Mystery of the Secret Dolls by Vicki Berger Erwin, 1993.
Bonnie Scott is visiting her great-aunts, Nell and Mollie, in Callaway County over the summer. Aunt Nell invited her to come and help set up her new doll museum, but Bonnie also wants to take advantage of the trip to work on a project about family history. Aunt Mollie has a restaurant, and Bonnie wants to talk to her about old family recipes that she uses and make a book about them. Unfortunately, when Bonnie arrives in her aunts’ town, she learns that Aunt Mollie has closed her restaurant and is helping Aunt Nell with her doll museum. From Bonnie’s awkward arrival, when no one comes to meet her at the bus stop and Marc, the grandson of the local doctor, Dr. Allen, has to help her find her way to her aunts’ house, she begins to see that things aren’t quite what she thought they were in her family and in her aunts’ town.
The reason why no one came to meet Bonnie is that Aunt Nell accidentally injured herself when she fell off a table she was standing on in order to change a light bulb. She broke her leg and had to go to the doctor. Now that Aunt Nell is in a wheelchair, she says that she will especially need Bonnie’s help, although Aunt Nell and Aunt Mollie also have a young black girl, Lynette Key, staying with them and helping out. Lynette is the daughter of an old family friend, and her family’s history is intertwined with Bonnie’s family. Through her aunts and Lynette, Bonnie comes to understand a little more about her family’s history with dolls and the relationship between Aunt Nell and Aunt Mollie.
Aunt Nell is the older of the two sisters, and she’s been bossing Aunt Mollie around for years, and she’s apparently the one who convinced Mollie to close her restaurant and help her with the doll museum project. The old family home belongs to both of them, although Mollie lived in another house while her husband was still alive. Now that both women are childless widows and Mollie has moved back into the family home, Nell has gone back to her old ways of bossing Mollie around. Bonnie is alarmed when Mollie reveals that there has been a break-in, vandalism, and a fire, apparently deliberate, at the museum, and she thinks that Nell should put off the opening, but Nell is trying to ignore the situation and charge ahead with the project, dragging Mollie and Bonnie with her. The aunts are going to have a security system installed at the museum.
Aunt Nell says their family, the Scotts, have made dolls for about 150 years. She shows Bonnie her doll collection, including the portrait dolls, startlingly realistic dolls made of every member of their family, including Bonnie’s ancestors, like her great-great-great-grandfather who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Aunt Nell apparently strongly identifies with the South and Confederacy because she keeps trying to blame the troubles at the museum on “some Yankee.” Not in a specific sense and not necessarily with any particular person in mind (although there is one person who is also labeled as a Yankee who is a suspect for awhile), it’s more that she just generally associates Yankees with bad stuff, and she says that she hopes that Bonnie hasn’t turned into a Yankee from living in a big city like St. Louis. Although the dolls belong to both of the sisters, Aunt Nell really thinks of the dolls as being hers, and she’s determined to make Bonnie’s family history project about the dolls, whether Bonnie wants it to be or not. Aunt Nell says that Lynette’s grandmother used to work for her, making dolls, and she’s pleased that Lynette shares her interest in dolls, but Lynette privately tells Bonnie that the situation goes deeper than that.
As you might have guessed, Aunt Nell’s mental version of history, including the history of her own family, isn’t entirely accurate. Marc lends Bonnie a history book about the area written by his grandfather, but Lynette tells Bonnie not to let Aunt Nell see it because she and Dr. Allen have very different views about history, and Dr. Allen is a “Yankee.” Bonnie asks her what she means by that, and Lynette says that the Scotts have never gotten over being on the losing side of the Civil War. Dr. Allen, by contrast, believes that the Civil War turned out just fine with the South losing, which makes him a Yankee. It matters because Aunt Nell’s interpretation and attitude toward the past is affecting life in the present.
Although Aunt Nell is mentally on the side of the Confederacy, she doesn’t say anything in support of the idea of slavery and doesn’t seem to have bad feelings about Lynette being black. Nell is actually very fond of Lynette, treating her almost like a young niece, and I suspect that Nell probably mentally replaces the word “slave” with “servant” in her head, as some of the other characters in the book do until Lynette reminds them that there’s a difference and it matters. Nell’s attachment to her family’s grand history (which may not be quite what she makes it out to be) and her feeling that the doll-making business must pass to a blood relative keep her from fully seeing the potential that Lynette has to continue the doll-making traditions that their families both share, something that Lynette really wants to do.
Lynette says that women in her family have worked for the Scott women for generations, making dolls. They were originally slaves belonging to the Scott family, and they even shared the same last name because slaves were sometimes given the surnames of their masters. (In my home town, I’ve met black people with the surname White, which might seem a little odd and contradictory, but this is the probable reason why they have that last name.) Some slaves changed their last names after Emancipation, but not all. Lynette says that even after her ancestors were freed from slavery, one of her ancestors, Rosa, chose to keep the last name Scott because of her connection to the doll-making business. Lynette points out a section in Dr. Allen’s history book about the Scott dolls having a connection to the Underground Railroad because some of them seemed to have been used as signals for escaping slaves. Margaret Scott, an ancestor of Bonnie’s, used to make black dolls, each with a distinctive little red heart sewn on the chest, and after she made one, a slave would mysteriously disappear. She eventually had to stop doing it because people in the area were getting suspicious of her and put pressure on her to stop. In fact, Lynette says Margaret’s own father, the Confederate colonel, tried forced her to stop, saying that he’d close down her doll-making business if she didn’t, but that Margaret and Rosa actually continued making the black dolls in secret, something that Aunt Nell doesn’t believe. The history book notes that the dolls are rare and valuable collectors’ items. Lynette says that Aunt Nell only has one of these black dolls, and she keeps it locked up for safe-keeping, denying that there even are others, but Lynette is sure that there are more, possibly hidden somewhere. Lynette wants to find these dolls, not only because they are valuable but because they can help prove her family’s connection to the Scott doll-making business. Lynette says that her ancestors never got the credit for the beautiful dolls they made because they were only ever slaves or employees of the Scotts, and the entire doll business was in the Scott family name.
Lynette wants to become a doll maker herself, but Aunt Nell really wants Bonnie to take over the family tradition, even though Bonnie has never really been interested in dolls and would prefer to talk cooking and recipes with Aunt Mollie. The realistic dolls portrait dolls actually kind of give Bonnie the creeps, but Lynette has a sentimental attachment to them because she’s been around them all her life, since her grandmother was a doll maker. Once Bonnie understands the history between her family and Lynette’s and Lynette’s doll-making ambitions, she sees why Lynette seemed a little cold to her at their first meeting, but she isn’t interested in learning the doll business or competing with Lynette to be Aunt Nell’s successor. Even though Aunt Nell is bossy and doesn’t understand Lynette’s deep desire to be a doll maker and continue the Scott doll-making business, Lynette kind of likes her and wants to show her that she is just as attached to the doll-making traditions as she is. Lynette and Bonnie make a deal that Lynette will help Bonnie get the recipes she wants from Aunt Mollie if Bonnie will talk to Aunt Nell about the black dolls and try to get more information about them.
Bonnie thinks that hunting for the long-lost dolls sounds exciting. It occurs to her that the valuable dolls might be the reason why someone broke into the doll museum. The aunts’ old house is spooky, right next to a graveyard, and on Bonnie’s first night there, someone leaves Margaret’s portrait doll (which looks a great deal like Bonnie) in Bonnie’s room with a note that says, “Don’t believe everything you hear.” What does the note mean? Who left the doll, and is it connected to the other strange things happening around the doll museum? Is someone trying to scare Bonnie? Are the missing black dolls still somewhere nearby, and can Bonnie and Lynette find them? What is the real truth about the dolls and what happened in Callaway years ago?
Although this story doesn’t quite deal with racism in the sense of people hating other people because of race, there is a lot in here about the nature of prejudice, on several levels. Aunt Nell has many preconceived notions about her family and how things in her family ought to be. She assumes from the beginning, when Bonnie contacts her aunts to talk about family history, that Bonnie will do her project about the dolls and the family’s doll-making history and that Bonnie will help her with her doll museum and eventually take over the dolls from her. Aunt Nell started out their relationship with a lot of assumptions. Aunt Nell has been assuming many things about her sister Mollie for years, and her assumptions have blinded her to the possibility that Lynette could be the successor to the doll-making business and doll museum that she really wants because they share a common love of dolls and skill in making them. Lynette has already started learning the doll-making business, first from her grandmother and then from Nell, because she loves it, and she is willing to work at developing her skills. She has a similar vision to Nell about the doll business and museum, and the two of them get along well, in spite of Aunt Nell’s bossy personality. It’s only Aunt Nell’s narrow vision of family and sense that the doll-making business should pass to family that keep her from considering the possibility at first. Meanwhile, Bonnie and Mollie are both being forced to go along with Nell’s plans because of what Nell thinks they should do as family, while they both have very different interests and would like the freedom to pursue them.
Over 100 years earlier, Margaret Scott also belonged to a family that did not share her interests and her vision of the future. Although she used slave labor in building her doll-making business, she and Rosa found a way to use their craft to help escaping slaves. The Scott family took pride in the doll-making business for generations, but there were sides to Margaret and the dolls that they didn’t understand and appreciate. Before the end of the book, Aunt Nell comes to understand that their family has more variety than she had ever considered and that her goals might not be everyone’s goals.
The ending of the story makes sense and is realistic, but I’ll admit that there were a couple of points that I might have clarified or done differently if I had written the ending. Sometimes, when I’m not entirely satisfied by the ending of a book, I like to say what I would have changed about it, but it’s difficult to do that here without giving too much away. Part that I can say is that I wished that Nell and Mollie had thought of more creative ways to combine their seperate interests, like how Bonnie’s final family history project ends up being a combination of both – a cookbook of family recipes, illustrated with pictures of the portrait dolls that represent the people who invented or enjoyed the different recipes. In fact, a cookbook of historical recipes with pictures of historical dolls sounds like a book that many people would actually be interested in buying if they published it professionally and even sold copies through the doll museum, and I found myself wishing that one of the characters would mention that before the end of the book.
The story ends with the impression that Lynette will keep working with Nell and the dolls because, while Bonnie says that she’ll come back and visit, she doesn’t have the interest in doll-making that Lynette does, but I also kind of wished that they would clarify more definitely that Lynette would be continuing the doll-making business. The girls are young yet, so maybe they didn’t feel the need to decide their futures definitely, and it’s enough just to show that’s how things are looking at the end of the book. I had half expected that it would turn out that Lynette and Bonnie are actually related because sometimes slave owners did have children with their slaves, and I suspected that one of the Scott family secrets might have been that Rosa was actually a blood relative and that was part of the reason why she was so close to Margaret and why she kept the Scott family name. The story doesn’t bring up that possibility, focusing on a different secret relationship instead, but I’m still keeping it in mind as a private theory. I like the idea because, if it was true, then it would strengthen Lynette’s ties to the doll-making business she loves, and I think that Nell would appreciate the idea of bringing her more fully into the business as a relative. But, perhaps it’s enough that they just both share the same interest in life.
The book is available to borrow for free online through Internet Archive.