have the house built, and he was making furniture to go in the house, but for some reason, he stopped and stored the furniture away because there was no new house to put it in. There are also carved masks of Laurel in the room.

Early in the morning, Cory decides to go see Laurel about what she’s found, knowing that if she waits, she’ll miss her because she’s about to leave on a trip. When Cory shows her the box that she’s found and asks her about the unicorn pendant and whether or not they’re related, Laurel tells her that they’re not related but that the unicorn did come from her father’s tie pin. Like my earlier theories, Cory’s theories about Laurel are partly right and partly wrong. After Cory’s parents died, Stephanie sorted through their belongings. She gave the little unicorn necklace to Cory, and she gave Cory’s father’s tie pin to her brother, Dirk. After Dirk got the unicorn tie pin, he had it made into a necklace for Laurel.

Laurel explains that, about seven years earlier, she and Dirk got engaged while they were still in college. However, Dirk was very spoiled by his mother after his sister left home and went to New York to do her acting. He was a very talented wood-carver and looked at himself as an artist who would never have to earn a living because his mother was very wealthy, and she encouraged him in his art. Dirk wanted to drop out of college and just spend his time doing wood carving, without caring much whether he ever made any money at it. Laurel argued with him about it because she didn’t like the idea of living on Mrs. Van Heusen’s money, and she broke off the engagement. Looking back on it, Laurel regrets doing that. She finished college and could have worked to support herself and Dirk independently, just as she’s been supporting herself these last several years, ironically with an art of her own, and with Dirk’s talent at carving, he might have ended up making money at his art anyway, doing something he really loved to do. It was all about pride. Laurel was too proud to rely on Mrs. Van Heusen, who was happy to support her son’s art, and Dirk was both proud and spoiled and wanted everything his own way on his say-so without working things out with Laurel. Dirk was being a little selfish, but Laurel comes to realize that she was a bit selfish too because she refused to acknowledge how important Dirk’s art was to him and wanted him to be something else. At one point, Laurel wanted to make up with Dirk and talk things out, but he ignored her and refused to talk to her. She got so mad that she left the box of treasures in the cave where she and Dirk used to play as children and threw the engagement ring in the ocean. Since that time, she and Dirk haven’t been able to talk to each other, even though they both wanted to. Dirk gave up the woodcarving that he loved because it was a painful reminder of the reason why he and Laurel broke up. Instead, he went back to college and became an architect so he would have a profession of his own. However, he is given to dark moods because he misses both Laurel and his woodcarving and doesn’t know what to do about it.

The situation gets straightened out when Dirk, realizing that Cory is missing from the house and that fog is coming in, goes to Laurel’s house to make sure that Cory is safe with her. The three of them talk things over, and Dirk asks Cory to give him some time to talk to Laurel alone. Dirk and Laurel make up, and Laurel agrees to marry Dirk as they planned, on the condition that they both adopt Cory because she’s come to love Cory as a niece. Cory is overjoyed to hear the news, and Dirk plans to begin construction on the house that they’d started years before.

The story of the lovers parted by a quarrel and the unicorns that bind them together reminded me of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.

There is a scene when Stephanie shows up to claim Cory and take her back to New York, but the family talk it out with her. Stephanie admits that she took Cory partly because that was her promise to her old friend and partly out of guilt because the skiing trip where Cory’s parents were killed had been her idea. Mrs. Van Heusen tells her not to blame herself because she couldn’t have known what was going to happen and Cory’s parents chose to come on the trip with her. Stephanie further admits that she didn’t legally adopt Cory because she was aware that her lifestyle wasn’t particularly suited to bringing up a child, although she’s done her best, and because she knew that Cory did have other relatives. She doesn’t quite admit that she was hoping that one of these other relatives might take her someday, but she gives that impression. Cory’s relatives on her mother’s side haven’t tried to claim her because her grandmother on that side of the family was too old to look after her and her aunt already had a large family and not much money. Stephanie loves Cory, even though she doesn’t really know how to raise a child and has found it difficult to care for her, and feels betrayed at first when Cory says that she’d rather stay with Dirk and Laurel. However, Stephanie later apologizes to Cory for making a scene about it because it really would be better for everyone if Cory stayed in California, where she would have a stable life and Stephanie wouldn’t have to worry about her. Stephanie returns to New York on her own and Cory tells Peter that she’s going to stay in California. Peter and the other Explorers welcome her into their club. Now that she knows that she’s going to be staying, everyone feels more like she truly belongs.

The Vanishing Passenger

The Boxcar Children

#106 The Vanishing Passenger by Gertrude Chandler Warner, 2006.

The Alden children have been working on a project at their public library to invite the author of one of their favorite book series to visit as a guest speaker.  However, when they go to meet his train, the author isn’t there.  He’s completely disappeared!

The Aldens know that he got on the train because they spoke to him on the phone earlier.  When they interview some of the passengers, they discover that the train trip was somewhat chaotic.  The train passed through a harsh storm.  A small dog disappeared, and his heart-broken family is searching for him as well.  The evidence seems to point to the author jumping off the train, but why would he do that?  Where is he now, and why hasn’t he tried to get in touch with them?

Carefully, the Aldens have to work backward through the train journey, piecing together the author’s movements to put together the whole story.

I really appreciated the premise of this story. A mysterious disappearance makes a more unusual kind of mystery than the more typical crimes that appear in mystery stories, like theft. This is a story of a trip in which quite a lot of things went wrong.  The kids do manage to track down their missing author with some surprising help from the author’s rival, who is also apparently his friend, showing the children that not all competition has to be unfriendly.

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