Jessamy

Jessamy by Barbara Sleigh, 1967.

Jessamy is a British orphan who is being raised by her two aunts, Millicent and Maggie. The two aunts aren’t really raising her together, though. Jessamy lives with Aunt Millicent during the school year, and she goes to stay with Aunt Maggie during school holidays. Truth be told, Aunt Millicent (her mother’s sister) and Aunt Maggie (her father’s sister) don’t really like each other, and they have different priorities and goals for Jessamy’s future. Aunt Millicent is doing her best to help Jessamy be pretty and popular, making sure that she wears a retainer to straighten her teeth and only allowing her to associate with “nice” children (apparently meaning ones from “good” families in the sense of social connections, who mostly don’t like Jessamy – Jessamy is usually not allowed to play with the children she actually likes and who like her). On the other hand, Aunt Maggie doesn’t care about beauty or popularity and just wants Jessamy to be well-behaved. Jessamy is confident that she is disappointing both of her aunts in all of these qualities. Her aunts are fond of her, but they are also occupied with their own lives. Aunt Millicent has her work, and Aunt Maggie has two children of her own, so Jessamy really has only half of their attention at any particular time.

However, Jessamy’s usual bouncing between her aunts is interrupted one summer when Aunt Maggie’s children, Jessamy’s older cousins Muriel and Edgar, catch whooping cough. Jessamy hasn’t had whooping cough herself, so she wouldn’t have any immunity. Rather than bring Jessamy into the household and have her end up sick, too, Aunt Maggie realizes that she has to find another place for her to stay until the other children are better. Jessamy can’t go back to Aunt Millicent because Aunt Millicent is leaving on a business trip, so Aunt Maggie arranges for Jessamy to stay with Miss Brindle, who is the caretaker of a large old house known to locals as Posset Place.

Miss Brindle is an older woman and is not used to spending time with children. Although Jessamy doesn’t really get along with her cousins, she isn’t sure if she’s going to like staying with Miss Brindle. However, Miss Brindle isn’t bad. She isn’t fond of Muriel or Edgar, either, and she says right up front that she’s glad that Jessamy seems different from her cousins. She also says that she’s going to treat Jessamy like an adult because she doesn’t know much about children, which suits Jessamy fine.

Miss Brindle tells Jessamy a little about the history of the old house. Posset Place was built in 1885 by a man named Nathaniel Parkinson, who made his money from producing a cough syrup called Parkinson’s Expectorant Posset. The house is largely empty now, except for the housekeeper’s quarters, where Miss Brindle now lives. Miss Brindle spends her time making sure the rooms are kept clean and well-aired.

Miss Brindle lets Jessamy explore the house a little before supper, and in particular, Jessamy is fascinated by the empty nursery. She finds herself imagining the children who used to live there and the toys and books the nursery once held. Then, she notices markings on the wall where the children’s heights were recorded, and she sees that one of the children was also named Jessamy. She tries to ask Miss Brindle about it, but Miss Brindle isn’t aware that there were any names written on the nursery wall.

During the night, Jessamy wakes up, still thinking about seeing her own name written on the wall of the nursery. She could have been mistaken, but it bothers her to the point where she feels like she has to go look at it again. Taking her flashlight, she goes upstairs again to look at the names. However, this time, the nursery is not empty, like it was before. There are clothes hanging on the wooden pegs on the wall and a line of shoes on the floor. When she checks the old measuring marks, she sees that there are fewer marks than she remembered before, but one of the names is definitely Jessamy, and the year next to that name is 1914. Jessamy lives in 1966 (contemporary with when the book was written), but the day in 1914 is the same day that she came to stay with Miss Brindle – July 23rd.

Then, to Jessamy’s surprise, she suddenly realizes that she is holding a lit candle instead of her flashlight. At first, Jessamy thinks that she must be dreaming, but then, an angry young woman comes and tells her that she should be in bed because she’s ill, not running around with a candle. The woman threatens to tell her aunt about this. When the woman lights her lamp, Jessamy sees that the nursery is now fully furnished.

It seems that Jessamy has gone back in time to 1914 and has been mistaken for the Jessamy who lived in the house in the past. The woman, who is Miss Matchett, the parlor maid, says that the other children named in the height markings – Marcus, Fanny, and Kitto – are all asleep and that it’s nearly midnight. The Jessamy of the past is the niece of the cook-housekeeper, which is why she is allowed to be with the children of the house. Jessamy’s head hurts, and she realizes that there is suddenly a bandage around it. Miss Matchett says that she fell out of a mulberry tree.

Jessamy realizes that the housemaid is only awake at this late hour and fully dressed because she had just returned from slipping out of the house secretly. When she points it out, Miss Matchett admits that she sneaked out to see her gentleman friend, and she says that if Jessamy doesn’t tell on her for doing that, she won’t tell her aunt that she was out of bed. Jessamy agrees, and Miss Matchett leads her back to her bed in the housekeeper’s quarters.

When Jessamy wakes up in the morning, she expects to find that everything that happened in the nursery during the night was a dream, but it isn’t. The room is the same one Miss Brindle gave her in the housekeeper’s quarters, but the bed and furnishings of the room are different. Jessamy is woken by a woman she’s never met before, not Miss Brindle.

This woman is the past Jessamy’s aunt, who tells her that she has had approval to stay on as the cook-housekeeper for the Parkinson family with Jessamy living with her. Not every household would accept a housekeeper with a young niece to raise, but as Nathaniel Parkinson himself says, the Parkinsons are not an ordinary family. Nathaniel Parkinson is a self-made man, from a humble background in spite of his current fortune, so he doesn’t put on airs, like other men of his current class. His granddaughter, Miss Cecily, at first disapproves of Jessamy, thinking that she might be too “common” (like the friends Jessamy’s Aunt Millicent disapproves of) and that she might not be a good influence on the children of the house, her younger siblings, who she is helping to raise. However, past Jessamy’s aunt defends her, and Nathaniel Parkinson says that she might actually be good for other children. He thinks Fanny has been acting too fine, and Kit could use the company of another child his age.

Jessamy is happy when she learns that past Jessamy has made friends with the Parkinson children and has really become part of the household. She is told that Fanny still thinks of her as being just the niece of a servant, but Kit (aka Kitto) is her special friend. Jessamy also likes this 1914 aunt better than her 1966 aunts because she seems nicer and more her kind of person. The realization that this is not a dream but that she has really traveled back in time is worrying, but Jessamy tells herself that she will somehow find her way back to her own time and that she should enjoy 1914 as much as she can while she can.

From the housemaid, Sarah, Jessamy learns that the Parkinson children live with their grandfather because their parents were killed in a carriage accident. Miss Cecily, the oldest girl in the family, takes care of her younger siblings and tries to manage the household while her oldest brother is away at Oxford. Miss Cecily is still learning about the running of a household, so past Jessamy’s aunt, Mrs. Rumbold, has to help her.

Jessamy also learns that she fell out of a tree house that she and Kit built together and that Fanny, who was also in the tree house at the time, was particularly upset by her accident. Fanny confesses to Jessamy that the reason she fell was because she pushed her. She hadn’t meant to push her out of the tree house or for her to fall, but the two of them were having an argument at the time. Fanny felt guilty about her getting hurt, but she’s still angry that Jessamy will be staying on at the house. She thinks that her grandfather and older sister decided to let her and her aunt stay partly because they felt badly about her getting hurt. Although Fanny is grateful that Jessamy didn’t tell on her for causing her accident, she still isn’t happy that Jessamy will be living with them. Fanny does put on airs, but she openly admits that she does it because everyone seems to be against her. Girls at school teasingly cough around her all the time because her grandfather made his money with his cough syrup, and since Jesssamy came, she feels like her brothers always side with Jessamy instead of her. Fanny has been in trouble before for bad behavior, and her brothers know that their grandfather has said if she does it again, he’ll send her to boarding school. Jessamy thinks that the idea of boarding school sounds exciting, but her brothers say that Fanny would hate it.

In spite of the drama with Fanny, Jessamy enjoys her time in 1914 and the other people there. She has the feeling that something important happened in 1914, and she remembers what it was when Nathaniel Parkinson and Kit talk about the possibility of war with Germany. Jessamy realizes that the coming war is going to be World War I and that it is going to start soon. Harry, the oldest boy in the Parkinson family, is back from Oxford, and he talks about how exciting it would be to be a soldier if there is a war, but Nathaniel Parkinson isn’t excited, understanding more about the nature of war than his grandchildren. Harry’s grandfather wants him to finish college, but Harry is in debt and wants to take his future into his own hands. Harry runs away, and at the same time, a valuable antique book belonging to his grandfather disappears. Jessamy doesn’t like to think that the pleasant young man stole his grandfather’s book, but what other explanation is there?

Just when Jessamy is getting caught up in the events in the Parkinson household and is concerned about the future of the past Jessamy and her aunt, Jessamy finds herself once again in 1966. Is it still possible for her to return to 1914 or learn what happened to the people she’s grown so fond of? Jessamy also begins to wonder who is the current owner of this old house and Mrs. Brindle’s employer? Learning the answers to those questions also explains a few things about Jessamy’s own family and past and gives her the one thing she really wants most.

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

My Reaction and Spoilers

This story is a combination of fantasy and mystery, a combination that I always like. In some ways, this story reminds me of Charlotte Sometimes because the time switching takes place between similar eras, but there are some notable differences between the two books. Charlotte Sometimes took place at a boarding school, and Charlotte went back in time to the end of WWI, not the beginning. There was also no mystery plot in Charlotte Sometimes beyond Charlotte trying to figure out how and why she is switching places with a girl in the past. Also, in Charlotte Sometimes, it isn’t clear whether Charlotte influenced or changed anything in the past, but Jessamy definitely does. The modern Jessamy had to be the one to solve the mystery because she has access to information that the past Jessamy didn’t have.

In the past, Jessamy begins investigating the mysterious theft of the valuable book. Although she knows that Harry isn’t the type to steal from his grandfather, it takes a second visit back in time for her to discover who the real thief is and to clear Harry’s name. Unfortunately, she is unable to actually find the stolen book in the past to return it to its first owner. It is through a new friend that she makes in 1966 that she learns what really happened to the book and is able to return it to the current owner of the house … an old friend of hers from 1914.

Along the way, Jessamy also learns a few things about the history of her own family. She realizes at the beginning of the story that Jessamy is an unusual name, which is why she is surprised that the girl in the past is also called Jessamy. It turns out that Jessamy is a name that is passed down through her family. She is not a direct descendant of the past Jessamy, as I first suspected, but the past Jessamy is a relative of hers. She also comes to understand that her family used to be more grand, but during the past, they fell on hard times. This is also important to the story because class differences figure into the plot.

Everyone in 1914 is concerned about class differences, but in different ways. Nathaniel Parkinson is actually the least concerned with class because he has actually shifted to a higher class during his lifetime, making him aware that people from different classes are really just people, only in different circumstances. His granddaughters are more class conscious, although both of them also soften on that after getting to know Jessamy better. Even the servants are also class conscious, with some of the servants putting on airs because they’re above other types of servants.

Something that surprised me in the story is the realization, toward the end of the book, that class differences are partly the reason why Aunt Millicent and Aunt Maggie don’t get along. Aunt Millicent’s efforts to make Jessamy more pretty and popular and have her be friends with certain people are social-climbing efforts, partly because Aunt Millicent is aware of their family’s past and wants the family to climb up from their humbled circumstances. Aunt Maggie’s disapproval of Aunt Millicent seems to come somewhat from her disapproval of Millicent’s efforts at social-climbing or trying to act like she’s more grand than she actually is. It isn’t stated explicitly, but it is heavily implied. We don’t meet Millicent in the book, but from her description, I suspect that she disapproves of Aunt Maggie because she thinks of her as being too “common.” From the characters’ descriptions of Maggie’s children, it seems like people who don’t like them think of them as being “common” or uncreative, indicating that this branch of Jessamy’s family is rather prosaic, being typical in a rather dull way.

The objective reality is probably that Jessamy’s two aunts are not very far apart in their social status, but they have different attitudes toward their social status. Aunt Maggie doesn’t care much about it. She fits in well where she is, she doesn’t care about moving up in society, and she just focuses on the children behaving well within their social status. Aunt Millicent, however, has a high opinion of who she is and where the family ought to be in society, and she is focused on moving up. Jessamy doesn’t really fit with either of her aunts’ philosophies of life. What she really wants is the chance to make real friends and fit in somewhere with people who like her and who like the sort of things she likes. She gets the opportunity at the end of the story when the current owner of the old house becomes her benefactor and arranges for her to attend boarding school, which she has said is something that she’s always wanted to do. At boarding school, Jessamy will be out from under the direct supervision of both of her aunts and will have the opportunity to develop independently and make new friends who suit her, rather than her aunts.

Even Fanny finds boarding school beneficial. We don’t know exactly how her life ended up in the 1960s, but when Fanny realizes that she’s caused problems for the past Jessamy in more ways than one and that she needs to admit the truth to her grandfather and older sister, her character develops for the better. She begins to develop empathy and compassion for the past Jessamy, looking beyond feeling sorry for herself to feeling something for another person she has directly harmed, and she reforms her character. She accepts the consequences for her actions, even though she was afraid to do so before, and it leads her to better things because the consequences are not as bad as she thought and actually help her. Although she was initially afraid of being sent away from her family, when her grandfather decides that she needs the discipline and sends her to boarding school, she discovers that she actually likes it. Going to boarding school allows her to get away from the girls who were bullying her at her local school and make new friends, and she develops some self-confidence from the experience, turning into a young lady who helps her older sister in her volunteer work for the war effort.

One final thought I had is that every time I’ve ever read a book with a sickness like whooping cough in it, I feel like it really dates the book. I know this book does have a specific date by design, and I know people still catch whooping cough in the 21st century if they haven’t been vaccinated (get your tetanus shot – in the US, the tetanus shot includes the whooping cough vaccine), but to me, this type of illness feels like a time travel back to my parents’ youths by itself. My parents and their siblings had whooping cough when they were young, but I’m almost 40 years old and have never seen a case of it myself.

Carrie’s War

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, 1973.

The story begins with an adult Carrie reflecting on her youth during World War II, taking her children to see the place where she stayed as a child evacuee and remembering an incident that has haunted her for the last 30 years. Adult Carrie is a widow who was married to an archaeologist who died only a few months before the story begins. In some ways, Carrie says that her husband was very much like a boy she used to know during the war, Albert Sandwich. The family trip and Carrie’s memories take them back to a small mining town in Wales and an old house called Druid’s Bottom, now a ruin, that used to house a mysterious skull … and what Carrie regards as the worst mistake of her life. Although adult Carrie knows that, logically, what happened couldn’t have really been her fault, there are some things in life that are difficult to prove or disprove, and she’s always blamed herself for what happened.

When Carrie Willow was eleven years old, she and her younger brother, Nick, were evacuated from London along with other children to avoid the bombings. All of the children were told to report to their schools with a packed lunch and a change of clothes, and none of them had any idea where they would be taken after that, only that their parents wouldn’t be going with them. Their mother tried to frame it all as a great adventure that they would enjoy, but the children were understandably worried. They had to wear labels on their clothes with their names on them, and they had to carry gas masks, which is never a reassuring thing to be told you might need. (Young Carrie thinks to herself that her mother is such an optimist that, if they found themselves in Hell, she’d look on the bright side and say, “Well, at least we’ll be warm.”)

The children’s teacher takes them aboard a train, and they head off into the countryside, ending up at a coal-mining town in Wales that doesn’t look like much. That’s where Carrie meets Albert, another boy who rode with them on the train. Albert is tall and serious and wears glasses. His first concern is that the town isn’t big enough to support a proper library. Carrie is mostly concerned about keeping her brother with her and making sure that someone will be willing to take them both together. (Hosts for WWII evacuees were told how many children they were expected to take in, but they were given the opportunity to choose which ones they would host from among the children available. Sometimes, siblings were split up if they couldn’t find accommodations that could house them together.)

Carrie and Nick are eventually chosen by Miss Evans, a woman who lives with her brother. Originally, Miss Evans had been hoping for two girls so they can share the one spare room that she and her brother have, but Carrie persuades her that she and Nick sometimes share a room at home because he has bad dreams. Miss Evans is a shy and nervous woman, and her brother, Samuel Evans, is ultra-strict and fussy. Everything in their house is super neat, and they have special rules to keep it that way. Carrie and Nick aren’t even accustomed to picking up after themselves because their family has a maid who does all the cleaning. The house has a bathroom with running hot and cold water, but if they have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the day, Mr. Evans wants them to use the outdoor one in the yard to avoid messing up the new carpet on the stairs with too much “traipsing” up and down. Even Miss Evans uses the outdoor bathroom, although Samuel Evans never does because he thinks it’s unseemly because of his position in the community as a store owner and town Councillor. So, for starters, Mr. Evans makes strict rules for others to follow that he doesn’t follow himself.

Carrie can tell right from the first that Samuel Evans is a bully who pushes people around, especially his sister. He’s much older than his sister and helped to raise her after their parents died. Really, Miss Evans was raised with Mr. Evans’s son, Frederick, who is now in the army, being more like her brother than her nephew. Now that Mr. Evans’s wife is dead, there’s no one else in the household but the two of them. When Miss Evans and Frederick were young, Mr. Evans used fear, intimidation, and harsh physical punishment to keep them in line. However, Mr. Evans can’t really bully the children because Carrie is careful not to show that she finds him intimidating, and Nick just isn’t intimidated because he refuses to be impressed by anybody with false teeth. Still, Carrie realizes that they should try to keep out of his way and not make him angry.

Samuel Evans is also very strict about religion. One day, when Nick eats some biscuits in his shop, Mr. Evans declares that he’s been stealing and that he’s going to get the strap for it. Carrie is horrified because their parents don’t use physical punishment, and Nick is terrified. Miss Evans is too afraid to intervene, so Carrie steps in and defends Nick, just saying that he didn’t understand that it was stealing to eat the biscuits. Mr. Evans says that’s not a good excuse, but Nick says that if he whips him, he’ll go to school and tell the teacher that Mr. Evans beat him for taking food because he was hungry. Mr. Evans realizes that, while other adults might not fault him for punishing a thief, they would if it looked like he was starving and neglecting his charges as well as beating them. Instead of giving Nick a beating, he prays out loud for Nick to turn from his “evil ways.” It’s difficult for Carrie to listen to because she realizes that Nick hasn’t been starved, wasn’t really hungry, and should have known better than to take the biscuits, and now, he’s made an enemy of Mr. Evans. They don’t have much choice other than staying in the Evans house because they can’t go back to their parents yet, and there just aren’t any other places in town for them to stay. The kids become fond of Miss Evans, who they start calling “Auntie Lou”, but they always have to be wary of Mr. Evans.

When their mother comes to visit, Mr. Evans acts extra nice to the children and tries to be charming to their mother. The children’s mother has some misgivings about how the children are being treated, but the children don’t complain about some of the harder aspects of living with Mr. Evans because they don’t want their mother to worry. She’s been working as an ambulance driver in Glasgow because her husband’s ship makes port there, and she can see him sometimes. She needs to know that her children are safely settled somewhere to continue her work, and the children have also grown attached to Auntie Lou and don’t want her to get into trouble, even if they don’t like Mr. Evans.

Shortly before Christmas, Auntie Lou explains to the children that she and Mr. Evans have an older sister named Dilys, and she’s giving them a goose for Christmas dinner. The reason why the children haven’t met Dilys before is that Auntie Lou and Mr. Evans don’t really get along with her and hardly ever see her. Mr. Evans in particular resents Dilys because, years ago, she married into the Gotobed family. The Gotobeds owned the mine nearby where their father was killed in an accident. Mr. Evans always blamed the Gotobeds for their father’s death because they didn’t have adequate safety measures, and he felt like Dilys was turning her back on the family by marrying Mr. Gotobed’s son. Now, Dilys is a widow, and she’s not in very good health, which is another reason why she doesn’t get out much. She lives in the old house known as Druid’s Bottom, at the bottom of Druid’s Grove, where the yew trees grow. A woman named Hepzibah Green looks after her and the farm where they raise poultry. Local people are rather superstitious about Druid’s Grove, but Carrie thinks it sounds wonderfully spooky and exciting. Auntie Lou and Mr. Evans send Carrie and Nick to Druid’s Bottom to pick up their Christmas goose from Hepzibah Green because Auntie Lou gets sick and can’t go herself.

On the way to Druid’s Bottom, Carrie and Nick are scared because they think they hear something chasing them, making odd sounds. It turns out that it’s only Mister Johnny, a cousin of Mr. Gotobed, Dilys’s deceased husband. Mister Johnny has developmental disabilities and can’t talk very well or understandably to most people, which is why he lives with Dilys in Druid’s Bottom and is cared for by Hepzibah. Hepzibah has been Johnny’s nurse since he was a baby, and she now cares for the elderly and ill Dilys as well.

Albert Sandwich has been staying at Druid’s Bottom, also in Hepzibah’s care, since Carrie and Nick last saw him. Albert tells them that Hepzibah is a kind of witch who knows some kind of healing magic. Albert hasn’t been to school with the other children because he was very sick after they last saw him, and Albert thinks that he only survived because Hepzibah gave him herbal medicines. Albert loves Druid’s Bottom because of Hepzibah and also because the old house has an impressive library. In the library, Albert also shows Carrie a strange curiosity – an old skull. The story surrounding this skull is that it’s the skull of an African slave boy who was brought to this house years ago. (Albert explains to Carrie that he doesn’t believe that because he’s examined the skull. He explains that the number of teeth suggest that the skull was from an adult, not a boy, and the size and shape suggest that it’s the skull of a woman. Albert suspects that some local person actually found the skull at the site of an Iron Age settlement nearby.) According to the legend of this skull (or what people say the legend is), the young slave boy died of a fever, and on his deathbed, told the Gotobed family that they must keep his skull in the house or the walls would fall. Hepzibah says that one of the Gotobeds’ ancestors tried removing the skull from the house once, and during the night, all the crockery in the kitchen broke and the mirrors in the house cracked for no apparent reason. When they brought the skull back into the house, they didn’t have any further problems. Albert is skeptical of this story, but it’s captivating for Carrie.

Carrie finally meets Dilys Gotobed one day when everyone else is busy and Hepzibah asks her to take tea up to Mrs. Gotobed. Dilys is a sad and weak old woman who doesn’t have much time left to live. She lives mostly in her memories, spending each day wearing the fancy ball gowns that her husband bought for her years ago one last time before she dies. All of her talk of death gives Carrie the creeps, but Dilys makes her promise to take a message to her brother after she dies. She insists that the message must be delivered only after her death because it’s sure to make Mr. Evans angry and Dilys isn’t up to dealing with his anger. The message is somewhat cryptic. Basically, Mrs. Gotobed wants Mr. Evans to know that she hasn’t forgotten him and she remembers that they’re still brother and sister, but she feels like she owes more to others than she does to family. Dilys has done something that is sure to make Mr. Evans angry, but she wants him to know that she did it only because she thought it was the right thing to do and not just to spite Mr. Evans. Carrie reluctantly agrees to deliver the message after Dilys is dead.

The meaning of the message becomes clear when Dilys finally does die. Dilys’s only relatives are Mr. Evans and Auntie Lou, but she wanted to provide for Hepzibah and Johnny because of their companionship over the years. At first, Carrie thinks that Mr. Evans will be reassured that his sister thought of him near the end, but Carrie hasn’t fully grasped Mr. Evans’s reactions. Mr. Evans flies into a rage at the suggestion that Hepzibah might inherit from Dilys instead of him. He storms over to Druid’s Bottom to search for a copy of Dilys’s will to establish who is going to inherit. Mr. Evans later says that he couldn’t find one, and even Dilys’s lawyer says that Dilys’s didn’t make a will or leave one with him. If that’s true, and there is no will, Dilys’s estate would go to her nearest relatives, which basically means Mr. Evans. But, is that the truth?

While Dilys may have meant to provide for Hepzibah and Johnny, she was so ill near the end of her life that she may have forgotten about making a will. Her mind wasn’t entirely there, so she may have thought that she’d already done it when she hadn’t. However, there is another explanation. What if Mr. Evans did find something in writing from Dilys about her last wishes for her estate? What if he stole or destroyed Dilys’s will or something she left behind? That’s what Albert believes. He’s ready to believe the worst about Mr. Evans because he is unquestionably a mean, bitter, and vindictive man, but Carrie still has trouble believing that Mr. Evans could do something so deliberately evil. Albert somewhat blames Carrie for delivering the message Mrs. Gotobed gave her for Mr. Evans, alerting him to the possibility that there might be another heir to the estate, depleted though that estate is. Carrie was only doing as Mrs. Gotobed asked as one of her final wishes, but Carrie does feel responsible, especially if Mr. Evans did what Albert suspects.

In the midst of Carrie’s guilt that Mrs. Gotobed’s wishes are not being honored and her anger at Mr. Evans for wanting the house all to himself and kicking out Hepzibah and Johnny, Carrie decides that there’s only one thing left to do in order to make sure that Mr. Evans never takes possession of the house. It’s a terrible, impulsive decision, and it’s only after she’s done it that Carrie realizes that she also may have misjudged the situation yet again. It’s also only when she returns to Druid’s Bottom as an adult that she comes to see the full truth of the situation and that what she’s done may not have been as bad as she thinks.

This book is very well-known, and it was made into a television mini series in 1974 (you can sometimes find clips or episodes on YouTube) and a movie in 2004. The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

I saw the 2004 movie before I read the book. The movie follows the book very well, and after I looked up the television mini series, I decided that it also follows the book well. The section in the back of the book about the author explains that Nina Bawden was also a child evacuee from London during World War II, so the book was partly inspired by her experiences.

In real life, when children were evacuated from London to be safe from the bombings during World War II, they went through some of the same feelings of homesickness and unfamiliarity that the children in this story also go through. First, they’re worried about being far from home. They don’t even know where they’re going and who they’re going to be staying with when they get there. During the scene where they’re being selected by foster families, they worry about who will choose them and what will happen to them if no one wants them. It’s all very realistic, and people who were among the child evacuees of the time describe going through a similar process.

There’s also the adjustment that the children have to make living in a household with unfamiliar people and different rules and circumstances from what they’re used to in London. London at the time was a large cosmopolitan area, like it is today, but back in the 1940s, small towns and houses in the countryside had far fewer amenities than in modern times. Real life child evacuees were accustomed to indoor plumbing in London, but they didn’t always find that in the places where they had to stay during the evacuation. The characters in the story find a mixture where they’re staying. The fussy head of the Evans household has indoor plumbing, but he doesn’t allow everyone to use it during the day because he doesn’t want everyone constantly going up and down his wonderful carpet on the stairs, so they also have to use the outdoor privy.

Mr. Evans’s fussiness and anger issues are also, sadly, true to life. The real life evacuees came from a variety of backgrounds and were accustomed to different styles of home and family life, and what they encountered in their foster homes during evacuation could be wildly different from the life they had at home, both for better or for worse. Some foster families could be warm and welcoming to the child evacuees, but sadly, many were not, resenting the new obligations that had been thrust on them because of the war. (Households were told that they had to accept evacuees if they had room for them, and there was no option to refuse.) There were foster families who ended up keeping or adopting children they took in during the war because they were orphaned or abandoned by their parents by the time the war ended. Some children ended up drawing closer to their foster families than their birth families because they came from an unhappy home life in the beginning, and they found themselves liking the new life they found. Others had a very unhappy experience, feeling unwanted, unwelcome, or even abused by their temporary foster families. Unhappy children could try to reunite with their parents, transfer to a different household, or even just run away, and some did all of these things. (To hear about the experiences of real life evacuees in their own words, listen to this documentary or this interview series on YouTube.)

In the story, Carrie and Nick seem to come from a happy home life with close-knit family. Their family is not poor because they could afford a nice house with a maid, and their parents seem kind and understanding and do not use physical punishment of any kind with the children. The Evans household is a step down for them. The fact that Mr. Evans, as a shopkeeper, doesn’t seem to have as much money as their family did when they lived in London isn’t so much of a problem as Mr. Evans’s personal issues and bullying nature. Mr. Evans is a troubled person, twisted by anger and resentment, and rather than dealing with these issues himself, he takes them out on other people, even people who are not the source of his anger and resentment.

As the story unfolds, the children learn about Mr. Evans’s sad history with his older sister, Dilys. He and Dilys were once rather close, but their relationship unraveled when she married Mr. Gotobed, the son of the man who owned the mine where their father was killed in an accident. Not only did it seem like a betrayal, to marry into the family of the man Mr. Evans blamed for their father’s death, but Dilys also suddenly became a wealthy woman by marrying into a wealthy family, while the rest of her family was still poor working class. There were apparently even times when Dilys rubbed it in, making the situation worse. Mr. Evans had to work his way up from the son of a miner to becoming the local shopkeeper and a prominent member of the community, and even then, he’s still not as well-off as his sister, who simply married into money and has never had to work herself. Instead of just taking pride in his achievements, Mr. Evans can’t get over the injustice of his relative position with his sister, that she has it all easy, and he’s had to work and scrimp for everything he has. That’s why’s he’s ultra-protective of things he owns, like the biscuits in the shop or the new carpet on the stairs, and why he’s so controlling of the people in his life. In spite of his accomplishments, he feels “small” next to his sister who married wealth and always has more than he has. He’s constantly trying to assert his authority to avoid feeling “small”, but it never really works because he can’t change who his sister married, he’s never going to be rich, and he can’t internalize the idea that he can still be somebody worthwhile even if he’s not the guy who has the most money and power. He’s tied his sense of self-worth to what he has and the amount of control he has over everyone, so he can’t give up any part of it. He’s had all of these resentments for so many years that they’ve all been brewing inside him and explode out whenever any little thing in his tightly-controlled world goes wrong or he thinks he stands to lose something he regards as his. This life hasn’t been healthy for his younger sister, Auntie Lou, who has lived with Mr. Evans and his controlling nature and temper tantrums since she was young, and it’s not really healthy for Carrie and Nick, either.

Carrie becomes sympathetic to Mr. Evans, although Nick can’t understand why, because she sees the sadness and loneliness at the core of his bad behavior. Carrie is a very sympathetic/empathetic person, but one of the questions of this story is how far should someone go with sympathy/empathy when they’re dealing with a person who is causing harm to people around him. Mr. Evans is a toxic person. He is causing harm to others, and before the story is over, Auntie Lou runs away from the house to marry an American soldier she met, leaving her brother to live alone. By this point, the children know that they won’t be living with Mr. Evans much longer because their mother has sent for them to join her in Glasgow because she’s found a place for them to all live together. Carrie and Nick won’t be living with Mr. Evans or facing his temper problems, stinginess, or selfishness anymore. Carrie feels sorry for for Mr. Evans, an aging man who is now left alone. His only other living relative, his son, has already said that he isn’t planning to come back and run his father’s store after the war, although Mr. Evans doesn’t know it yet, so he’s going to be even more alone than he knows. Carrie sees the sadness of Mr. Evans’s situation and feels badly for him, even though at least part of this situation is his own making. However, Nick and Albert don’t like Carrie’s sympathy for Mr. Evans because her attempts to reach him emotionally put everyone else in a vulnerable position to Mr. Evans’s wrath because he’s never as sympathetic, understanding, or rational as Carrie expects him to be.

When the question arises of whether or not Mr. Evans could have stolen or destroyed Dilys’s will in order to get her house and get rid of Hepzibah and Johnny, Albert is prepared to believe that he did. He is a vindictive man, driven by his bitterness, and does not always behave rationally. Nick says he sometimes cheats his customers in petty ways, like giving them 97 saccharine tablets instead of the full 100 he owes them, but other times, he has Carrie give someone the correct change when she’s made a mistake. Sometimes, he extends extra credit or provides free groceries for people in need. Mr. Evans is definitely flawed, but he does still seem to have a system of ethics. Would he really commit a crime, like inheritance fraud?

For all of her sympathy for the sad Mr. Evans, Carrie doesn’t really understand him. For much of the story, she expects him to react to situations as she would and thinks that she can reach him through her own kindness and understanding. By the end of the story, she is partially successful, and she ends up getting to know him better than other characters do, but at the same time, she can’t control Mr. Evans, and it must be acknowledged that Mr. Evans doesn’t control himself. He has a long-standing habit of lashing out at other people that he doesn’t fully confront until he finds himself completely alone with no one else to lash out at but himself. As hard as Mr. Evans works at his professional life, his personal life is a mess because of the way he’s treated the people who should have been close to him, and Carrie can’t solve that for him. While Mr. Evans recognizes the kindness and sympathy that Carrie offers him and becomes fond of her for it, she’s still a child, and Mr. Evans is an adult who has control issues and temper tantrums and long-standing personal issues that have gone unaddressed for far too long. Perhaps Mr. Evans realizes that toward the end, partly through Carrie’s kindness, but it’s hard to say because he’s been wrapped up in feeling resentful and sorry for himself for so long.

Apparently, Mr. Evans wasn’t lying when he said that his sister didn’t leave a will. During a rare moment of candor, Mr. Evans reveals to Carrie that he was deeply hurt when Dilys didn’t even leave him a note or letter on her death. All he found in her jewelry box when she died was a single envelope with his name on it, and all it contained was an old photograph and a ring that he had bought for her as a present years before, when they were still close. Carrie thinks that it’s a hopeful sign, that Dilys remembered how much the present meant to both of them and how much it reminded them of better times, but Mr. Evans says that there wasn’t even a word of farewell with it. This candid moment reassures Carrie that Mr. Evans didn’t find a will and steal it, and more than just being greedy for the property, he is feeling hurt and abandoned by the final loss of his sister and the relationship they once had. What he really craved in the end, more than authority, control, money, or property, was a genuine connection with his sister that he realized he would never have again.

It’s sad, and much of it is still Mr. Evans’s fault, although Dilys also deserves some of the blame because there were times when she rubbed salt into Mr. Evans’s wounds by flaunting the difference in their wealth and social status. A death can make people rethink the relationships they had with other people, but those relationships were forged and maintained (or not) when the person was alive. Death can’t change the way people lived when they had the chance. Mr. Evans and Dilys both had chances to fix things between the two of them in the years leading up to the end, and they never took them. Not only that, but Mr. Evans’s bitter feelings and vindictiveness also poisoned the other relationships in his life. So, in the end, it seems that Mr. Evans isn’t evil, even though he can’t really be called “good”, either. Mr. Evans isn’t out to steal his sister’s estate. If he had found a will and an explanation from his sister, he probably would have honored it, even though it would have hurt to do so. What hurts him the most is not finding anything, only the ring, probably because Dilys wasn’t really in her right mind toward the end and couldn’t get her thoughts together well enough to leave anything in writing, which is why she asked Carrie to talk to her brother instead. There also isn’t as much money connected with the estate as there once was. Since Dilys’s husband died, Dilys hasn’t had any income, she hasn’t been able to keep the house up or retain a staff other than Hepzibah, and she has very little money left. She was living in prideful, genteel poverty while Mr. Evans was feeling resentful of what he thought she still had. In the end, Mr. Evans was the victim of his own pride and bad relationships.

The worst mistake that Carrie ever made in her life was trying to sabotage Mr. Evans’s attempt to take the house away from Hepzibah and Johnny by removing the skull from the house. Caught up in the stories about the skull and its supposed curse that would destroy the house if it was ever removed from the house, Carrie comes to believe that the stories are true and decides to use the legend of the skull to destroy the house and keep it out of Mr. Evans’s hands since he won’t let Hepzibah and Johnny live there. As Carrie and Nick leave Wales, they see that the house is on fire from the train, and Carrie comes to believe that the fire was her fault because of the skull. For years, she believes that Hepzibah, Johnny, and Albert were killed in the fire and blames herself for their deaths. But, again, Carrie still doesn’t understand the full situation.

So, does Carrie end up changing anything for Mr. Evans? I think she touched his heart a bit because she cared about him in ways few other people did (mostly because Mr. Evans himself didn’t have much caring for other people), but as far as Mr. Evans’s life and behavior goes, it’s hard to say whether she would have had any long term effect because (spoiler), she later learns that he died not too long after she and her brother left Wales to rejoin their mother in Scotland. He was under stress when Carrie last saw him, full of unresolved grief and anger at Dilys’s death and feeling abandoned by Lou because of her elopement. Then, while he was in the midst of taking control of what was left of his sister’s estate, Dilys’s house caught fire and burned, and then, Mr. Evans received word that his son was killed during the war. The shock of it all was too much for him, and he had a heart attack and died. Sad as that is, Mr. Evans’s death ends up changing things for the better for Hepzibah, Johnny, and Albert.

In spite of her sense of guilt, Carrie does grow up, get married, and have children. The return to Wales with her children when she’s an adult leads her to confront the past and her feelings about it, but it also reveals the truth (also a spoiler): Hepzibah, Johnny, and Albert are all still alive. The house was damaged by the fire but not completely destroyed. In fact, not only were Hepzibah and Johnny allowed to stay on the property after Mr. Evans died, but Albert has saved up enough money to buy the property and restore it. Albert has never married, and there are hints that he might marry the widowed Carrie and become her children’s new stepfather.

Mystery at Kittiwake Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery Ranch

The Boxcar Children

Mystery Ranch by Gertrude Chandler Warner, 1958, 1986.

The children can tell that something is wrong when their grandfather, Mr. Alden, comes home and bangs the doors. When they ask their grandfather what’s the matter, he says that he’s worried about his sister, Jane, because he just got a disturbing letter about her. The children have never met their Great-Aunt Jane before, and she lives on a ranch out west. The trouble is that Jane is a difficult person to get along with. She can’t stay at the ranch alone because she’s elderly and needs help, but the person who was helping her before is leaving, and because Jane is such a difficult person, their grandfather doesn’t know where he’s going to find someone else willing to help her. Their grandfather admits that he doesn’t even get along with Jane himself, confessing that he hasn’t been very nice to her, either. (We never find out exactly why the children’s parents originally told them that their grandfather wasn’t a nice man, as established in the first book of the series, but this confession hints that he used to be much harder on his relatives than he is now, perhaps having mellowed a bit with age and experience.)

Their grandfather says that the ranch where Jane lives is the ranch where both of them grew up. When he moved east years ago, Jane wanted to stay on at the ranch. He knows that Jane doesn’t have much money and doesn’t even keep many animals anymore, but because of her sense of pride and their past quarrels, Jane won’t accept any money or help from him. The children wish they could do something to help, and their grandfather says that he has to think things over. They ask who wrote the letter about Jane, and their grandfather says that it was written by the neighbor who has been staying with Jane. She says that she can’t put up with the bad treatment from Jane anymore. The letter further says that Jane wants to see Mr. Alden’s grandchildren. Naturally, the children say that they would like to see Jane themselves and try to help her. However, their grandfather isn’t sure that it’s a good idea because he doesn’t know how Jane would treat the children.

After talking it over some more, they all decide that the two girls, Jessie and Violet, will go to see Aunt Jane without the boys because Jane might find all four children at once to be too overwhelming. Mr. Alden says that if Jane gives them too much trouble, they should go to the neighbors, who are nice and will help them. When the girls get off the train at the town near their aunt’s ranch, they notice that a man gets off at the same time and quickly disappears. They are curious about him and wonder where he went. The townspeople are curious, too, because it’s rare that anybody comes to their little town, let alone a mysterious stranger.

When the girls arrive at the ranch, the neighbor, Maggie, helps them get settled. Aunt Jane refuses to get out of bed, and Maggie says that she hasn’t been eating much and won’t let her eat much, either. The girls ask Maggie what’s wrong with Aunt Jane, and she says Jane feels like she doesn’t have anything to live for, so she’s kind of given up. Jessie and Violet insist that they’re all going to eat, and they fix some food. The girls and Maggie eat first, and then, the girls take Jane some orange juice with a beaten egg. Jane finds it difficult to refuse the girls, so she drinks it. Aunt Jane starts asking the girls questions about their brothers and says that she would like to see them.

Aunt Jane begins eating better because she finds these interactions with her young nieces interesting and because they speak more kindly to her than anybody else has for years, and she enjoys the attention. Maggie stays on at the house and continues to help because the girls have money and buy more and better food. Things seem like they’re getting better at the ranch, but when Maggie and the girls return from buying food in town, Aunt Jane says that three strange men came to the house while they were gone, even entering her bedroom, and they tried to badger her into selling her ranch to them. At first, Maggie doesn’t believe that, but Aunt Jane has the paper the men left to prove it. Of course, Aunt Jane refused to sign anything and told the men to go away, but she seems a little shaken by the experience.

The girls miss their brothers, and Aunt Jane tells them that the boys can come and stay, provided that they’re not like their grandfather. When the boys come, Aunt Jane likes them, too. To the children’s surprise, she tells them that she’s decided to give her ranch to the four of them because she has no children of her own and she would rather they have it than those men who tried to get her to sell. The prospect is thrilling, but when the lawyer comes to arrange everything, they make sure that the arrangement includes providing for Aunt Jane, too.

As the children explore their new ranch together, they see that things are as their grandfather described to them. The only animal Aunt Jane currently has is an old, black horse that Benny ironically names Snowball. However, they find an old hut that looks like someone has been living there recently. Who has been secretly camping out on Aunt Jane’s land? Is it the mysterious stranger who got off the train or the three tough guys who tried to get Aunt Jane to sell the ranch to them? Why would anybody even want the ranch anyway? The children find it charming, and while the girls like to imagine how they’d like to fix up the house, they know it isn’t worth much monetarily. There aren’t many animals, and while there’s fool’s gold on the land, there’s no real gold. Is there something else on the ranch that they don’t know about?

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

My Reaction and Spoilers

As readers might have guessed, there is a resource on the ranch that the Aldens have overlooked for years, but other people have figured it out. However, more than the mystery, I like this book for the insights into the Alden family’s past. As I said, we never fully find out why Mr. Alden’s son and his wife had a falling out with him years ago and told the children he wasn’t very nice, but his sister’s feelings about him offer some clues to the type of boy and young man Mr. Alden was. Mr. Alden admits that he wasn’t always nice to his sister, and Jane says that he was always “bossy.” I get the feeling that Mr. Alden used to be the kind of man who thought that he knew best about everything and started feeling like he could tell everyone what to do. Perhaps his falling out with his son helped show him that he didn’t really know best about everything, including how to get along with his own family, but admittedly, that’s speculation.

Jane also admits to being difficult to get along with in other ways. Her major problem has been her sense of pride, which is one of the reasons why she never wanted to listen to her brother or go to him for help when she needed it. One of their chief disputes had been about the ranch itself. Years ago, her parents and brother were ready to give up the ranch and move east, but Jane felt more attached to it than the others and insisted on staying there and running it herself. Unfortunately, Jane admits that she didn’t really know how to run the ranch properly. There were points when she could have asked for help, but that would have been admitting to the others that she had been wrong to insist on staying, and she couldn’t bring herself to do that. Things gradually got worse over time because Jane wouldn’t listen to anybody or ask for help, which is how the ranch got into its current state.

The discovery of an important resource on the ranch brings more money to the family, greater security for Jane, and a chance for the brother and sister to make up. Jane invites Mr. Alden to the ranch to celebrate her birthday and to help her and the children arrange things. Mr. Alden is careful to arrange the situation so that the resources can be mined while not disturbing the old ranch house, so his sister can continue to live in the house she always loved so much.

A Pattern of Roses

A Pattern of Roses by K. M. Peyton, 1972, 1973.

Tim Ingram has been feeling depressed since his parents decided to move from London to an old house in the country that they’re fixing up. It’s hard for him being separated from his friends and living in this overly-quiet place, where it seems like nothing ever happens, but the truth is that he was depressed even before his family moved. A large part of Tim’s problem is not knowing what he wants out of life. He works hard in school to get good grades, and his school has a reputation for getting its students into good universities, but it all seems so futile because Tim doesn’t know what he really wants to study or what he’ll do when he gets out of school. His father quit school early and went to work, working his way up the ladder in an advertising firm and becoming monetarily successful. However, Tim doesn’t feel like he has either the wit or self-confidence for starting off from practically nothing and working his way up in a direction he’s not even sure he wants to go. His father’s plans and suggestions for the future don’t excite him or make him happy. They actually make him feel more stressed and depressed when he thinks about them. His father is in a position to just give him a job with his company, so Tim does have a guaranteed job if he can’t think of anything else, but advertising doesn’t appeal to Tim. He’s not sure what does appeal to him. He fears and dreads the future, specifically his own future. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, and in this new place, it seems like there isn’t a lot he can do.

Tim has also been arguing with his parents, discovering that he has different interests and priorities in life than they do. While they’re enthusiastic about expanding onto this country house with a new and stylish modern wing, Tim prefers the older part of the house and its simpler style. He thinks the modern additions his parents made look ugly and out-of-place, ruining the natural beauty of the countryside. His parents feel like he’s unappreciative of their standards and the sort of lifestyle they’ve worked hard to build, and his mother even goes so far as to call him “perverse and awkward.” He kind of feels that way, too. Tim often feels like he’s a nobody, not very outstanding at anything. His ambitious parents are disappointed in him because they’ve invested so much in his education to show him off as another one of their achievements in life, and he doesn’t think he’s much to show off. He’s even a little disappointed with himself because, not only does he not seem to live up to his parents’ expectations, he doesn’t even have it in him to stand out as a rebel or a troublemaker, like some of his friends. He’s not an aggressive person, and it’s just not his nature to fight or get into trouble, and that makes him feel like even more of a nobody. If he neither excels at meeting people’s expectations or at deliberately flouting them, what is he? Who is he? Where does he fit in? With all of this, Tim hasn’t been feeling well, and he fakes being sicker than he is so he doesn’t have to get out of bed and deal with any of it. Since he’s been unwell, he’s also excused from school until after Christmas, leaving him with nothing to do in this countryside house but lie in bed and think about all the things that are worrying him.

Then, one day, the builder who’s been working on their house finds an old tin box hidden in the chimney of the room that Tim has chosen for his bedroom. The box catches Tim’s attention. It looks like a very old biscuit (meaning cookie, this book is British) tin decorated with a faded pattern of flowers. The builder opens the box and is disappointed to see that it just contains papers, not anything that looks really valuable. However, Tim is curious and insists that he wants to see the papers.

The papers are drawings, quite old and done in black crayon. Most of them are landscapes and buildings, but there is also a girl, who is labeled “Netty.” Netty’s name is written in a heart, so the artist must have loved her. The date on one of the drawings is February 17, 1910 (the story seems to be contemporary with the time when it was written in the early 1970s because Tim thinks that was 60 years ago), and to Tim’s surprise, the author signed with his initials: T.R.I. Tim’s full name is Timothy Reed Ingram. Tim is intrigued that the artist who lived so long ago had the same initials and apparently lived in his room.

The builder, called Jim, asks Tim if he likes to draw or knows anything about art. Tim gets good grades in art, but he’s not very self-confident about his abilities. Still, he knows enough to tell that the artist wasn’t particularly great at his art. There are places where he got the proportions of his drawings wrong, but Tim is impressed that they convey a lot of feeling. Even though the drawing of Netty isn’t perfect, Tim feels like he can tell what kind of girl she was. She looks like she’s in her early teens and has a kind of proud, somewhat naughty or daring look. Tim asks the builder if he knows anything about the artist or the people who lived in the house back in the 1910s. The builder says that was before his time, but he thinks that he remembers hearing that the family name was Inskip, and he says that he could ask his father if he knows more. Tim wonders why the drawings were hidden in the chimney and begins to imagine what the first T.R.I was like, picturing a boy close to his own age.

Tim is surprised at how real the boy he imagines seems because he’s often found it difficult to imagine old people as once having been young. He’s seen old men and known that they were part of the generation that fought in WWI but is unable to picture them as once having been soldiers. In fact, he knows that his own father flew a Spitfire during WWII, but even though he knows it happened, he has trouble picturing that of the middle-aged advertising manager his father has become. Yet, somehow, T.R.I. seems incredibly real to him, someone he can connect with, even more so than his own father. Details of this past boy’s life flash through Tim’s head without him knowing quite where they came from. However, Netty seems even more real to Tim because of her picture.

When Tim’s mother makes him get out of bed and go visit the local vicar to get a copy of the parish magazine, Tim has a strange vision of the boy artist he imagines as being named Tom Inskip passing him in the lane. It’s so real that Tim feels like Tom is actually there. As he pauses to look around the churchyard, he spots some beautiful purple roses by a gravestone. Taking a closer look, he sees that the grave has the initials T.R.I., a birth date of March 1894, and a death date of February 18, 1910. Tim is shocked to realize that the artist was not only a little less than 16 years old when he died, just a little younger than Tim is now, but that he also died the day after he drew that last picture. It seems like the boy’s death was sudden and unexpected, more like an accident than a long illness.

Tim doesn’t meet the vicar, but the vicar’s daughter, Rebecca, spots him in the churchyard and asks him if he’s all right. Tim just says that he’s there to get a parish magazine. Rebecca isn’t too cheerful or friendly, and she just gives him one and sends him on his way. Tim later learns that Rebecca is the youngest of the vicar’s children and the only one still in school. Her older siblings are all grown up and have jobs working for good causes and charity organizations.

Tim talks to Jim the builder about the grave he saw, and Jim is interested. He suggests that, since T.R.I. is buried in the churchyard, there will be church records about who he was and how he died. Tim has another vision of the boy, and the boy says, “Find out. But be careful it doesn’t happen to you.”

Tim returns to the vicarage and talks to Rebecca about T.R.I. Rebecca says that she doesn’t believe in ghosts and that she thinks the visions he’s had are just his imagination. However, Tim’s guess that the artist’s first name was Tom turns out to be correct. His full name was Thomas Robert Inskip. The records don’t say how he died, but Rebecca suggests that Tim ask an old local man called “Holy Moses.” The old man says that he remembers Tom Inskip but he doesn’t know what happened to him because he left the village to work somewhere else and didn’t come back until after Tom was dead. When Moses shows them an old photograph of all the children at the local school, Tim recognizes Tom instantly as the boy from his visions and strangely even knows the name of Tom’s friend, Arnold, standing next to him in the photograph, without being told.

From this point forward in the story, scenes with Tom alternate with scenes with Tim. Tom’s scenes start with the day the photograph was taken, when Tom was eleven years old. It was also the day that Tom first met the new vicar of the parish, Reverend Bellinger, a fire-and-brimstone kind of preacher, very different from the gentle man who was the last vicar. Like Tim, Tom was bright, imaginative, and artistic, but he was not much of a worrier. Tom fails to impress the new vicar because he is not very good with religious knowledge and often doesn’t pay attention. Tom loves to draw, but after he gets out of school and starts working, he finds that he doesn’t have time anymore. The vicar’s daughter, however, is kind and encourages him to draw because it’s a talent from God and must be used. People often underestimate her and don’t appreciate her because she has a disability, so she understands what it’s like not to have the opportunity to use and develop her talents to the fullest. It’s only sad that a tragic accident cuts Tom’s life short before they can see what he might have developed into, although when Tim and Rebecca manage to contact the people who knew and remember Tom best, one of them points out that, if Tom hadn’t died when he did, he might have been sent off to fight and die with the other young men during WWI, and with his gentle soul, he might have suffered more from the war than he did from the accident that took his life, when died young in an act of self-sacrifice.

Tim’s scenes involve his parents and school discussing his future, asking for little input from him, not caring about how he feels or what he wants. Tim actually does love art, and his art teacher thinks he should go further with it, but his teacher realistically acknowledges that, with Tim’s good grades in his other classes, his family and the school will want to push him into more lucrative and higher-status fields. But, does Tim really care about money and status as much as his parents? Is that really what he wants?

Gradually, Tim begins to consider the idea of the legacies people leave behind. Few living people remember that there was once a boy named Tom Inskip who died young, and after those people are gone, no one will remember. It occurs to Tim that few people would likely remember either him or his father as advertising workers. If all you care about is just getting money to afford the good things in life, any job could do, and there are many well-paying jobs that make little lasting or meaningful impact on the world. On the other hand, if what you want is to leave a lasting and meaningful legacy, you have to think a little deeper and maybe sacrifice some material gain. Money comes, and money goes, and one coin or bill looks like another, but what lasts as long and has as much individual character as a collection of imperfect but evocative drawings hidden away in an old tin box?

The question of what Tim wants to do with his life becomes the question of what Tim wants to leave as his life’s legacy. The quietness of the country, rather than being the torture it initially seemed, gives Tim a chance to think and really consider what he wants. Through his search for Tom’s past and consideration of Tom’s legacy, Tim finds a new vision of his own future that makes him more hopeful instead of more frightened and that may lead him to find what one of Tom’s friends called Tom’s “perfect spiritual grace.”

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). Some US versions of the book are titled So Once Was I.

That alternate title is fitting for the theme of the story. Tom was once a living boy with choices to make in his future, much like Tim is now. That phrase also appears in the story as part of an epitaph from another tombstone, which I’ve also seen elsewhere. That same epitaph has been used in different forms in real life. It refers to the inevitability of human mortality – all those living will someday die, like every other generation before. As one of my old teachers used to say, “Nobody gets out of life alive.” But, I would also like to point out that the sentiment also refers to growing up. Every adult used to be young (although Tim has trouble picturing it), and every child will someday be an adult (if they live to grow up – Tom was unfortunate). Every person in a profession of any kind was once a student and a beginner, struggling to learn and find or make their place in the world, and every student will one day find or make some place for themselves and try to make a mark on the world. Change is inevitable. Time passes, people grow and change, and everyone moves on in one way or another. Tim won’t always be a student with his parents controlling his education. He will eventually grow up, graduate, and become an adult. That part is inevitable. What else he becomes is up to him and whatever opportunities he seeks and finds for himself. His future legacy is still in the making.

There is also a made-for-television movie version that is available to rent cheaply online through Vimeo. The movie version is notable for being Helena Bonham Carter’s first movie role. She played young Netty.

My Reaction and Spoilers

I found this story very sad, particularly Tom’s death, trying in vain to rescue beloved hunting dogs but drowning along with them in an icy lake when they all fell in. The death of the dogs was as traumatic as Tom’s, and it is described in awful detail. I also hated a part earlier in the story, where one of the dogs kills a pet cat. I love animals, and that was hard to take. It’s all a tragedy, but Tim’s story has a more hopeful ending. Besides leaving behind a box full of drawings, Tom’s effect on Tim’s life becomes a part of his legacy. Even though they lived in different periods of time, Tom and his life story helps Tim, who has been going through a personal crisis, to realize what’s really important and what he wants out of life.

Through much of the book, both Tim and Rebecca are in a similar situation when it comes to their future lives and their family’s expectations for them. As Tim gets to know Rebecca, he discovers that she has hidden depths and is inwardly quite sensitive. She often uses a blunt and abrasive manner to keep people at a distance and hide how sensitive she really is. Like Tim, she is also unimpressed by the money and business-oriented priorities of the modern world and Tim’s parents, preferring things with an old-fashioned, natural beauty – things that, sadly, are often cleared away by modern people in the name of money, business, and being modern. Yet, Rebecca also doesn’t feel like she fits with the lives that her family lives. She doesn’t have the patience to deal with the people her family tries to help, many of whom are nasty and ungrateful instead of kind and appreciative of the help they get, and she feels like her parents don’t have time for her because they spend all of their time helping everyone else. Rebecca is considering a career in social work, but it’s mostly because it’s what her parents want and expect of her. As they compare their family lives, Tim and Rebecca both realize that neither of them quite fits their families’ lifestyles and expectations. They both feel pressured. Their families are also extremes: extreme business and high-achievement vs. extreme charity. Tim and Rebecca are looking for a happy medium that neither one of them knows how to achieve. They feel overwhelmed by a world full of choices, their parents’ expectations, and their own uncertainty about what path to choose.

It occurs to them that a boy like Tom in the 1910s would have limited choices in life and expectations from his family and community. Tom died young, but if he hadn’t, he probably would have been expected to do what other young men in his community did, which was mostly farming or joining the army. In some ways, Rebecca thinks life was probably much easier for those who had no choices than it is for modern people with many more choices and little to no guidance about how to use them. Tim and Rebecca aren’t really bound to their parents expectations because there is less social stigma with being different in their time, but being young, inexperienced, and uncertain of their options in life, they aren’t sure what to do with their relative freedom. They feel trapped, but not in quite the same way as each other and in a different way from people in the past.

Perhaps all people have limits and obstacles no matter when or where they live, and nobody is ever fully in control of their destiny because they are subject to limits in knowledge, ability, and available options. Maybe not everybody is even really suited to where they end up in life. They learn that the man who was the vicar in Tom’s time was more of a bully than a loving and charitable man. Tim’s art teacher comments that he used to work in a job similar to Tim’s father before he found his calling teaching art. Having followed two different professions in his life and seen the people who thrive in each, he thinks that Tim’s personality fits better in the art world than the business world, but he can also see that Tim is going to have to learn to fight and stand up for himself to get where he really needs to be.

But, happiness in life depends on more than fighting or earning money. May, the vicar’s daughter, who is still alive and has lived a happier life than anyone expected after the death of her father, says that one of Tom’s greatest gifts was “perfect spiritual grace.” She explains that Tom never asked a lot out of life and was satisfied with what he had. His life was tragically short, but he enjoyed it to the fullest as long as he lived. Tim thinks that Tom might have gotten less satisfied with his limited prospects in life if he had lived longer, but it’s difficult to say. However, May’s description makes Tim realize that he wants that same sense of “perfect spiritual grace”, making the most of the opportunities open to him and being satisfied that he pursued those opportunities to the best of his ability.

Life has a way of taking many people in directions that they never expected. People often don’t know what they want to do with their lives when they’re young, some of us still question our career choices when we’re older, and many of us end up doing things we didn’t expect or entering fields we didn’t originally study. Tim’s new home and new acquaintances and the inspiration that he receives from Tom’s life story cause him to consider different directions that his life might take. Tim finds a job in the country as the local blacksmith’s assistant. Blacksmithing appeals to Tim’s creative side, and there is enough demand for specially-crafted decorative metal objects that Tim is confident that he can build his own business around it. He’s confident enough about it that he finds the ability to stand up to his parents and insist on the future he really wants. He probably won’t make as much money at it as his father does in his advertising firm, but he’ll be independent and creating real things that will leave the lasting legacy that he now craves. He hopes that, along the way, he’ll also find the “perfect spiritual grace” that Tom had.

Tim also comes to realize that the company that his father built was his father’s act of creation, and that’s why he takes so much pride in it, wanting Tim to continue it as his legacy. However, Tim also realizes that what his father did with his life was his decision, done for his own reasons and his own sense of fulfillment, and he doesn’t need to stifle his own creative urges to validate his father. Tim is adamant that he wants to create something of his own, to know the satisfaction of that kind of creation for himself. His parents are angry with him, seeing his decision as throwing away all that they’ve given him and all they say that they’ve sacrificed for. Still, Tim points out that the lifestyle that his parents chose was their choice, not his. He didn’t ask them to do any of it, they did it because it was what they wanted to do, and he wants the right to make his own choices. It affects their relationship, but Tim already had the feeling that their relationship was strained because of his parents’ expectations for his future, which were making him unhappy. When they argue about it, it becomes apparent that his parents have been emotionally manipulative, and having a say in his own future isn’t an unreasonable thing for Tim to ask for, even though his parents claim that it is. His parents really have been selfish and even neurotic, planning to use Tim as something to show off, ultimately depending on him to make themselves feel successful and fulfilled and validating their life choices. They make it clear to him that their support for him hinges on him doing exactly what they want him to do. Their love is conditional and transactional. In an odd way, it feels like a relief to Tim to have it all out in the open and to take control of his destiny in spite of their opposition. Whether or not his parents will eventually accept Tim’s decision and independence or whether they will remain estranged is unknown.

I don’t think I’d read this book again because of the sad and stressful parts, but it does offer a lot to think about. I’d also like to point out that this story is not for young kids because of the subject matter, and there are also instances of smoking and underage drinking.

The Children of Green Knowe

Green Knowe

The Children of Green Knowe by L. M. Boston, 1954, 1955, 1982, 1983.

Seven-year-old Toseland is traveling by train to stay with his great-grandmother Oldknow at the old family home, Green Noah, for Christmas. His mother is dead, and his father now lives in Burma with his new wife, who Toseland doesn’t know very well. He has no brothers or sisters, and he spends most of his time at boarding school, so he is often lonely, wishing that he had a family outside of school, like the other boys. His great-grandmother is the only other relative he has, and he has never met her before. He is a little nervous at the idea of meeting her because he knows that she must be very old.

When Toseland arrives at the station, it’s raining, and there has been flooding, but there is a taxi-man waiting to take him to the house. When he arrives, he is immediately fascinated by the large, old house and all of the things in it. It reminds him of a castle, and he marvels at how his great-grandmother could live in such a place. He is surprised at how at home he feels there and how easily he likes and gets along with his great-grandmother. For the first time in his life since his mother died, he really feels at home, and when he asks if the house partly belongs to him, too, his great-grandmother reassures him that it does.

The two of them talk about what to call each other. Toseland’s great-grandmother asks him to call her Granny (although she is still often called Mrs. Oldknow throughout the book), and she asks him if he has any nicknames. Toseland says that the boys at school call him Towser and his stepmother calls him Toto, but he doesn’t like either nickname. Granny Oldknow says that Toseland is a family name and there have been other Toselands before him. The last one was his grandfather, and his nickname was Tolly, so Granny asks him if he would like to be called that also. Toseland says that he likes that nickname better than the others, and his mother used to call him that, so he is called Tolly from that point on.

Granny Oldknow shows Tolly to his room and helps him begin to unpack. It’s a wonderful room with many old toys that used to belong to the other children who have lived in the house in the past. Among the toys is an old dollhouse which Tolly realizes is a miniature version of the house they’re in. When he finds the miniature version of his room, he notices that there are four beds in it instead of one. He asks Granny Oldknow if other children stay at Green Noah, and she cryptically says that they do sometimes, and he might see them, but they come when they want to.

Tolly becomes fascinated by a portrait of three children in old-fashioned clothes with their mother and grandmother. Granny Oldknow tells him that those three children lived in the house long ago. The oldest boy was an earlier Toseland, who was nicknamed Toby. His younger brother was named Alexander, and their little sister was named Linnet. Granny Oldknow had been an orphan when she was a child and was raised at Green Noah by an uncle. Because she was an only child, she often lonely and liked to pretend that the children in the picture were her siblings, so Tolly decides that he’d like to do the same thing.

Tolly asks his great-grandmother questions about Toby, Alexander, and Linnet and learns details of their lives. Toby had a sword because he was going to be a soldier when he grew up, a pet deer, and a horse named Feste who loved him. Alexander had a book in Latin that he loved to read and a special flute. Linnet used to keep birds in a wicker cage that is still in Tolly’s room, along with the toy mouse that used to belong to Toby. Sometimes, Tolly thinks that toys in his room move when he’s not looking, and at night, he hears children moving about and laughing, and he thinks that it’s the three children from the painting.

Tolly comes to the conclusion that the three children are still around Green Noah and that they’re playing hide-and-seek with them. He tries to play with them, too, and the children apparently give him a twig in the shape of a ‘T’. Granny Oldknow tells him that she used to play hide-and-seek with the children when she was young, and they would give her an ‘L’ twig because her first name is Linnet, like the little girl in the painting. Later, he hears the children singing Christmas carols. Tolly becomes frustrated that the children tease him and never really show themselves to him, but Mrs. Oldknow tells him that “they’re like shy animals” and that he has to give them a chance to decide that they’re ready to come to him.

He finds the key to the old toy box in his room, and inside the box, he finds more things that belonged to the three children. When he shows them to Mrs. Oldknow, she talks about how things were when the three children were alive at Green Noah. Tolly is shocked when he realizes for the first time that Toby, Alexander, and Linnet are all dead. Mrs. Oldknow gently tells him that they lived at Green Noah centuries ago and could not be alive now. Sadly, the children all died young in the Great Plague during the 17th century. Their illness was sudden and brief, and they all sickened and died in one day along with their mother. Tolly and his great-grandmother are descended from the children’s older brother, who wasn’t at home when this happened. However, the children never left Green Noah, which used to be called Green Knowe years ago. Tolly still loves the children, even though they’re ghostly and elusive. He craves the sense of family he gets from them, having been deprived of family feelings for so much of his young life.

Mrs. Oldknow continues to tell Tolly stories about the three children and other members of his family. As his connection to his ancestors grows, Tolly begins to catch glimpses of the children more and more, and eventually, he’s able to see them and talk to them. He asks the children about their mother, and the children say that she’s in heaven but doesn’t mind them coming back to visit their old home from time to time. The children don’t seem sad at being dead, enjoying the freedom of playing around their old home with the animals and the spirits of their old pets, who keep them company. Their final illnesses had only lasted a few hours before they died, and their deaths happened so long ago that they say that they hardly remember the Great Plague and what it felt like. Tolly is still sad and frustrated that the children appear and disappear so suddenly, but his attachment to them grows and so does his attachment to Green Noah itself. As Christmas comes, Tolly develops a bond with his family, both living and dead, and a realization that the old family home that connects them is also his home, a place they can all return to.

The book is the first in a series and is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

This is a ghost story, but it’s not a scary ghost story. There’s nothing frightening about the three ghost children. It’s sad that they died so young, but at the same time, they’re not very sad about it themselves. They seem to enjoy playing together endlessly with the animals around their old home and seeing the new relatives who inhabit the house, their older brother’s descendants. Even their former pets are no longer sad at the children’s passing because they are also spirits who continue to play with them through the centuries. There is one semi-scary part of the story involving a witch’s curse placed on an old tree called Green Noah, which is how the name of the house was changed from Green Knowe, but Tolly is protected by the ghosts of his ancestors.

There is never any desire for the characters to rid Green Noah of its ghosts. They are family and are part of the place, as much a part of it as the living are. The ghosts do not feel trapped there, either. They are just revisiting the home they loved and the family members who now live there. They can come and go as they please, and the ghost children often do.

This also is not the kind of story where a child knows that a place is haunted but can’t convince the adults or tries to hide the ghosts’ presence from the adults. Mrs. Oldknow is fully aware that the ghosts are there and has known about them since her own childhood. Generations of children in the family have probably known about them and played with them, and they are also not the only family ghosts who inhabit the old house. At one point, Tolly and Mrs. Oldknow hear a woman singing and the rocking of a cradle, and Mrs. Oldknow says that she’s heard it before around Christmas, a grandmother singing to a baby. Tolly is confused because even little Linnet wasn’t a baby when she died, and Mrs. Oldknow says that this isn’t the children’s grandmother but somebody from generations earlier than the three children. This grandmother ghost has been around so long that Mrs. Oldknow doesn’t know who she or the baby are supposed to be, although we are told that they are about 400 years old, where the three children died about 300 years earlier. Generations of the same family have lived in the house and have all left their mark on it, and part of them is still there. Now, Tolly has also become part of this family home, and it’s also a part of him. The ghosts are hesitant to fully show themselves to Tolly at first and seem more attached to Granny Oldknow, probably because she’s lived there longer, since she was an infant. The ghosts know her, and she knows all of their stories. However, they are all family, and Tolly develops a new connection to his family as his great-grandmother tells him the stories about them, and he can hear and see the ghosts more often.

Really, that feeling of connection and connectedness is the primary focus of the story. In the beginning, Tolly is lonely, feeling like he doesn’t have a family and doesn’t belong anywhere or to anyone. His father lives far away in Burma with his new wife, and Tolly doesn’t feel connected to them. His mother is gone, and he spends most of his time at school, even having to remain there during the holidays when other students are going home to their families. His great-grandmother inviting him to Green Noah is the first time that Tolly feels a real connection to anyone in his family since his mother’s death, and through her stories and his encounters with the ghosts, he comes to see that he really is part of a much larger family, going back ages. Just because most of his family is now dead or scattered doesn’t mean that they’re not his family. They still love him, and he loves them, even across the centuries. Green Noah really is a family home, and it’s a place that family can return to, even those who seem to be gone forever. It’s a place that has known both the joys of a happy family and the tragedies of loss that families experience from time to time. Through it all, it’s still home, and importantly, it becomes the home that Tolly has been wishing for.

The story takes place in the days leading up to Christmas, and by Christmas, Tolly has received important presents. First, the ghostly Alexander grants him the give of his special flute, which had been a reward from King Charles II for singing so beautifully for him when he was alive. Tolly also has musical talents, and his great-grandmother decides to switch him to a different school so he can develop his talents and so he can stay at Green Noah during his school holidays. On Christmas, Tolly also receives his own pet dog, very much like the one that the ghostly Linnet owned, and he names his dog after hers, just as he has been named after all the other Toselands who have gone before.

In some ways, the story reminds me a little of When Marnie Was There (some people might know the story from the Miyazaki movie version), which has similar themes of family and belonging and ancestors reaching out across time to remind children that, while life is brief and often complicated, love is eternal and everyone belongs somewhere and to someone. However, The Children of Greene Knowe is a much gentler story, and it also contains some shorter stories about Tolly’s family.

The Christmas Tree Mystery

The Christmas Tree Mystery by Wylly Folk St. John, 1969.

A couple of days before Christmas, twelve-year-old Beth comes running to her 10-year-old sister Maggie, saying that she’s in trouble and needs her help. Beth doesn’t know whether Maggie can help at all, but she thinks she’s done something wrong and needs somebody to listen to her. Someone stole the family’s Christmas tree ornaments the day before, and Beth saw someone running out of their backyard right after the theft. She was sure that the person she saw was Pete Abel, and that’s what she told everyone. However, the girls’ older stepbrother, Trace, says that it couldn’t have been Pete. Beth thinks that it would be awful if she’s leapt to the wrong conclusion and wrongly accused Pete of theft, but then again, she can’t be sure that Trace is right, either. Trace says that Pete was somewhere else at the time, but he doesn’t want to say where because, for some reason, that might also get Pete in trouble. Beth doesn’t know whether to believe him or not.

The kids are part of a blended family that has only been together for less than a year, so the children are still getting used to each other and their new stepparents. Beth likes their new little stepsister, Pip, but teenage Trace is harder to get used to. Trace is frequently angry, and much of his anger comes from his mother’s death. Beth knows sort of how Trace feels because her father died three years ago. She knows what it’s like to miss a parent, and try to keep their memory alive. Even though Beth doesn’t think of her stepfather, Champ, as being her father, she tries to be fair toward him and accept that he’s doing his best to take care of them. Sometimes, she wishes she could talk about it all with Trace, but Trace has made it clear that he doesn’t want to talk. Trace doesn’t like to talk about his mother and gets angry when anyone else even mentions her.

Beth thinks that Pete was the thief because the boy she saw running away was wearing a jacket like the one Pete has and has the same color hair. However, she didn’t actually see his face, and Maggie points out that other kids have similar jackets. Also, they found an old handkerchief of the house with the initial ‘Z’, and that wouldn’t belong to Pete. Beth has to admit that she may have been mistaken about who she saw. However, she can’t think of anybody whose name begins with ‘Z’, either. She worries that if she was wrong to say it was Pete that she saw she may have broken one of the Ten Commandments because she was bearing false witness. All that Beth can think of to make things right is apologize to Pete for being too quick to accuse him and try to find the thief herself, but she needs Maggie’s help to do that.

Why anybody would steal Christmas ornaments right off a tree is also a mystery. Some of the ornaments that belonged to Champ had some value and could possibly be sold for money, but most did not. The thing that Beth misses the most is the little angel that she had made for the top of the tree years ago. Its only value is sentimental, and Beth worries that a thief might just throw it away if he didn’t think it was worth anything. Also, if Trace is so sure that Pete is innocent, why can’t he explain where Pete really was when the theft occurred? Trace is sneaking around and seems to have secrets of his own. Then, after the family gets some new ornaments and decorates the tree again, the ornament thief strikes again! The new set of ornaments disappears, but strangely, the thief brings back Beth’s angel and puts it on top of the tree. If it had just been a poor kid, desperate for some Christmas decorations, they should have been satisfied with the first set. Is anybody so desperate for ornaments that they would take two sets, or is it just someone who doesn’t want this family to have any? And why did the thief return the angel?

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

My Reaction and Spoilers

The idea of somebody stealing Christmas ornaments sounds like a whimsical mystery for the holiday, but even though I’ve read books by this author before, I forgot that Wylly Folk St. John can bring in some of the darker sides of life. Much of this story centers around getting ready for Christmas, but there are some truly serious issues in the story. This is a book that would be better for older children. For someone looking for someone for younger children or a lighter mystery for Christmas, something from the Three Cousins Detective Club series would be better. (See my list of Christmas Books for other ideas.) It’s an interesting story, and I enjoyed the book, but I wouldn’t call the mood light.

The ways this new blended family learns to get along with each other and Trace learns to cope with his grief at the loss of his mother are major themes in the book. The parents try to be conscientious of the children’s feelings, making joint decisions and rules for the children as “The Establishment” of the house so none of the children feel like a stepparent is discriminating against them. The reason why the stepfather is called Champ is because he’s a chess champion, and Beth knows that her mother gave him that nickname so the girls wouldn’t feel awkward, wondering whether to call him by his name or refer to him as their dad. Beth is grateful for the nickname because, although she likes and appreciates Champ as a person, she does feel awkward about calling anybody else “dad” while she still remembers her deceased father. Trace calls his stepmother Aunt Mary for similar reasons, and Beth understands that. What she doesn’t understand is why Trace insists on wearing the old clothes that were the last ones his mother bought for him, even though they no longer fit him. Aunt Mary has bought him some nice new clothes that would fit him better, but he won’t wear them, and he even insists on washing his clothes himself, without her help. Beth asks her mother about that, but she says it doesn’t bother her because, if Trace is willing to help with the laundry, that’s less for her to do. Beth says that they ought to just donate all of Trace’s old clothes so someone else who can actually wear them can have them, but her mother doesn’t want to be too quick to do that because she doesn’t want to upset Trace. I can understand that because Trace is still growing, and it won’t be much longer before he won’t be able to wear those old clothes anymore anyway. The day that he can’t pull one of those old shirts over his head or put on old pants without splitting them will be the day he’ll be ready to get rid of them. Time moves on, and eventually, Trace won’t be able to help himself from moving on with it, and I think Aunt Mary understands that.

Part of the secret about Trace and his grief is that his mother isn’t actually dead, although he keeps telling people that she is. The truth is that his parents are divorced and his mother left the state and has gone to live in Oklahoma with her relatives. At first, Beth’s mother doesn’t even know that Trace has been telling the girls that his mother died, but when Beth tells her mother that’s what Trace said, her mother tells her the truth. She doesn’t want to explain the full circumstances behind why Champ divorced Phyllis and why she left, but she says that she can understand why Trace might find it easier to tell himself and others that she’s dead instead of accepting the truth. There is an implication that Phyllis did something that Beth’s mother describes as something Trace would see as “disgraceful” (I had guessed that probably meant that she had an extramarital affair, but that’s not it) that lead to the divorce. So, Trace is actually feeling torn between losing his mother and learning to live without her and his anger at her for what she did. He both loves and hates his mother, and that’s why he finds it easier to think of her as dead and gone and refuse to talk about her any further than deal with these painful, conflicting emotions. Beth’s mother also indicates that Phyllis was emotionally unstable, saying that the atmosphere in the household wasn’t healthy for Trace and his little sister because Phyllis “kept them all stirred up emotionally all the time”, and that’s why she didn’t get custody of the children and isn’t allowed to see them now. It turns out that there was a lot more to it than that, and that figures into the solution to the mystery.

When I was reviewing an earlier book from the 1950s by a different author about children coping with grief and a new blended family, Mystery of the Green Cat, I talked about how books from the 1950s and earlier tended to focus on the deaths of parents when explaining why children lived in households with stepparents and step-siblings and how books from the 1960s and later started to focus more on the issue of divorce. This book kind of combines aspects of both of those types of stories. Beth understands the grief of a parent dying, and Trace has to come to terms with his parents’ divorce, which is a different kind of loss, although it’s still a loss. As I explained in my review of that earlier book, in some ways, divorce can be even more difficult for children to understand than death. Both are traumatic, but divorce involves not just loss but also abandonment (a parents who dies can’t help it that they’re no longer there, but it feels like a parent who is still living somehow could, that it’s their choice to leave their children and live apart from them, which leads to feelings of rejection) and the complicated reasons why people get divorced, including infidelity and emotional abuse. In this case, it also involves drug abuse.

I was partly right about the solution to the mystery. I guessed pretty quickly who the real thief was, but there’s something else I didn’t understand right away because I didn’t know until later in the book that Trace’s mother was still alive. Before the end of the book, Trace and Beth and everyone else has to confront the full reality of Phyllis’s problems. They get some surprising help from Pete, who has been keeping an eye on things and has more knowledge of the dark sides of life than the other children do. (Whether his father ever had a problem similar to Phyllis’s is unknown, but it seems that at least some of the people his father used to work with did, so it might be another explanation for Pete’s family’s situation.) Because Pete has seen people in a similar situation before and knows what to do. I had to agree with what Beth said that much of this trouble could have been avoided if Champ had been more direct with Trace before about his mother’s condition, but Beth’s mother says that sometimes children don’t believe things until they see them themselves. Champ was apparently trying to protect his children from Phyllis before, but because Trace had never seen his mother at her worst, he didn’t understand what was really happening with her. There is frightening part at the end where the children have to deal with a dangerous situation, but it all works out. Trace comes to accept the reality of his mother’s condition and that things will never be the same again, but he comes to appreciate the stepsisters who came to his rescue and brought help when he needed it.

The Mysterious Christmas Shell

The Mysterious Christmas Shell by Eleanor Cameron, 1961.

Tom and Jennifer are visiting their grandmother and their Aunt Vicky and Aunt Melissa Vining in Monterey for Christmas while their parents are in New York, taking care of Aunt Winny, who is sick. However, the children can tell that something is wrong as soon as they arrive because Mrs. Nipper, their aunts’ housekeeper, seems upset, and the house isn’t decorated for Christmas like it usually is. They have a Christmas tree, but there are no ornaments on it yet, and the Christmas greenery hasn’t been laid out.

The children hear their aunts talking about a letter that their father had written before he died. They know that he wrote the letter, but they’re upset because they can’t find it. The aunts explain to the children that they had to sell Sea Meadows, the wooded lands that they own, to a man called Theodore Bidwell. It’s a deep disappointment because Sea Meadows is full of ancient sequoias, and the children always liked to go camping and exploring there. Originally, Mr. Bidwell told them that we was only planning to put a few houses on that land that wouldn’t require removing many of the old trees, but now, they’ve learned that he’s actually planning on creating a large summer resort town. The aunts are upset that Mr. Bidwell lied to them to get them to sell the property, but there wasn’t much they could do anyway because they badly needed money to settle debts they had after their father died. The saddest part is that the family business has improved since they made the sale, and the aunts could now afford to buy back the property, but Mr. Bidwell refuses to sell it back to them.

There is one thing that might change the situation. Before the aunts’ father died, he discussed changing his will. He decided that, rather than leave that land to them as he originally planned, he wanted to leave it to the state of California to be turned into a state park. He thought it was the best way of ensuring that the natural beauty of the land would be preserved, and his daughters approved. The aunts already had the family business, and they didn’t need the land for their own sake. However, for some reason, his lawyer never got the letter their father said he was going send about the change in his will. The aunts are sure that he actually wrote the letter, but they think it got lost or mislaid instead of being mailed. If the aunts can find the letter that their father wrote, it would prove that the land actually belongs to the state of California and that it was never really theirs to sell. They’d have to refund Mr. Bidwell’s money, but they’re prepared to do that. It’s more important to them that the land would be preserved from development. Even local people have been angry with the family for selling the land to Mr. Bidwell because they don’t want the development, either.

When Tom and Jennifer begin helping with the Christmas decorations, and they start reminiscing about the Christmas before, the last Christmas when their grandfather was alive and he wrote his letter about the land, they remember that their cousin Elsa was also visiting. Elsa is about Jennifer’s age, and she and her parents are living in France now, so she doesn’t come to visit very often. The mention of Elsa makes the aunts remember that there was something that their father wanted to tell them about Elsa. He mentioned a funny thing she did, but then, they were interrupted, and he didn’t finish telling them what it was before he died. Everyone starts to wonder if Elsa may have done something with the important letter, but they can’t ask her because they know that she and her parents are visiting friends somewhere in France for Christmas, and they don’t know where or how to get in touch with them. (This is the 1960s, pre-Internet and pre-cell phones, so there are no methods of communication they can use that are independent of also knowing their physical location. They have to either know the address or phone number of where they are staying, and they don’t.)

The children’s grandmother recalls that Elsa was still with them even after Tom and Jennifer left with their parents, and they talked about Sea Meadows and showed her the deed to the land. Elsa had been helping to put away Christmas decorations at the time, and while the adults were talking, she suddenly started to cry. She had cut her finger on something, but they were never sure how she did that because none of the decorations were broken. Elsa was also upset because she had done two things earlier in the day that had caused trouble: she’d broken a little figurine and she’d forgotten to tell her grandfather about a phone call from a friend. She seemed worried that she had done yet another thing wrong, but her grandfather told her not to worry because troubles come in threes, and if the cut finger is her third trouble, she has nothing more to worry about. However, their grandmother recalls that Elsa didn’t seem reassured by that. Rather than being the third trouble of last Christmas, Elsa’s cut finger is a clue to a bigger problem that Elsa was afraid to admit, and that’s the clue they need to solve the problems of this Christmas.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive. There is an earlier book with the same characters, a mystery about a sea monster in the same area of California, called The Terrible Churnadryne, but I haven’t read it and haven’t been able to find a copy.

My Reaction and Spoilers

I read this book years ago, and I remember liking it, but for a long time, I couldn’t remember the details of the story. I only remembered bits and pieces. I didn’t remember that it was a Christmas story, which would have helped. I remembered that a girl did something with an important paper, but until I reread the book, I couldn’t remember why the paper was important. What stayed with me the longest was the solution to the missing letter and the cut on Elsa’s finger. But, because I forgot that this was a Christmas story, I misremembered exactly what Elsa put the letter in.

I also remembered that one of the aunts had a secret hiding place in a cave when she was young, and when they revisit the cave, they find cave drawings done by Native Americans. I also remembered that the cave is dangerous at certain times because the tide comes in. Years ago, Aunt Melissa was almost trapped there because she stayed too long and was caught by the tide. When her father found out, he refused to allow her to go there alone again. Since her mother and sister didn’t like going to the cave at all and she and her sister soon went away to boarding school, she gave up going there entirely for a long time. She was always sad about the loss of her secret hiding place. However, when she returns there as an adult, it contains part of the secret to unraveling what happened to her father’s letter last Christmas.

At one point in the story, Jennifer finds a very distinctive seashell with red and green colors. Everyone is amazed because it’s a court cone, not a shell normally found on the shores of California, and it also doesn’t normally appear in those colors. This is the shell that Jennifer calls the Christmas Shell. This shell doesn’t directly contain the solution to the mystery, but its shape and something Jennifer does with the shell awaken some of Aunt Melissa’s memories. I also remembered that Jennifer was the one who figured out what Elsa did after watching her brother fiddling around with a napkin in a napkin ring.

While I was rereading this book, I was happy to see all the bits and pieces of my memories of this book fall into place alongside the clues to the mystery. Stories with secret hiding places are always fun, and this one has two – Aunt Melissa’s old secret hiding place in the cave and the place where the missing letter is hidden.

There is also a reference in this story to the Elsie Dinsmore books, a children’s series from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Susannah and the Poison Green Halloween

Susannah and the Poison Green Halloween by Patricia Elmore, 1982.

This is the second book the Susannah Higgins mystery series.

Halloween doesn’t start out well for Susannah’s best friend, Lucy. Her father accidentally threw out her costume, thinking that it was trash because it was mostly made out of tin foil. (She was planning to be the Death Queen character from a comic book.) As she desperately tries to put together a last-minute costume for Susannah’s Halloween party, her father tries to buy her a costume at the discount store. Unfortunately, all the discount store left was a Little Bo Peep costume. Lucy thinks that she’s going to be mortified, showing up in something so childish when she told everyone her costume would be really cool. When another girl from school, Carla, comes by and teases her about her costume, Lucy gets the idea to make it a kind of double costume, painting her face an evil green so she can rip off her sweet Little Bo Peep mask and be the sinister Death Queen underneath.

Carla says that the secret identity costume idea is pretty good, but before she can go to the party, she has to buy a costume of her own. She had to wait for her stepfather’s pay day because her parents bought a new dress for her older sister, Nadine, for a high school dance earlier. As Carla explains about her delay in getting her costume, she mentions her sister’s social worker coming to dinner. Susannah asks why Nadine has a social worker, and Carla says that her sister got into trouble with drugs a couple of years before, but she’s not really supposed to talk about it. Lucy and Susannah want to do some trick-or-treating before the party, and Carla asks if they’ll wait for her to get her costume first. The other girls aren’t willing to wait, but they say that they’ll get some extra candy for her when they start out, and they’ll meet her at her family’s apartment at the Eucalyptus Arms apartment house. In her recounting of that Halloween night, Lucy says right out that it was at the Eucalyptus Arms that someone gave them poisoned candy.

When they reach the Eucalyptus Arms, Carla isn’t home yet, but they meet up with Knieval Jones (Lucy’s nemesis and Susannah’s occasional helper from the previous book), who is dressed like a vampire, and get some stale granola bars from Carla’s sister, Nadine. A nice lady name Mrs. Sweet gives them homemade cupcakes, and Mr. O’Hare, who is a vegetarian and thinks that sugar is poisonous, gives them organic treats from the natural food store. However, the strangest experience they have is in Mr. Mordecai’s apartment. Mr. Mordecai is a strange man with whitish eyes. He insists that they come in and pay their respects to the deceased “Jeremiah.” There is a coffin in the room with a wreath on it. The kids are spooked, but Susannah notices something odd about the wreath, which gives her an idea of who/what “Jeremiah” is. Mr. Mordecai gives them popcorn balls, and they leave.

They meet up with Carla, and Susannah’s grandfather, Judge Higgins, drives all four children to the party. However, Knievel and Lucy get into a fight over their treat bags, spilling both of them into the gutter and ruining their candy. Lucy is mad at Knievel, but then Knievel suddenly gets sick. At first, Lucy thinks that he’s just eaten too much because he’s been sampling his treats and stealing some of hers. Knievel misses the party because he’s sick, but it turns out to be much worse than that. The next day, the police come to the school to tell them that Knievel was poisoned and to interview the children about everything that happened the night before.

Because Lucy and Knievel spilled and ruined their bags of candy, it’s hard to say exactly what Knievel ate before he got sick, and Lucy never ate any of it. Carla had the same treats as the others, and she is also ill and being examined by a doctor, just in case she was also poisoned. Susannah turns her treat bag over the police for analysis. She never touched her candy because she had more than enough to eat at the Halloween party.

By process of elimination, they determine that the poisoned treats had to come from one of the apartments at the Eucalyptus Arms, and that it must have been in something homemade or unwrapped, not wrapped, commercially-made candy. Lucy says that they really know better than to eat unwrapped treats from a stranger, but Susannah points out that Knievel was hungry and ate treats almost as fast as he got them, regardless of whether they were wrapped or not. There are only a handful of suspects who could have handed out the poison in homemade or unwrapped treats, but which of them did it and why?

The title of the book is based on the fact that the apartment house is painted an ugly shade of green and all of the questionable treats the kids received were colored green.

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

My Reaction

One of the best things about this book for me is that it was originally published in the year I was born, and it’s a Halloween story, and I happened to be born only a few days before Halloween. Even if I hadn’t already read and liked the first book in this series, that would have endeared me to this book right away. I originally read the first book in the Susannah Higgins series as a child in elementary school, but I think that’s the only book in the series that I read at the time. It might have been that the library didn’t have the full series and the first book was the only one I could find or that book was one of the many that I found at a used book sale and the others weren’t there. It’s been so long that I can’t remember. I just remembered one scene from the first book for years, and it took me a long time to figure out what I was remembering.

Because I was very young during the early 1980s, it was a long time before I understood that this was a period when people were especially worried about the possibility of poison and razor blades in Halloween candy. Like other kids of the 1980s and 1990s, I had to watch those Halloween safety videos that warn you to be careful and to inspect candy for signs of tampering before eating it. (Specifically, I saw this video, which I found one day on YouTube. I watched this 1970s film on reel-to-reel when I was in elementary school because they hadn’t yet installed TVs and VCRs in the classrooms yet and they had a library of old films that I’m pretty sure they bought when they originally built the school in the 1970s. The sound quality wasn’t any better when I saw it for the first time, but it still cracks me up that the ultimate solution to the girl’s unsafe Halloween costume turns out to be gradually changing it to be a different costume.) In 1974, a father murdered his own son for the insurance money, hoping that some random sadist would be blamed for the crime because there were already urban legends about such things. Even though it wasn’t long before the truth of the father’s crime came out, this incident added to the urban legends, seeming to confirm the stories of Halloween poisonings. Because of this, my early Halloweens were very different from the ones my parents had in the 1950s. I was allowed to go trick-or-treating, but I never received any homemade treats, like the popcorn balls and candy apples my parents sometimes got. By the time I was trick-or-treating, only fully-wrapped, commercially made candy was considered safe and acceptable.

At first, I thought that the solution to this mystery would be that Nadine had made marijuana granola bars because we were told right away that she was involved with drugs in the past. There have been real-life cases of children accidentally getting into drugs owned by family members, including cases that have become part of the Halloween urban legends. However, that’s not the case in this story. Susannah’s Aunt Louise, who is a nurse at the children’s hospital, tells Susannah that marijuana was one of the first things they ruled out when they were testing to see what had poisoned the children. The children were vomiting and hallucinating, so Aunt Louise says that it appears to be an overdose of some kind of medicine.

Aunt Louise wasn’t mentioned in the previous book in the series, but she comes to stay with Susannah because her grandparents have to go out of town. Again, Susannah’s parents are simply not mentioned in the story. It’s never clarified whether Susannah is an orphan or living with her grandparents for another reason, although I think it’s implied that she’s an orphan by the parents’ absence and the lack of any mention of why.

Carla is a new character who didn’t appear in the previous book, but again, children in these books do not live in conventional two-parent households. Nadine is actually Carla’s stepsister, and the two of them haven’t known each other very long and are having problems adjusting to their parents’ remarriage and living together. Books with divorced parents or blended families were becoming increasingly common in children’s literature during the 1980s and 1990s, and they were a regular staple of books that I read when I was young. It was pretty common for there to be at least one character with divorced parents in the books I read, but this series stands out to me because it seems like every kid in it so far is either from a divorced family or lives with relatives other than their parents, for some reason. A mixture of different family situations is to be expected, but an overwhelming number of kids in almost the same situation just seems a little odd.

The author does a good job of making everyone at the apartment house look equally suspicious. A number of people at the apartment house have secrets, and some of them are truly dangerous. One of the characters in the story, a man Nadine and Carla call “Uncle Bob” because he’s a friend of Nadine’s father, seems to be showing inappropriate attention to the girls. Carla is afraid to be alone with him, hinting that things that he does when she’s alone with him make her uneasy or even frightened. Uncle Bob isn’t the poisoner, but he does seem to have inappropriate sexual interest in the girls. There isn’t anything explicit described in the story, but the way that the characters refer to Uncle Bob and the dirty magazine that Lucy says she found in his trash can along with a bunch of empty liquor bottles imply what Uncle Bob is like when other adults aren’t watching. Carla says that she’s tried to tell her parents about it before, but nobody believed her because Uncle Bob has been such a good old friend of her stepfather, and he can’t picture him doing anything wrong. When she finally confides the problem to Nadine, Nadine confirms that she’s had the same experience with him and that her father didn’t believe her either, but she’s going to make sure that he listens this time. Susannah also says that they are going to tell the police about it and her Aunt Louise, and while Uncle Bob may not have actually done anything that would cause him to be arrested, he’s going to get some severe warnings and maybe some professional help.

Linnets and Valerians

Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge, 1964.

The Beginning

When the story begins, in 1912, the four Linnet children are in a bad situation. With their father on his way to serve in the army in India with a stop in Egypt, they have been left behind to stay with their grandmother, who is not an indulgent, “grandmotherly” sort of grandmother. First, she’s planning to give away the children’s dog because she doesn’t like dogs. Then, she’s planning to send the two eldest children, Robert and Nan (short for Anna), to boarding school, while keeping the younger children, Betsy and Timothy, to be tutored at home. Worse, she locks the children up by themselves, sometimes in the dark, leaving them to scream. Admittedly, the reason why they were locked up was because their grandmother had arranged a tea party to show them off to her friends, and the children, not liking parties, had barricaded themselves in a hen house, fighting off the gardener and their grandmother’s companion with rhubarb stalks until they were finally caught. They were locked away from the party guests until they were ready to apologize, which none of them want to do. (Bad strategy on the part of the adults. Some things are their own punishment. Rather than locking the children up, which is cruel, they should have let the children suffer the consequences of their own bad choice. Don’t get them out of the hen house; insist that they stay out there, not being allowed any of the goodies at the party or even being allowed back into the house until they first clean themselves up in the yard. The kids aren’t very good at planning, and I’m sure they don’t have food stores in the hen house. Everyone gets hungry eventually, and it should be clear to the children that it’s their personal choice how long they want to stay that way. But, the grandmother also shouldn’t give away the children’s dog without their consent, so it’s hard to feel too sympathetic here.) Realistically, it is acknowledged that their grandmother could be quite kind with children who were gentle, quiet, and well-behaved, but also realistically, this is not the case with her grandchildren. Frankly, the children are wild and have no inclination to compromise with their grandmother. With all of these things combined, it is clear that life with their grandmother is going to be impossible, and Robert decides that there’s only one thing to do: escape.

Robert manages to break out of the room where he’s been locked up, and he frees his siblings and their dog, Absolom. The four children set off with their dog, intending to walk to the mountains (just some mountains, somewhere to the west – nowhere specific and no real plan involved) and make their living there because Robert imagines that would be a good idea. As they pass an inn, they spot a pony and cart tied up outside, and they decide to appropriate them for some transportation. Besides, Robert has always wanted a pony. Nan is concerned that they’re stealing, but Robert says that they’re just “borrowing.”

The Linnet children have much more in common with their Uncle Ambrose than with their grandmother or other relatives. Uncle Ambrose is similarly unsociable and impatient. Uncle Ambrose was once a teacher, but now that he’s retired, he has no desire to spend time with children again. He also doesn’t like dogs. But, it turns out that the pony they “borrowed” belongs to him and takes them to his house. When Uncle Ambrose realizes who the children are, he takes them into his house and keeps them over night, although he doesn’t introduce himself to them immediately. The children feel much more at home with Uncle Ambrose, even when they don’t know who he is, because his house is a bit shabby and untidy, and he has a pet owl and a cat with kittens. Also, in spite of his gruff manner and assertion that he’s not happy about having children around, Nan has the sense that he actually likes them. The children decide that they’re going to try to behave themselves in this house because they like being there and want to stay.

In the morning, Uncle Ambrose goes to town to get the groceries that his peg-legged gardener, Ezra, neglected to get the other day when the children stole the pony and cart in town. When he returns, he also has the children’s luggage with him. Uncle Ambrose went to see his mother about the children, and when he suggested that he could keep them at his house, the children’s grandmother eagerly took him up on the offer. The children are all intensely relieved that they won’t be sent back to their strict grandmother and her overly-tidy house and can stay with their eccentric uncle, the peg-legged gardener who comes home singing in the middle of the night when he gets drunk, and the wonderfully untidy garden outside, where they can play.

Uncle Ambrose confesses to the children that he has actually missed his students since he retired from teaching. He isn’t particularly fond of children by themselves, but he is fond of teaching them. As a condition of the children staying with him, Uncle Ambrose insists that they allow him to educate them. The children agree to this because one of their reasons for running away was so they would not be split up when Robert and Nan were sent to boarding school. The children just want to stay together with their dog. Uncle Ambrose agrees to this, saying that he doesn’t approve of sending young girls to boarding school at all, although he insists that girls be properly educated as well as boys. He says that he wouldn’t even consider sending Robert to boarding school until he’s had a better grounding because he’s not satisfied with the reports he’s had of Robert’s academic abilities. The children aren’t thrilled at the idea of studying, but they agree to it because staying together and studying with Uncle Ambrose sounds better than being split up or the other alternative, being sent to stay with their Uncle Edgar in Birmingham. Also, Uncle Ambrose is willing to give the children some time each day to themselves, to play or do what they want. He won’t even insist that they show up for meals, but if they miss them, they’ll just have to go hungry. (See? I told you it was a better strategy than fighting to get them out of the hen house.) As much as the kids don’t like the idea of studying, they love the idea of having some freedom. Freedom means that adventures could happen.

Now, the story at this point could have been a complete story by itself – a group of wild, undisciplined kids are left with their strict grandmother, and after a battle of wills between the children and the grandmother and some overly-harsh punishment, the children run away, finding a gruff but kindly bachelor uncle who rediscovers the pleasure of having children around and also happens to have once been a teacher and can tutor the children while their father is away, managing to inspire the children to behave a little better and learn to make some better decisions by granting them a little freedom to make some of their own choices instead of being too controlling. That’s all very nice as a single story. However, in this case, all of that is just the background for the story to come. We’re still in just the first part of the book.

Segue to the Magic

After it’s settled that the children will stay with Uncle Ambrose, they decided to go into town for their first free excursion. They stop at the little store in town to buy some sweets and a picture postcard to send to their grandmother because Nan has been thinking over their time with her and has realized that they were badly behaved and feels guilty about it. The store is managed by Emma Cobley, an old woman in an old-fashioned dress and cap and a red shawl who owns a black cat named Frederick. Emma is a little creepy and she warns the children to stay away from Lion Tor because it’s a dangerous place. (A “tor” is “a high, craggy hill.”)

When the children return to the house, Ezra insists upon introducing them to the bees. The children think that this is a very odd thing to do, but Ezra says that it’s important, and he asks the bees to look after the children. Timothy asks if it’s possible for bees to look out for people, and Ezra says that they once saved his life when he fell into an old tin mine and showed the vicar (the children’s uncle, after he retired from teaching – they’re all living at the vicarage now) where to find him. When Ezra hears that they’ve been to Emma Cobley’s shop, he tells them not to go there anymore. The most Uncle Ambrose buys there is stamps, but neither of them ever buys anything else from her, and Ezra is reluctant to tell the children why. There is something a bit creepy about Emma and some suspicious things in her shop, like the overly-appealing candy and the one postcard that she refuses to allow the children to buy or even look at for long.

As the children start having lessons with Uncle Ambrose, Robert asks him if he will be giving them pocket money. Uncle Ambrose says that he doesn’t give pocket money, but there are opportunities for earning some. He gives them a list of chores that they can do and what he’s willing to pay for doing them. He also points out to Robert that, as the oldest boy, he can’t expect to wriggle out of the tougher chores or leave them to the girls, but if he’s willing to tackle the tougher chores, he will pay him well for it. Uncle Ambrose has somewhat chivalrous sensibilities about what girls can handle, and he also reminds the boys that there are consequences for misbehavior, lying, or stealing. He says that he would never use corporal punishment on a girl, but he has caned boys before and could do the same to his nephews if they give him reason. He tells the children that, from this point on, they cannot interrupt their lesson time with any subjects that aren’t related to the lesson. (He never does hit any of the children and does make reasonable exceptions to this rule later in the story.) It isn’t just the threat of punishment that keeps the children in line, though. It turns out that Uncle Ambrose is an excellent story-teller, and when he starts describing other countries or historical events, the children are captivated. In many ways, Uncle Ambrose makes learning fun because he really loves his subjects and knows how to share what’s fascinating about them with other people. There are parts of the learning that seem like drudgery, but they are balanced out by the parts that are truly fascinating.

The children also gradually begin learning more about the other people who live nearby. There is a black man (called a “Negro” in the story) called Moses Glory Glory Alleluja. (That’s apparently his real name in the story and not just a nickname, to which I say, “God help us all!”) When the children first see him, they’re startled and afraid of him because he’s carrying a curved knife and looks like “a coal-black giant.” They stop and stare at him because they’re afraid, and Ezra tells them not to hurt the poor man’s feelings because he’s a gentle man. As he gets closer to the children, they realize that he’s not as fearsome as they had first thought from a distance. He’s actually very pleasant, and the knife he’s carrying is just a scythe for clearing plants.

Moses works for Lady Alicia (a sort of man-of-all work – cook, gardener, butler, etc.), and Lady Alicia also has a monkey called Abednego. When the kids go with Ezra to pick up a couple of extra beds that Uncle Ambrose is borrowing from Lady Alicia for the children, Abednego takes Betsy’s doll, and she has to chase after him to get it back. In the process, Betsy meets Lady Alicia, an elderly lady in very worn fancy clothes and wearing jewelry. The two of them introduce themselves to each other and explain a little about who they are. Lady Alicia once lived there with her husband and son, but she says that her son, Francis, was “lost” years ago on Lion Tor at the age of eight. She doesn’t explain at this point how that happened or even if he son died or simply disappeared. Her husband also disappeared a few years later overseas because he was a traveler and explorer. She doesn’t seem to expect to see either of them again. This is really where the main plot of the book is introduced.

The Magic

So, now we know that there’s a creepy old lady who owns a shop that isn’t quite what it seems to be and a mysterious and sad old lady whose husband and son have disappeared, and it’s all connected to Lion Tor. The children’s first encounter with Lion Tor happens when Betsy’s siblings realize that she’s missing at Lady Alicia’s house. Not knowing that she’s with Lady Alicia, they assume that she’s wandered off into the woods to pick flowers and go searching for her. Nan finds her way to Lion Tor, where she discovers a cave that is filled with paintings. She knows they weren’t done by cave people ages ago because people in the drawings are wearing modern hats. The artist turns out to be a bearded man in ragged clothes who seems unable to speak.

Nan learns that this man is called Daft Davie, but Nan doesn’t think that’s fair because he seems intelligent and artistically talented, even though he isn’t able to speak. Ezra explains to her that Davie used to work for a blacksmith in another village nearby but some boys kept teasing him and tormenting him because he couldn’t speak, so he eventually went to live by himself at Lion Tor.

The boys eventually find Betsy with Lady Alicia. To their surprise, Lady Alicia seems to be enjoying Betsy’s company, even though she doesn’t normally like visitors. She invites the children to return again with Nan, making an odd comment about how the Linnet family seems “inevitable” but might do her some good.

Uncle Ambrose allows Nan to use the parlor of his house as her private room, where she can do her sewing and darning or just have time to herself. He says that he hasn’t done much with the parlor himself, other than putting furniture in it, because the parlor is usually for the lady of the house, and he’s unmarried. Now that Nan is there, she counts as the lady of the house as the oldest girl, and Uncle Ambrose can tell that she’s a reflective kind of person who can use some quiet time to herself, away from the other children. Nan is appreciative, and she’s also surprised when Uncle Ambrose tells her that the previous lady of the house was Lady Alicia. Before her marriage to the local lord, she was the daughter of the previous vicar, and he found some of her old books in a hidden cabinet in the room.

Uncle Ambrose removed the books from the hidden cabinet and put them on the bookshelf in the room, but out of curiosity, Nan investigates the hidden cabinet and finds that it still contains a notebook. However, the notebook belonged to a young Emma Cobley, not Lady Alicia. The notebook contains what looks like evil witchcraft spells. Nan is alarmed, although later, she’s confused because she sees Emma Cobley at church. She isn’t sure what to think because she can’t imagine that a real, evil witch would go to church. Nan considers that perhaps Emma used to practice witchcraft in her youth but repented later and changed her ways. However, if that’s true, why does Ezra disapprove of her, and how can they explain Emma’s creepy black cat? When Nan studies the spells in the book, seeing spells that can prevent a person from speaking, cause a person to lose his memory, and cause a person to forget affection for another, Emma’s true character and some of the mysterious events of the past begin coming a little more clear.

When Nan talks to Ezra later, he says that Emma Cobley’s father was a black-hearted warlock who taught her evil spells. Ezra says that his own mother practiced white magic and that his family is descended from ancient peoples who were called fairies or gods. Nan had thought that there was something gnome-like in his appearance and isn’t surprised that he’s a bit magical. Ezra further describes the day that Lady Alicia’s son disappeared at Lion Tor. They’d been on a picnic with the boy’s nurse, and the nurse and the boy had been playing hide-and-seek. A mist came up, and they were unable to find the boy. They feared that he might have drowned in the marsh because his cap was nearby, but they were never able to establish that. Some other people thought he might have been kidnapped by gypsies, but there was no evidence of that, either.

In the cemetery of the churchyard, there is a memorial to Lady Alicia’s husband, Hugo Francis Valerian, and his son who was named after him, but the husband’s death date is unknown. The children argue about what that really means. Robert says that the Valerians are dead, but they’re just not buried at the site of the memorial because they were lost and nobody knows exactly when they died and where the bodies are. However, Betsy has the feeling that they’re not dead, and Nan agrees that disappearing isn’t the same as dying. But, is that really true? Are the Valerians alive or dead, and if they are alive, where are they?

Pieces of the past continue falling into place. Betsy and Nan accidentally find old love letters that Emma Cobley wrote to the elder Hugo Valerian … love letters that also contain angry threats when the love wasn’t returned. Pictures that Davie painted on the walls of his cave resemble ones from Lady Alicia’s tapestry. Uncle Ambrose doesn’t believe in the power of witches and thinks that what Ezra has been saying about magic and spells is just superstition, but Ezra knows a few things that Uncle Ambrose doesn’t. He’s the one who knows how to undo Emma Cobley’s wicked spells.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive. Sometimes, this book also appears under the title The Runaways.

My Reaction and Spoilers

A Few Concerns

I didn’t like the parts with the harsh punishments or threats of it for the children. Locking children up or caning them would be considered child abuse by modern standards, although my feelings about that are somewhat offset because they kids are pretty wild and the book makes it clear that they are badly behaved in the beginning and provoked the punishment they received. I’m willing to let it go partly because nobody actually gets caned and because of the fairy-tale atmosphere of the story. In fairy tales, there is often a cruel relative, and in this case, it’s more like an overly-provoked one at her wit’s end. In either case, the children’s situation with their grandmother in the beginning establishes the reason why they go to live with their eccentric uncle and have magical adventures.

Some people might not care for the different standards for boys and girls in the story. It’s old-fashioned, out of date even for the time when the book was first published, but the setting is also old-fashioned, so I think it’s meant to establish the time and place. It’s common in older children’s books and stories that imitate them for boys to be given more freedom than girls but also for boys to be subjected to harsher, more physical punishments when they get out of line. Uncle Ambrose seems to have similar feelings in that direction, although he does give the boys and girls the same lessons because he feels that girls’ minds also need to be educated, and he allows all of the children to have equal free time and ability to play and explore the area together.

As another reviewer of this book observed, it seems a little strange that the children would be so frightened of Moses when they first meet him because they used to live in India, and you would think that they would be accustomed to the idea that there are people of different races in the world. This can’t be the first time that they’ve seen people who look different, although I suppose they could be a little intimidated by him being especially tall and carrying a scythe. That might be something that would be a little startling to see very suddenly until you look again and realize it’s just a really tall guy with a farm implement because we’re living in the countryside now. I liked the warning from Ezra to the children to behave themselves and not hurt Moses’s feelings. I thought it was good to emphasize that other people’s feelings are important, and that comment helped to humanize Moses because, even if he looks a little strange or intimidating at first, he’s still a human being with feelings.

However, there is another part of the story not too long after that, when they’re looking for Betsy and Robert, who has a habit of play-acting, pretends like he’s a Roman emperor giving a command to a “coal-black Nubian standard-bearer”, saying, “Slave, lead on.” There seems to be some self-awareness in the story that this wasn’t a good thing for Robert to say to Moses (who is a servant, not a slave, although Ezra later says that there is a rumor that Lady Alicia’s husband may have bought him in a slave market overseas when he was young), and Timothy is concerned that Robert might have offended him. The story says that Moses isn’t the kind of person who takes offense or holds grudges, and he seems to understand that Robert is play-acting, but I felt like this somewhat undermined the message of considering other people’s feelings by suggesting that the best way to be is not to have any particular feelings to consider. That’s not something anybody can count on in real life or insist that others provide for them. Real human beings are not like stuffed teddy bears, who can take endless abuse or respond to any comment with a constant smile and still be lovable and want to snuggle afterward, like none of it matters. Real humans have both feelings and limits, and this is one instance where I felt like someone should have thrown a little cold water on Robert’s play-acting. The whole story has an air of unreality about it, which is part of the charm, but even fantasy stories should be real about human behavior.

The Fantasy

The fantasy in the story is really very light, compared to most fantasy books. Although it becomes well-established by the end of the book that Emma Cobley is definitely a witch who cast evil spells which caused Lady Alicia to lose both her son and her husband, the spells and their undoing were done in such a way that Uncle Ambrose never seems to realize that it was all magic. Basically, the children and Ezra find the little figures with pins in them that Emma made, and Ezra recites a magical rhyme that allows them to remove the pins, thus breaking the spells. Then, they burn the figures and Emma’s old spell book, destroying her magic forever. After that, Lady Alicia’s son and husband both come back, Emma actually becomes a much nicer person, and everybody lives happily ever after.

The pace of the story is fairly slow, which is actually part of its atmospheric charm. For a book dealing with an evil witch, black magic spells, and unhappy people, it’s really pretty relaxing. I think part of that effect is because of its gradual pace and also because there are never very serious consequences for anybody in the story. It’s sad that Lady Alicia, her husband, and her son were all parted from each other for a period of years, but when the spells are broken, they are pretty quickly very happy again. Emma Cobley does try to prevent the children from learning her secrets and breaking the spells, but really, nothing bad happens to the children at all. There is one semi-frightening part where the boys and their dog are up a tree with Emma and her friends below it, but then Uncle Ambrose comes and takes the children home, and everything is fine. Emma tries to cast spells on the children at once point, but the children don’t even notice until they find the figures of themselves later. Ezra tells them that the witch’s spells were ineffective against them because he made his own figures of the children first and put them in the church, so they are protected. Emma herself faces no consequences in the end, either. They don’t have to destroy the witch to destroy her magic, and once her magic is gone, she is so changed and everyone is so happy that there’s no retribution, only forgiveness.

On the one hand, the lack of consequences in the story for things the children do make the story feel like the stakes are low. There is a sense of sadness around characters in the story, but is no particular sense of urgency. They are not racing the clock to break the spells, and the villains are pretty ineffectual at putting up obstacles to their success. On the other hand, it seems like most of the story focuses on atmosphere over action. This little village is an enchanting place to be. It’s charming, and the lack of consequences for the children, whether it’s for being racially insensitive or facing down a witch or even just staying out late, make the story feel like a very safe kind of adventure. Uncle Ambrose, Ezra, and their bees won’t let anything serious befall the children, and the worst punishment they have for misbehavior is being sent to bed with gruel (a kind of thin porridge) instead of a proper supper. Uncle Ambrose told them that if they missed meals, it would be their fault, and they’d have to go without. However, he never lets children go to bed hungry, and he even allows them sugar on their gruel. Again, very low stakes, but charmingly so. This story is not stressful, which is good, but it’s not for people looking for excitement.

I was a little impatient with the children for not making the connection between the spells in the book and Daft Davie even after seeing the figurines, including the one with the pin in its tongue. This spell is supposed to prevent people from talking, and who else do they know who can’t talk? There aren’t that many people in the area, and there’s only one person in the story whose main characteristic is an inability to speak. Even as they’re breaking the spells, they don’t know who they’re breaking them for, like they can’t even guess, and Nan is surprised when Davie can suddenly talk afterward. I think this is one of those stories that wants to make readers feel clever for figuring it out before the characters, but that can also feel a little frustrating. If there’s one thing I would change about this story (other than the racial bits), I would want the children to realize the truth about the spells faster and break them more deliberately.

I don’t really mind that Uncle Ambrose never believes in the magic. The book leaves the situation a little open for the characters, and possibly even the readers, to believe that there are other explanations for what happens. Maybe “Davie” lost his memory and ability to speak through an illness. The children in the story know that’s not it, but it’s not important for anybody else to know. Although, perhaps Uncle Ambrose knows more about magic than he lets on because, for reasons that are never explained, his pony never grows old, and his pet owl seems immortal. But, maybe that’s for the readers to decide.