Mystery of the Haunted Pool by Phyllis A. Whitney, 1960.
At the beginning of the story, Susan Price is traveling alone to visit her Aunt Edith. Her father is in the hospital, and her mother and brothers are tending to things at home. Her family wants her to make a good impression on Captain Daniel Teague, who lives in Aunt Edith’s town. Her father’s doctor has advised him to move to the country, where there is less air pollution, and the family would like to move to the small town along the Hudson River where Aunt Edith owns an antique store. However, the only available house that would be big enough for the family would be the Teague house, and Captain Dan hasn’t decided whether to rent or sell his house to them or not. Before Susan arrives, she isn’t sure what’s going on with Captain Dan and the arrangements regarding his house, but it turns out to be a complicated situation involving her aunt’s antique business, the Teague family history, and Captain Dan’s grandson, Gene.
When Susan’s bus reaches the bus stop, Aunt Edith isn’t there to meet her, so she walks to her aunt’s store. Aunt Edith apologizes for not meeting her. The reason why she didn’t is that a woman named Altoona was hanging around her shop, and she didn’t want to leave Altoona there alone. Lately, Altoona has been acting suspiciously, snooping around the shop as though she’s looking for something but doesn’t want anyone to know. Aunt Edith doesn’t know what Altoona is looking for, but it’s making her nervous. In particular, Altoona seems interested in a barrel of old books that Aunt Edith is selling on commission for Captain Dan, but Aunt Edith doesn’t want her looking through them until she’s had a chance to examine them herself.
Aunt Edith says that she’s known Altoona since they were children. Altoona was raised by her father and an older sister, both of whom were strict and unloving. Altoona led a very restricted life until her father and sister both drowned in a boating accident. Since then, Altoona has been indulging herself by spending her inheritance on antiques. However, rather than being a good customer of Aunt Edith’s, Altoona has turned into competition. She seems to delight in trying to beat Aunt Edith to some fascinating antique. Altoona seems to be on the trail of some new discovery, but Aunt Edith doesn’t want to give her the chance to poach something that might be right under her nose in her own shop.
Since Aunt Edith’s husband died years before, she’s been living in a back room of her shop. With her brother and his family wanting to move to the country, she’s planning on helping them get a house and living there with them. Aunt Edith has her eye on a particular house owned by Captain Daniel Teague, but he’s been reluctant to sell, which is why it would help if Susan made a good impression on him. Captain Dan has been living in a big old house with his grandson, Gene, but it’s an expensive house to maintain for just the two of them. He’s been considering renting it to Susan’s family with an option for them to purchase it later. However, he’s been dragging his feet on making a final decision because he wants to make sure that he approves of the Price family and that Aunt Edith won’t sell any of the antique furnishings from the house in her shop without permission. Also, Gene is upset at the idea of moving, and Captain Dan is concerned about Gene.
Aunt Edith explains that Gene is just a little older than Susan and that he was injured in an accident a couple of years before. He was hit by a car, and he’s been in and out of the hospital for treatment. Even now, his leg is stiff, and he has to wear a brace. Susan witnesses his frustration when she watches him trying to play basketball alone the first time she meets him. She can tell that he’s been trying really hard to overcome his disability, but things are still very hard for him. Susan is touched by Gene’s struggles and his stubborn efforts to succeed. She also discovers that he has strength and coordination in his arms, even though his left leg is very weak. When she asks Gene to teach her how to shoot baskets so she can impress one of her older brothers, she begins to realize that sometimes Gene tries too hard, and it makes his situation harder on him. When he gets tense, he has more trouble than when he’s relaxed.
Gene confesses to Susan that he feels guilty about being hit by the car, not only because he got hurt but because of what it’s done to his family. He admits that it was his fault for not looking more carefully before crossing a nearby highway. He feels terrible because his grandfather has spent most of his savings to pay for the hospital and doctors’ bills, and his mother had to get a job in New York City to pay the rest. Gene’s reluctance to move out of the family’s old home is that he knows how much his grandfather loves it, and he would feel even more terrible if his family lost the house because of his careless accident. The two of them seem to be getting along until Susan tries to climb a nearby rock, and Gene angrily tells her not to.
Captain Dan turns out to be a nice man. He’s called Captain because he used to be a river boat captain. He comes from a long line of sailors. When Susan tells him about meeting Gene and how Gene got angry at her for trying to climb a rock, Captain Dan tells her not to try too hard to accommodate Gene and his moods. He says that Gene’s biggest improvements have only come recently, when he started pushing Gene to work harder to improve. He thinks that Gene was a bit coddled up to that point and that he was too discouraged by the doctors’ predictions about what he wouldn’t be able to do anymore without really trying to test his limits and see what he could do for himself. In a way, Captain Dan is actually in favor of the Prices moving into their big family home because he knows that Susan has brothers. He thinks that having other boys around will be good for Gene, getting him to participate in more activities and push himself a little more.
One thing that’s making Captain Dan hesitate is the idea of having Aunt Edith in his house. He admits that he finds it difficult to say no to her when she wants something, and she’s been urging him to let her sell some of his old things in her shop. He’s concerned about what she might talk him into parting with next if she were living in his house. When Gene finds out that Aunt Edith talked his grandfather into parting with that barrel of old books, he gets angry again and talks back to his grandfather.
Susan is surprised at Gene’s rudeness and disrespect, but his grandfather says that part of that comes from Gene not liking himself much right now. Because Gene is unhappy with and disparaging of himself, he’s unhappy and disparaging with everyone. That’s part of why Captain Dan has been pushing Gene to improve himself, to give him more confidence and self-respect because he will see that he still has the ability to improve. Captain Dan also realizes that Gene has an intense attachment to their family home and family heirlooms because he takes more pride in their family’s history than in himself, thinking that he’ll never be able to be proud of himself now. Aunt Edith says that Gene’s father, a pilot who died in a crash, was also a decorated pilot during WWII. When Gene was younger, before he was injured, he was a much more active boy, and his father was proud of him for it. Aunt Edith thinks that Gene worries that his father would be ashamed if he saw his current condition.
Susan likes Captain Dan for his kindness and understanding of Gene. She’s not sure how much help her brothers would be with Gene, though. Her brother Adam, the closest in age to Gene, probably wouldn’t have much patience with a boy like him. That’s probably why Susan’s family decided that Susan would be the best person to break the ice with Captain Dan and Gene.
Susan tells Captain Dan that she saw Altoona watching the house when she came up to see him, and he says that he knows about Altoona’s obsession with antiques. He’s not sure what Altoona is looking for, but he thinks it must be some kind of antique. Mrs. Bancroft, Captain Dan’s housekeeper, says that the family has a secret. Aunt Edith says that rumor has been around their small town for years, but she doesn’t know what sort of secret it’s supposed to be, and with a town full of people who all know each other and each other’s family history, she can’t imagine what could still be secret about the Teague family.
Then, Susan finds an old ship’s log book in the bottom of the barrel of books that Aunt Edith got from Captain Dan. It’s the log book for the Flying Sarah, the ship that one of the Teague ancestors sailed. Aunt Edith returns the log book to Gene because she knows it must be a family heirloom, more valuable to the Teague family than anyone else. However, Gene is still sore about Aunt Edith having the barrel of books, and Susan catches him sneaking into the shop one night while Aunt Edith is out. He says that he wants one of the books, but he refuses to say which one he wants or why. Susan thinks that Gene knows more about his family’s secret than he’s telling and that his concern about the books has something to do with it. It seems like Gene may be on the trail of the same thing Altoona is searching for, but what is it? Captain Dan also seems to know, but he tells Gene in Susan’s presence that it doesn’t matter.
Susan gets a hint from Altoona when Altoona tells her that the old Teague house is haunted by the ghost of Sarah Teague, the wife of the captain who sailed the Flying Sarah, which was named for her. Altoona says that Sarah’s husband was murdered on the Flying Sarah and that Sarah took over the family’s shipping business after his death. Then, Sarah drowned in the little pool in the woods near their house. Altoona says that Sarah promised to come back and haunt the house if things didn’t go her way, but what does that mean?
Susan does some research in an old book about ships and discovers that the captain of the Flying Sarah had been carrying a valuable shipment of jewels for a friend when the ship was attacked by pirates. He died from the wounds he received from the pirates, and the pirates apparently took the jewels along with other valuable objects from the ship. After her husband’s death, Sarah Teague insisted on taking responsibility for the lost jewels and repaying the owner for their loss, which was financially crippling for the family. The book also repeats the story about Sarah Teague haunting the old family home. Soon after Susan and Aunt Edith move into the Teague house, someone break in during the night, apparently looking for something. Susan goes to look at the pool where Sarah drowned and thinks that she sees a strange face looking back at her from the water. What message from the past does Sarah Teague have for them, and what secret has the Teague family been hiding for generations?
The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.
My Reaction and Spoilers
For much of the book, the exact nature of the Teague family secret is a mystery to Susan, although readers can probably make a pretty good guess at what Susan eventually finds. Part of the difficulty is that the Teagues themselves don’t seem to quite understand what they really have. They know part of the secret, but only part of it. When Susan discovers the rest, it changes things for Captain Dan and Gene. Susan’s brother, Adam, helps Susan with the mystery for part of the book, but Susan is the one who makes the final discovery.
Altoona is kind of a rival/antagonist for solving the mystery, but not an evil one. She appears to be going through a kind of finding herself phase since the deaths of her father and sister. Her family was repressive, so for the first time in her life, she is taking advantage of opportunities to get involved with community activities and indulge her own whims. She dresses in strange ways because she’s trying out all of the things her father and sister would have never allowed her to wear when she was younger. She volunteers at the local library, but she has trouble deciding which books to recommend to the children who visit the library because she’s never read many of them herself. When Susan suggests to her that she should read some of the children’s books herself so she’ll know what they’re like and what they’re about, Altoona balks at the idea of an adult reading children’s books at first. However, she decides that maybe Susan is right, and when she tries some of the children’s books that Susan recommends, she says that she likes them.
Altoona’s pursuit of the Teague family secrets isn’t malicious. It seems to come from her newfound sense of independence and adventure. Figuring out the old mysteries of the Teague family is a sort of personal challenge for her and something that has fascinated her for her entire life, a fascination that she is now free to indulge. She almost messes things up by taking something that doesn’t belong to her, but it turns out to be an innocent mistake because of something Gene did, and she makes things right in the end. Altoona also comes up with a solution to the Price family’s housing problem. She says that she’s always wanted to travel, and at Adam’s encouragement, she’s decided to take an extended international trip for a year or so. While she’s away, she rents her house to the Price family so the Teague family can have their house to themselves again.
The book mainly focuses on self-discovery for Gene as a side plot to the story. At the end of the book, Gene’s problems aren’t completely solved, but he has become more reconciled to his condition and has a better understanding of things he can and can’t do because of the children’s adventures. By learning to get along with Susan and Adam, Gene becomes more ready to face other people and their reactions to his disability. When things improve for him and his family, he also seems less inclined to keep beating himself up over his accident. Things aren’t perfect for him at the end, and he’s probably never going to have completely normal use of his bad leg again. Still, there are signs that he’s mending, both physically and emotionally, and that things will get easier for him.
I like books that mention other books. In this book, the barrel of books that Aunt Edith gets from Captain Dan includes classics, like Little Women and Treasure Island. There are also books by Washington Irving, Gene Stratton Porter (known for A Girl of the Limberlost), and Harold Bell Wright and some “novels about an imaginary kingdom called Graustark.” These are all real authors and books. Aunt Edith says that some of them aren’t old enough to be considered real antiques, but this book was written more than 60 years, so modern standards would be different. Part of the story also includes books that have hidden pictures drawn on the fore-edges of the pages, which can only be seen when the pages are held at an angle. This type of fore-edge drawing or painting is something that can be found in real antique books.