The King’s Equal

The King’s Equal by Katherine Paterson, 1992.

Everyone dreads the day that Prince Raphael will rule the kingdom instead of his father.  Prince Raphael is good-looking and highly educated, but he’s also selfish and greedy.  His one outstanding characteristic is that he’s arrogant.  He assumes that no one knows as much as he does about anything and no one is as deserving as he is . . . of anything.  Knowing that, as the old king lies dying, he makes his final decree that the prince will not wear his crown until he is married to a woman who is his equal.

When the prince hears that, he immediately becomes angry, saying (as his father guessed he would) that there could not possibly be any woman in the world who is his equal, who is as rich, intelligent, or beautiful as he is.  After his father dies, the prince immediately begins looting the kingdom for his own gain and generally abusing his subjects (as they had also guessed he would).  Still, he doesn’t have the one thing he really wants: his father’s crown.

The prince orders his councilors to find him an appropriate bride but (as the councilors feared), the task proves impossible.  No matter what options they place before the prince, the prince finds something about them to nit-pick.  Princesses of fabulous wealth are not beautiful or intelligent enough for him.  Princesses who have amazing beauty either aren’t beautiful enough or don’t know enough.  Princesses with amazing knowledge are still lacking in some area of knowledge or are just plain ugly in the prince’s eyes.  One by one, he dismisses them all.

Meanwhile, a farmer in the prince’s kingdom, has sent his daughter, Rosamund, to live in the mountains with their goats to avoid having the prince confiscate their only livestock, which he has done with everyone else.  During the winter, Rosamund and the goats almost starve, but they are saved by a magical Wolf.

The Wolf assures Rosamund that her father is alive and well, and Rosamund says that she is worried about what is happening in the kingdom.  The Wolf tells Rosamund that the kingdom would be saved if the prince finds the princess that he is looking for and that she should go to the capital and present herself as that princess.  Rosamund doesn’t see how she can do that because she is definitely not as wealthy as the prince, and she doesn’t think of herself as particularly beautiful or clever.  However, the Wolf tells her that her mother, who died when she was born, had blessed her, that she would be a king’s equal.  To fulfill her dead mother’s wish, Rosamund does as the Wolf tells her.

To Rosamund’s surprise, the prince falls in love with her beauty at first sight.  She also impresses him with her intelligence when she tells him that she knows what no one else does, that he is actually very lonely.  (Which is natural, since he thinks that no one can be his equal or true companion.)  Although she cannot demonstrate that she possesses great wealth, she can demonstrate that there is nothing in particular that she wants while the prince still feels like he is lacking things he needs (like his father’s crown).  The prince is satisfied that Rosamund has passed all the necessary tests to be his equal, but Rosamund turns the tables on the prince by pointing out that his description of her has made her more than his equal, challenging him to prove to her that he is worthy of marrying her.

It is in meeting Rosamund’s challenge, taking care of her goats in the mountains for a year, Raphael learns humility from the Wolf.  While he’s away from the palace, Rosamund tends to the kingdom, ruling more compassionately than Raphael had.  When Raphael returns, he is humble enough that he doesn’t think that he is worthy of marrying Rosamund, but his humility is precisely what makes him worthy, and they do marry.

Overall, I liked the story, although I wish that we could see a little more of the conversation between Rosamund and Raphael when she explains to him who she really is. They still get married, so whatever Rosamund told Raphael must have persuaded him, but it’s left to the imagination how she explains it. How I picture it is partly based on the fact that, during the last year, Rosamund has lived as a princess, even though she was originally a goatherd, and Raphael has lived as a goatherd, even though he is really a prince. By the time the year is over, they have each lived in the other’s place, and that is what really makes them each other’s equal. Raphael was callous and arrogant because he never thought about how other people lived until he tried it himself.

I don’t know if Rosamund really learned anything from her experiences as a princess, which bothers me a little because I think that she really should have because it was so far outside of her experience. We don’t really hear about that because the focus is on Raphael’s changing character. Personally, I’d like to think that part of what Rosamund may have learned is that running a country is a big, difficult job, and that, while her rule was better than Raphael’s for being more compassionate, it’s not a job that she would like to do alone, emphasizing that she and Raphael would be better ruling as a team than either of them would be by themselves. If Rosamund and Raphael really both need each other, it would be fitting for a story about equals.

Mairelon the Magician

Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede, 1991.

This young adult book takes place in an alternate history version of Regency England.  In this world, magic is a normal and accepted part of society.  “Wizard” is an accepted profession, and there is even a Royal College of Wizards dedicated to magic.  Not everyone can be a wizard because not everyone has the ability to use magic.  It is a skill that people are either born with or born without, similar to people who have an innate talent for art or music, compared to people who are born tone-deaf or color-blind.

In this early 19th century world, there is a teenage girl, Kim, who lives on the streets and survives by her own wits, taking whatever jobs she can and committing a little petty thievery whenever she needs to.  She has spent most of her life dressing like a boy and pretending that she is one because life on the streets is even more precarious for a girl.  For a time, she was part of a gang of child thieves run by a woman call Mother Tibb.  As far back as Kim can remember, Mother Tibb was the only one who took care of her as a child.  Kim has no memory of her parents or any knowledge about what happened to them.  She doesn’t even have a last name.  However, before the story begins, Mother Tibb was caught and hanged for her crimes.  Some of the other child thieves were apprehended and put in prison or exiled to Australia, but Kim managed to escape.  Since then, she has been on her own.  So far, she has managed to avoid being pressured in to joining up with other gangs or turning to prostitution to survive, but the fear of that haunts her. Her future is uncertain.

At the beginning of the book, Kim is hired to sneak into the wagon of a traveling magician who is performing in the market and to see what he keeps among his belongings.  The man who hired her doesn’t want her to take anything, but he is particularly eager to see if the magician has a particular silver bowl in possession.  It’s a strange request, but the money that the man offers Kim is too good to pass up.

However, the magician, who calls himself Mairelon, isn’t quite what he seems.  He is not just an ordinary traveling entertainer using some sleight of hand to amuse people in the market.  Kim discovers that he can do real magic as she searches his wagon and is knocked unconscious by a real magical spell that Mairelon uses to protect his belongings.

When Kim wakes up, Mairelon and his servant, called Hunch, have tied her up.  Unlike Hunch, Mairelon has also realized that Kim is actually a girl, not a boy.  The two of them question Kim about why she sneaked into the wagon, and she tells them the truth about being hired to do it.  When she describes the man who hired her, it seems that Mairelon recognizes the description.  The part about the silver bowl also unnerves him.

Surprisingly, Mairelon makes Kim an offer to come with him and Hunch when they leave London.  He is fascinated by Kim’s skills in picking locks, even the lock on the booby-trapped trunk that knocked her unconscious, and he thinks that Kim might be useful to him and Hunch, perhaps helping with the magic act.  In return, he offers to teach Kim some of his magic tricks.  Hunch is dubious about Kim because she has obviously been a thief, and Kim also isn’t sure what to make of Mairelon.  She knows that he’s hiding something, but she isn’t sure what.  No one with real magical abilities like him would ordinarily be making a living with simple magic tricks in the market. 

However, Kim does accept the offer because she’s been worried about one of the major criminals in the area, Dan Laverham, who has been showing too much interest in recruiting her. He is heavily involved with a number of criminal activities, and he knows that Kim is a skilled lock pick.  If he found out that she was a girl, he would probably also press her into prostitution. Dan Laverham would be a good reason to get out of London for a while.  Also, Kim realizes that if she learns a few magic tricks from Mairelon, she might be able to set herself up as an entertainer and make an honest living, safe no matter who finds out that she’s female.  Besides, Kim realizes that if she’s not satisfied with the situation, she could always run away later.

Before leaving London with Mairelon, she returns to the man who hired her, at Mairelon’s suggestion, and tells him that she didn’t see a silver bowl in Mairelon’s wagon (which is true because she was knocked unconscious and didn’t see anything in the trunk).  The man is angry, but Mairelon, who followed her in disguise, helps to create a distraction so that she can get away from the man.  They leave London in the middle of the night because Mairelon says that he was spotted by someone who recognized him when he went out to get magic ingredients.

On the journey, Kim gradually gets to know Mairelon and his situation.  The silver bowl, which Mairelon does have, is actually part of a set of magical objects which, when used together, can compel people to tell the truth without interfering with their ability to answer questions intelligently.  Mairelon’s real name is Richard Merrill, and he is, or was, part of the Royal College of Wizards.  Years earlier, the Royal College of Wizards was analyzing this particular set of magical objects and the unique spell that they control, when they were suddenly stolen, and Merrill was framed for the theft.  At the time, Merrill was unable to prove his innocence (at least not without sounding as if he had done something inappropriate with a lady, which he also did not do – they were just together at the time of the theft because she was helping him and another friend with a magical experiment), but he was also recruited by his friend in the government to be a spy against the French, so the story of his supposed theft gave him a plausible reason for wanting to leave the country.  In the time since then, he and his friend have continued to look into the matter of the theft, and they have made some progress in tracking down the other pieces of the magical set.  At the time that Kim met him, he was on his way to the next piece of the set, a silver platter.

To their surprise, however, they soon discover that someone has been making copies of the platter.  The copies are not magical, but they do confuse the issue.  Who is making the copies and why would they want copies, since they do not have the powers that the original has?  As Kim and Mairelon investigate, they crash a house party at a lavish country estate and spy on a meeting of a rather inept society of druids.  All the while, they are getting closer and closer to finding the original thief.

I loved the combination of mystery, fantasy, history, and humor in this book!  It’s one of my all-time favorites.  It has a happy ending with Mairelon’s name cleared and the thief caught.  They also discover that Kim has the ability to use magic, and Mairelon offers to take her on as his apprentice, saving her from the streets forever.  There is a sequel to this book called Magician’s Ward, about Kim’s life and adventures as Mairelon’s student.  The hints of romance in this book are also much stronger in the next one.  There are only two books in this series, which is disappointing because the characters are so much fun, and I think that there is a lot more room for their development.  By the end of the next book, Kim’s future is looking more certain, but her past is still murky.  Originally, I had expected that there would be secrets revealed about Kim’s past because of her ability to use magic, possibly something that was passed on to her by her parents.  However, by the end of the second book, Kim still doesn’t know who her parents were/are, and it doesn’t look like there’s any chance that she will ever know.  Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes, secrets are more tantalizing when you imagine the answers than when you actually find out.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The Cabin Faced West

The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz, 1958.

Ten-year-old Ann Hamilton hasn’t been very happy since her family decided to move West.  Her family lives in 18th century Pennsylvania, and moving West means homesteading in an area where there are few other families, none of which have girls Ann’s age.  Her father and brothers love the adventure of starting over in a new place on the western frontier (what is considered the frontier for their era), but Ann is lonely, surrounded by boys, and missing their old home.  When her father built their cabin, he purposely placed it so that the door faces to the west because he says that’s where their future lies.  Ann’s brothers, Daniel and David, also make up a rule that no one can complain about the west (partly because Ann had already been doing a lot of complaining), saying that anyone who does so will get a bucket of water poured over their head, and they make a game out of trying to catch each other complaining about something.  So, there is nothing Ann can do but suffer in silence and write in her diary, a present from her cousin Margaret when the family left Gettysburg.

There’s a boy close to her age who lives nearby, Andy McPhale, but Ann doesn’t think much of him.  He makes jokes about her being “eddicated” because she can read and write.  Sometimes, he seems like he wants to play with her, but she’s a girl, and he doesn’t want to play girl games.

Andy McPhale also worries about his mother.  His father believes in hunting and trapping more than planting.  Rather than grow some of their food, Andy’s father goes off for days at a time on hunting expeditions, leaving his family with very little while he’s gone.  Ann’s family thinks that this is a sign of poor planning for the future and don’t think highly of Andy’s father for it.

Later, they meet a young man named Arthur Scott who has just arrived in the area and is looking for land to settle on.  When Mr. Scott first arrives, he meets Ann on the road.  Ann has allowed the hearth fire to go out, and she is on her way to her aunt and uncle’s house to borrow some from them because she doesn’t know how to start a fire by herself.  Understanding her problem, Mr. Scott gives Ann a ride home on his horse and helps her to restart the fire, promising not to tell her parents.  They invite him to stay for lunch, and he talks about his time at Valley Forge with Washington’s soldiers when he was only 13 years old.  He was too young to fight, but he volunteered to drive an ammunition wagon.  Ann thinks of George Washington as a hero, and she finds it thrilling that Mr. Scott served with him.

Arthur Scott becomes a friend of the Hamilton family, and Andy McPhale seems jealous of him and the attention that Ann pays to him.  Then, Andy tells her that his family has decided to go back to town for the winter.  In the spring, they will return to the area and try farming, persuaded by their experiences working with the Hamiltons.  To Ann’s surprise, Andy offers for Ann to come with them.  She could visit Gettysburg and stay with her cousin Margaret again.  Ann has been lonely, being the only girl in the area, and it’s a tempting offer.  However, Ann feels like she must stay for her family’s sake and so she won’t feel like a deserter.  When a storm destroys a good part of her family’s crop, she feels terrible and wonders if it’s all really worth it.

In the end, there is a great surprise coming for Ann: she gets to meet her hero, George Washington, when he comes to see some land that he has purchased nearby.

The story is based on the real life of Ann Hamilton, the great-great-grandmother of the author of this book, who did get to meet George Washington in 1784. The real Ann Hamilton married Arthur Scott when she grew up.  The place where they lived, called Hamilton Hill in the story, is now called Ginger Hill.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The Ravenmaster’s Secret

The Ravenmaster’s Secret by Elvira Woodruff, 2003.

Forrest Harper is the son of the Ravenmaster of the Tower of London in 1735.  The story begins by explaining the tradition of keeping ravens at the Tower of London because of the superstition that the Tower would be conquered by its enemies if the ravens ever abandoned it.  This superstition led to the creation of the job of Ravenmaster, who looks after a flock of ravens that live at the Tower with wings clipped so that they can’t fly away.

Forrest Harper lives at the Tower with his parents and sisters, training to become a Ravenmaster, like his father.  He likes the ravens, and they like him.  He is pretty good at caring for ravens, but there is something that bothers him: he thinks that he isn’t brave enough and that others think that he is a coward, too.  He is smaller than the other boys and is often teased.  He has trouble cutting up the squirrels that the rat catcher’s boy (his only real friend, although his mother doesn’t approve of him) brings to him to feed to the ravens.  Even though it’s necessary, Forrest doesn’t like the sight of blood and feels kind of sorry for the squirrels.  Worse still, when Forrest’s family attends the public hangings (which were treated as a kind of festival day with music and entertainment in Forrest’s time), Forrest is unable to look at the criminals who are being hanged.  The one time he does try it, he throws up, and again, the other boys tease him mercilessly for it.  Forrest’s problem, as readers will see, isn’t so much that he’s a coward as he has more empathy than the other boys, both for animals and people, and that isn’t really as much of a problem as he believes.  His father tells him to ignore the bullies because they are foolish, and their foolishness will show in time.

Forrest sometimes dreams of going out into the wider world, beyond the Tower, where he could do something brave that would impress everyone.  The rat catcher’s boy, whose real name is Ned although most people just call him Rat, also dreams of running away because he is an orphan, treated harshly by his master and always in danger of being turned over to the chimney sweep to be used as a climbing boy.  He doesn’t think that Forrest has a real problem because his life at the Tower is pretty good, living comfortably at the Tower with his parents, whatever the local bullies say.  Still, the two boys often imagine what it would be like to go to sea together and have adventures.  When there is an announcement that a new prisoner will be arriving at the Tower, a Scottish Jacobite rebel, Forrest thinks that helping to guard a dangerous rebel will make the Tower bullies respect him.

To Forrest’s surprise and embarrassment, this rebel actually turns out to be a girl.  She is the daughter of the rebel Owen Stewart, who is being held in a different tower at the Tower of London (the Tower of London is actually a fortress with multiple towers – she is imprisoned in Bloody Tower and her father is in Bell Tower).  She has been charged with treason, along with her father and uncle.  Forrest isn’t happy about being given the task of taking food to a girl prisoner. 

However, Madeline McKay Stewart, the girl prisoner, is pretty tough in her own right.  Although Maddy’s been separated from her father and uncle and all three of them are likely to be executed, she is being pretty brave about it.  She talks to Rat and Forrest.  She is interested in Forrest’s pet raven, Tuck, and tells him about how she used to feed baby owls back home.  She talks about her life and family in Scotland, and Forrest realizes that he’s starting to think of her as a friend instead of an enemy to be guarded.

While Forrest is used to hearing English people criticize the Scots for being “savage,” he is astonished and a bit offended when Maddy talks about English people being “evil.”  For the first time, it makes him think of the situation from the other side.  He knows that not all English people are evil and realizes, having seen that Maddy actually has refined manners, that Scottish people aren’t “savage.”  One day, at Maddy’s request, he takes a message to her father in exchange for her ring, which he plans to sell in order to buy Ned back from the chimney sweep after the rat catcher loses his term of indenture to the chimney sweep in a game of cards, sparing him from the horrible life and health problems that the young climbing boys suffer.  Then, Owen Stewart gives Forrest a message to take back to Maddy.  Without really meaning to, Forrest realizes that he has suddenly become a go-between for the rebels and could be considered a conspirator under English law.

As Forrest considers the fate that lies ahead for Maddy and the nature of war between England and the Scottish rebels, it occurs to him that the adults in his life have often done the opposite of the things that they have always taught him were important.  His father always emphasized fairness, yet the war and Maddy’s possible execution are unfair.  Maddy shares Forrest’s feeling that the world might be a better place if people didn’t become adults and abandon their values.

Then, Maddy’s father and uncle are shot while attempting to escape, and Maddy is left completely alone.  Forrest feels badly for Maddy.  Soon after, he is unexpectedly approached by a carpenter who seems to know that he has become friends with Maddy.  The carpenter, who is a stranger to Forrest, tells him that Maddy will soon be executed by beheading but that he has a way to save her life.  Forrest has to decide if he is willing to trust the stranger and save Maddy, knowing that doing so would make him a traitor himself.

One of the parts of this story that interested me was how Forrest noted the hypocrisy in the adults around him as he was trying to decide what he should do.  Qualities that adults often praise and try to instill in their children are often ignored in the way that the adults live and even in how they treat other children, like Ned and Maddy.  Abandoning values, even the ones that they really want their children to have, isn’t something that adults have to do as they grow older, but it is something that some adults do if they think they must in order to live as they want to live or accomplish something that they want to accomplish.  The adults who think that Maddy should be beheaded would probably say that they were doing it for the greater good in promoting their cause against the rebels.  However, treating Ned as a piece of disposable property is something that they mostly do because they can and because they know that there is nothing that Ned can do to stop them.  Ned actually tries to repay his indenture legally with money that Forrest gives him, but although the sweep accepts the money, he refuses to let him go, saying that no one will take Ned’s word over his and that he could always use the money to make sure that Ned is hung as a thief if he tries to make trouble.  It is this type of attitude and situation that make the children realize that they are on their own to solve their problems and that working within the law is not going to be an option for them because the law is not just and it is not on their side.  It’s a frustrating situation, and I often feel frustrated when I encounter this type of thing in books, but fortunately, things do turn out well in the end.

This is one of those coming-of-age stories where a boy must decide what he stands for and where he really belongs.  Through Maddy and the inscription on her ring, which means “Face Your Destiny,” Forrest comes to understand the destiny that is right for him as he helps both Maddy and Ned escape to a better life elsewhere. 

The book also includes some interesting historical information. There’s a map of the Tower of London in the front of the book, and in the back, a short history of the Tower with information about famous prisoners and escapes. There is also a glossary of English and Scottish words that modern children (especially American children) might not know, such as breeches, wench, loch, and tattie-bogle (scarecrow).

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.  (To borrow a book through Internet Archive, you have to sign up for an account, but it’s free, and then you read the book in your browser window.)

Spoiler: In the last chapter of the book, it explains what happened to the characters after the story ends.  Forrest does become the Ravenmaster after his father, realizing that it is the right kind of life for him and that he no longer desires to have adventures outside the Tower.  He has a wife and daughter, and years later, he receives a message from Ned, who says that he has become a captain in the Royal Navy and that Maddy has gone to live in the colonies with other Stewarts (something that my own Jacobite ancestors did, which is how I got to where I am now).

The Puppeteer’s Apprentice

The Puppeteer’s Apprentice by D. Anne Love, 2003.

Poor Mouse works as a scullery maid in a castle in Medieval England.  She has lived there all her life, since someone abandoned her at the castle as a baby.  She has no idea who her parents are, when her real birthday is, or exactly how old she is (the cook once said she was about eleven, but he wasn’t sure).  She doesn’t even have a real name; Mouse was simply the name given to her by the cook, who makes her work hard and beats her if she makes a mistake.  Mouse’s life is hard, but then one day, she makes a big mistake, and the cook gets in a rage and attacks her with a meat hook.  Mouse escapes from him and flees the castle.  She knows that she cannot go back, but she doesn’t know where to go. 

For the first time in her life, Mouse’s fate is in her own inexperienced hands.  For a time, she joins up with a group of travelers, who take her to the city of York.  However, none of them can adopt Mouse, and she must struggle to make a life for herself.  In York, Mouse sees a puppeteer performing, and she is inspired to learn to be a puppeteer herself.  Through a mixture of trickery and pleading, Mouse convinces the puppeteer to take her on as an apprentice. 

Although Mouse makes many mistakes at first, and the puppeteer gets angry and threatens to leave her behind, the two eventually learn to get along with each other.  Mouse gains skill at making and manipulating the puppets, and her confidence grows.  However, danger still lurks in the future, for the puppeteer also has a dark past and dark secrets which pursue the two of them in their travels.

The puppeteer always dresses in loose-fitting clothes to cover up the fact that she is a woman.  Although there is no reason why women cannot be puppeteers, she finds it necessary to disguise herself because she is pursued by an enemy from years ago.  Once, her father, who was a master puppeteer, saved the life of a young Duke who was attacked by a man named Ordin.  Ordin was trying to steal some of the duke’s lands.  The old puppeteer and his daughter stood witness against him, and he was thrown into prison.  Later, when he got out of prison, he attacked the party on the road, killing the old puppeteer and his companions.  Only the daughter escaped alive, and she became a puppeteer to support herself.  Ordin escaped, and she was forced to disguise herself to protect herself.  She even refuses to tell Mouse or anyone else what her real name is. 

However, Ordin recognizes her one day while she and Mouse are giving a performance.  He and another highwayman follow them on the road and attack them.  The puppeteer kills the other highwayman but is gravely wounded herself.  Mouse fights back against Ordin, knocking him into the fire, and he burns to death.  They are not far from the duke’s castle, so the puppeteer sends Mouse there to get help.  Mouse tells the duke what happened to the puppeteer, and he has her brought to his castle.  The puppeteer, realizing that she will not recover from her wounds, finally tells Mouse her story and offers her name if Mouse wants it for herself.  The duke offers to let Mouse stay at his castle.  Mouse stays the winter, but in the spring, she decides to leave.  She has come to love life on the road, and she promised the puppeteer that she would take care of the puppets.  Mouse decides to take the puppeteer’s name, Sabine, as her own and sets off on a journey to find a place to perform her new puppet play, one telling the puppeteer’s story.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The Rag Coat

The Rag Coat by Lauren Mills, 1991.

Minna is a poor girl, the daughter of a coal miner.  Her father has been ill with the miner’s cough, so Minna has to help her mother to make quilts that the family can sell for money.  She wants to attend school, but she can’t because she is needed at home and her family can’t afford a warm coat for her when winter starts.  It’s too bad because Minna really wants to make some friends her own age, and she would meet other children at school.  Her father says that he will find a solution to the problem, but he dies before he can.

After Minna’s father’s death, some of the other women in the community come to the house to work on making quilts with Minna’s mother.  When the women say that the quilt pattern they are using is named after Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors, Minna wishes again for a coat.  When the other women, who are mothers themselves, realize that Minna cannot go to school until she has a coat, they decide to make one for her.  They don’t have much money, but they do have plenty of quilting scraps.  They decide to make a new, quilted coat for Minna out of their old scraps.

Minna starts going to school and does well, although she gets some teasing because, as a new student who has never been to school before, she has to sit with the youngest children, and Shane pulls her braid.  Something that Minna particularly likes at school is Sharing Day (what my school always called “Show and Tell”), where students are given the chance to show special things to the class and talk about them.  Minna decides that when her coat is ready, she will show it to the class during Sharing Day.

As the coat is being made, Minna admires all of the beautiful colors of the cloth scraps in the coat and adds a piece of her father’s old jacket as well.  Each of the other scraps in the coat also has a story that goes with it.  The cloth pieces come from old clothes and blankets that people in the families of the quilting mothers have used, and they memories attached to them.  The mothers tell Minna all of the stories as they work on the coat, and Minna loves it.

However, when Minna wears the coat to school for the first time, the other kids make fun of her for wearing rags.  Minna is really upset and runs away into the woods.  After thinking about it, Minna remembers what her father said about how people really need other people, and she decides to go back to school.  There, she tells the other students that the rags in her coat are actually their rags, and she begins reciting the stories that go with them.

One of the scraps is from Shane’s old blanket from when he was a baby.  He was born so small that everyone was afraid that he’d die, but the blanket kept him warm, and he later carried it around with him until it fell apart.  Shane is happy, seeing the scrap of his favorite blanket again in Minna’s coat.  Everyone else gathers around Minna, looking for their scraps in the coat and listening to the stories behind them.  Each of the scraps in Minna’s coat is like an old friend that none of them ever thought they’d see again.  The other children apologize to Minna for their teasing and Minna says that friends share and that it took all of them to make her coat warm.

The book doesn’t say when this book was written, but based on the children’s clothing, I think it’s about 100 years ago or more. It doesn’t say exactly where this story took place, either, but a note on the dust jacket says that it takes place in Appalachia. The author said that she was inspired by Appalachian crafts that she learned from the women in her family and a patchwork coat that she wore as a child. However, years later, the author revisited this story and rewrite it in a longer version, and some of the explanations that accompany the new version of the story elaborate more on the background.

The author rewrote this story in a longer, novel form called Minna’s Patchwork Coat (2015). In the back of that book, the explanation behind the story mentions that the year of the story is 1908. It also discusses some cultural references and songs included in the expanded version of the story that were not part of the original. It also states that the inspiration for this story came not only from the author’s experiences but from a song written by Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors.

Although it’s not usually my policy to talk about books that are less than ten years old, I’ll bend the rules a little this time because this book is an expanded retelling of the original version, and I’d like to talk about some of the differences. For example, the ending message of the story is slightly changed, or at least the emphasis of the moral is different. The original book emphasized how much “people need people” and how the good will of many people (in the form of the quilting mothers and their hard work and scraps, cast-off from all of their children) changed Minna’s life. They emphasize it at the end, talking about how Minna’s coat is the warmest of all of them and that it took a lot of people to make it that way. However, in the expanded version, Minna also explains that when she started school, she liked her classmates better than they liked her because, thanks to their mothers’ stories as they made her coat, she already knew who the other children were, but none of them really knew anything about her. The message of the expanded version is that it is important to learn others’ stories to learn who they really are and to become friends with them.

Actually, I don’t like the second version of the story as well as the original. I thought that the moral and the story were stronger when the focus was on how people benefit from having relationships with other people because people can do great things when a lot of people contribute a little. Remember, it took a lot of people to make Minna’s coat warm because each of them contributed at least one scrap to it and others took the time to put them all together and it was their stories that made it special, more than just an ordinary coat. The expanded story has that element, too, but more emphasis is placed on Minna needing to share her story with the other children to win their respect and approval. I didn’t like the notion that Minna needed to win their approval by telling her story. Also, this story takes place in a small mining community. I find it difficult to believe that the other kids wouldn’t basically know her story already. Her mother knows their mothers. Their families see each other at church before Minna goes to school. The disease that took her father’s life isn’t terribly unusual for coal miners, and probably a number of the other children are the children of coal miners as well. Minna’s family might be more poor than the others’ since her father’s illness and death, but I don’t see why their circumstances would be so different and incomprehensible to people who must have see her and her family around and who knew them from church or through their parents’ associations. One thing that small towns and communities are known for is everyone knowing everyone else and their business, so why didn’t they all know Minna’s story already? Even if the quilting mothers didn’t talk about helping to make the coat for Minna, the other kids should have known about the family’s money circumstances and the tragic death of Minna’s father. I don’t see why the other kids would have known so little about her or thought that she was so unusual.

The expanded version of the story also features a Cherokee midwife and a biracial friend for Minna who did not appear in the original story. This friend, Lester, is also something of an outcast among the other children, and Minna and the stories from her coat help the other children to be more accepting of him as well. It’s a nice thing, I guess, but it felt a little artificial to me because I knew that it wasn’t part of the original story. I hesitate to criticize it too much because the basic message of the story isn’t bad, but I guess that the way the second version came out just doesn’t have the same feel to me because author put things into it that weren’t in the original, and with that change in emphasis on the ending, it makes the story and characters feel a little less natural to me now.

The Quilt Story

The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston and Tomie dePaola, 1985.

A woman (at some point in the 1800s, from the pictures) makes a special quilt for her young daughter, Abigail.  It has Abigail’s name on it and a pattern of falling stars.  Abigail loves it!

Abigail uses the quilt all the time, not just in bed.  She has tea parties with her dolls on the quilt, hides under it when playing hide-and-seek, generally taking it everywhere and playing all kinds of games with it.  The quilt gets worn and torn in the playing, but her mother mends it when necessary.

Eventually, Abigail and her family move to a new home, traveling in a covered wagon.  Everything in their new home seems strange to Abigail, but her old quilt comforts her.

Eventually, when Abigail is older, she puts the quilt away in the attic, and people forget about it.  Still, animals use the quilt.  A mouse makes a nest it in.  A raccoon hides food in it, and a cat naps on it. Then, one day, another girl finds the quilt in the attic.  She loves it and brings it to her mother to be repaired. 

Like Abigail, though, the modern girl’s family soon moves to a new home, where everything seems new and strange.  However, the old, familiar quilt comforts the girl once again.

This is a gentle, comforting story that would make nice bedtime reading or a story that could be read to a young child who is moving or has recently moved, reminding them that, even in a new place, you can bring a sense of home and the familiar with you.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Linda Craig and the Clue on the Desert Trail

Linda Craig

Linda Craig and the Clue on the Desert Trail by Ann Sheldon, 1962.

Linda and her friend, Kathy, are exploring Olvera Street in Los Angeles before a horse show when Kathy notices a strange man watching them.  While the girls were shopping, Linda bought a small horse statue that reminded her of her own horse.  As the girls finish lunch, Linda notices an odd symbol on the statue that looks like an arrowhead, but before she can study it more, the man grabs the horse and runs off.  Linda tries to chase him down to get the horse back, but the man drops it and breaks it.  Linda picks up the horse’s head and decides to go back to the shop where she bought it to see if she can get another one.

The shop doesn’t have another horse like the one Linda bought.  It was unglazed, and the others are glazed.  Disappointed, Linda goes on to the horse show, where she is taking part, along with her brother Bob and his friend Larry.  At the show, they see the mysterious man again, and he apparently steals the broken head of the horse statue that Linda had kept.  Bob thinks that maybe the man is some kind of smuggler and that there was something hidden in the head that Linda hadn’t noticed.

Linda goes back to the shop to talk to the owner again, and he tells her that the horse was a special order from Mexico for a man named Rico.  Rico said that he was a traveling salesman and that he would collect the horse at the shop, but when he didn’t turn up to get it, the shop owner decided to sell it. Linda asks the shop owner to send her another horse statue like the broken one if one comes into his shop and reports all of this information to the police.  Then, when she returns to the horse show, she finds a threatening message, warning her to “Beware. Stay away from C. Sello.”  The note is signed with the symbol of an arrowhead, similar to the one on the horse statue.  Linda also reports this note to the police, but she can’t resist trying to figure out who C. Sello is and how this person fits into the mystery of the possible smugglers.

Soon after, the shop owner calls Linda to say that another horse statue did come into the shop and that he has sent it to her but now someone has broken into his shop and smashed every horse statue he has. Realizing that what they wanted was not in the shop, the bad guys are soon on Linda’s trail, even kidnapping one of her friends by mistake, thinking that it’s her. They even try to poison Linda’s horse!

At the end of a desert trail, the Mojave Trail, there is a ghost town with sinister characters and old cliff dwellings with Native American petroglyphs that may hold part of the secret to the mystery.

The story contains some anecdotes about California history, which is interesting. I have to admit, though, that I thought that the warning note for Linda was pretty silly. C. Sello turns out to not be a person but a clue about what the smugglers are smuggling, and they didn’t have to tell Linda what it was because she hadn’t heard about it at that point and wouldn’t have any reason to know what they were talking about. If they really wanted to get her to leave them alone, they could have left a more vague warning that didn’t include any clues like “Go home!” or “Go away!”

The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost

The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost by Phyllis Whitney, 1969.

Janey Oakes loves horses and wishes that she had one of her own.  Her family lives on Staten Island in New York, so they don’t have room to keep a horse.  The only horses that she has ridden are rented ones.  However, her parents are now considering moving to the countryside in northern New Jersey, where Janey’s Aunt Viv lives.  If they do, there will be room for Janey to keep a horse, so she is hopeful.

Janey’s parents take her to visit Aunt Viv during the summer, while they decide if they want to move.  Along the way, they stop to ask directions at a half-ruined house.  The people there, Mrs. Burley and her grandson Roger, aren’t too friendly, and when Janey thinks that she hears a horse there, they seem oddly resentful and say that she should ask her aunt about it.

Aunt Viv seems oddly evasive on the subject of horses when Janey asks, saying that she doesn’t ride anymore.  She does tell Janey more about the strange, half-ruined house.  It was once a hotel for people who came to take the spring waters.  However, it eventually lost its popularity and was partly destroyed in a fire.  Mrs. Burley’s husband died in the fire, but she has remained living in the part of the house that is still standing, raising a couple of grandsons there after the death of her younger son.  Her older son is a doctor in New York City.  Aunt Viv says that she used to be friends with the younger of the two grandsons, Denis, but that ended when she did something wrong and something bad happened which she doesn’t want to talk about.

Aunt Viv introduces Janey to a girl who lives nearby named Coral, in the hopes that they will be friends.  Coral isn’t interested in horses, but when Janey questions her about the Burleys, she confirms that they do have a horse called the Star of Sussex.  She takes Janey up to the Burleys’ house again (partly in the hopes of seeing the older Burley boy, Roger, who she has a crush on).  There, Denis and Roger each explain to Janey that their grandmother had hoped to train Star as a racing horse.  Star is an excellent horse and had a lot of potential for racing, but Denis allowed Aunt Viv to ride her one day, and the horse stepped in a woodchuck hole and injured her leg.  The leg has healed, and the horse is able to gallop, but she still limps and can’t run at the same speeds she used to, ending Mrs. Burley’s racing hopes.  Since then, Mrs. Burley has been very bitter, especially toward Aunt Viv.  She behaves strangely, driving people away, and is also angry toward Denis for allowing Aunt Viv to ride the horse in the first place.  It was just an accident, but she blames them both.  Roger realistically thinks that they should sell Star for breeding because she has a good bloodline, and Denis’s real interest lies with airplanes, which fascinate him in the same way that horses fascinate Janey.  Their differing interests seem to support what Aunt Viv says about how the family should move and that the boys would probably have a better life away from the old, ruined hotel and Mrs. Burley’s obsession with the past.

Coral also tells Janey about a ghost dog that supposedly appears on nights when a strange red light appears on the Burleys’ property.  Later, Janey hears the howling at night. Aunt Viv doesn’t think it’s a ghost.  She says that people have tried to talk to Mrs. Burley about her dog, but she denies having one and gets really angry with people for accusing her of having one.  Yet, the howling does seem to come from the Burleys’ property, and Denis even says that he’s seen the ghost dog, that it seems to be covered in flames.  He claims that it’s the ghost of his grandfather’s dog, who died in the fire years ago.  Aunt Viv thinks that Denis is just saying that to try to protect his grandmother and because he can’t handle what other people have come to believe about her: that she’s losing her mind.  Mrs. Burley’s behavior is undeniably odd, and she’s prone to sudden mood swings.  People are worried that she’ll drive newcomers away from the area and drive down property values, and they think that she might need professional help.

Janey doesn’t think that Mrs. Burley’s mind is gone as much as people believe.  When she sneaks over one day to visit Star, Mrs. Burley is angry but notes that she has a good manner with horses.  To Janey’s surprise, Mrs. Burley agrees to let Janey ride Star.  Denis almost ruins things by making Janey believe that Mrs. Burley has changed her mind about the invitation and also by not telling his grandmother that Janey asked to meet at a later time.  Janey isn’t sure why Denis seems to have a grudge against her, although it might have to do with his own guilt for allowing the horse to be ridden and injured in the first place; his own grandmother still seems to have a grudge against him for that.  Neither one of them tells Janey that Star has a particular trick for throwing riders, even though she had specifically asked if there was anything that she should know about the horse or if it had any tricks.  After she’s thrown by the horse, however, Janey gets back on and proves to both the Burleys and to Star that she’s not intimidated and not going to fall for the trick again.  (The Burleys have deep, personal hurts, but I wouldn’t call them nice people.  There are people who would probably view this is a test of Janey’s skills and her ability to stick with a challenge, but I think that their lies and deliberate deception when Janey was asking the right questions show only their immaturity.  It may not bother some readers as much as it did me, but I have a very low threshold of patience for such things, and the characters lost a lot of my sympathy right there.)

Mrs. Burley warms up to Janey after that and confides in her some of the reasons why she has been so unfriendly, trying to drive people away, and why the horse meant so much to her.  Years ago, she and her husband made quite a lot of money, raising racing horses.  Star is from the same bloodline as their original horses.  Mr. Burley lost quite a lot of their money on various business ventures that didn’t work out, even before the hotel fire that killed him, but for a long time, Mrs. Burley was always able to keep one horse from that bloodline, hoping to get at least one last racing horse.  Star is an excellent horse who really would have made a good racing horse, but Mrs. Burley’s hopes were destroyed when Star was injured.  Mrs. Burley thinks that she’s too old now to raise another, that she wouldn’t live to see any of Star’s offspring become racers.  Janey still thinks that Star has the potential to be a racer, but Mrs. Burley says that the effects of her injury won’t let her get the speed she once had.  Mrs. Burley resents outsiders hanging around because she fears their “interference” in her life, and the injury of Star while Aunt Viv was riding her seems to prove that her fears are justified.

Janey tries to talk to Mrs. Burley about the ghost dog, but she gets angry with Janey for believing the things that people have been saying about her.  Worse still, Roger tells her that Mrs. Burley will probably sell Star soon.  She needs money badly and has been refusing to let anybody help her, even her son in New York.  Her pride at her independence may be her undoing.  Now that Janey has ridden Star successfully, she can’t bear the thought that the horse might be sold and sent away.  If only she could unravel the mysteries surrounding the Burley family, the strange red light, and the ghost dog!

Toward the end of the story, one of the characters talks to Janey about Mrs. Burley’s attitude, saying that “it’s important in life to have something to fight for.  Something we care about and want.  I don’t mean fight for with our fists, but something to try for, struggle for.  Something we can do that uses whatever we are to win the fight.”  He means that people need a purpose in life, something like a cause to believe in or a way of life to pursue that is suited to their talents. Janey says that she doesn’t like struggles, but the person points out to her that everything in life that you want involves a struggle, including the horses Janey loves. Janey has focused mostly on the struggle of getting her parents to agree to let her have a horse and Mrs. Burley to agree to let her ride Star, but even if she ended up owning a horse, including Star, there would still be the struggle of caring for the horse, devoting time to keeping the horse happy and healthy. Janey might enjoy that kind of struggle because it appeals to her talents and interests, but it would still require time and sacrifice on her part. Mrs. Burley loves horses as much as Janey does, and she loves the area where she lives to the point where she can’t image living anywhere else. All of her efforts focus on allowing her to continue living in the place she loves, although she feels like her horse dreams are lost.

Much of the emphasis of the book is placed on Mrs. Burley’s determination to maintain her independence as part of the lifestyle she loves, but I wish that there was a little more emphasis on the methods that people use to get what they want in life because that is central to the secret of the “ghost.”  That the “ghost” isn’t really a ghost isn’t too much of a spoiler, but while people in the area think that Mrs. Burley is faking the ghost because she’s mentally unbalanced, the real culprit is someone who wants Mrs. Burley to leave because there’s something that he wants very badly and doesn’t think that he’ll get it otherwise.  Once his scheme is exposed, the others make sure that he doesn’t get what he wants because, after what he has done, he doesn’t deserve a reward.  However, I wish that they had explained a little more plainly that there were other ways of getting what he wanted besides the scheme he planned.  The culprit thinks that no one was listening to him and what he wanted, but from my perspective, what he wanted was simply a matter of time, and he wasn’t willing to wait.  His scheme would have ended with Mrs. Burley being declared mentally incompetent and being put away in a home, which is a cruel thing to do to someone.  The other characters tell him that, but I wanted someone to explain to him that harming others for his own benefit would make him no better than someone who robs a bank because they want money.  That is, crime and fraud are still wrong even if they succeed because the ends don’t justify the means.  In some ways, I think that Mrs. Burley was selfish, but she still didn’t deserve to be labeled as crazy, and even if people weren’t listening to the culprit and taking him seriously as much as they should, the scheme still wasn’t his only option. 

To say more would be to tell you who the culprit is, and it’s not as obvious as it might seem. It was one of my favorite suspects, but I changed my mind a few times, going back and forth between suspects up until the end.

In the end, Mrs. Burley is prepared to forgive the culprit and start over again, and there are hints that he may get what he wants in the future if he behaves better.  Personally, I think he probably would have gotten it eventually, anyway, so his situation is relatively unchanged, although he is now under pressure to prove his behavior to everyone.  As for Star, she does become Janey’s horse as a gift from the one person who is in a position to give the horse to her while making sure that Mrs. Burley gets the money she needs.  Because of Janey’s help in revealing the culprit to Mrs. Burley and because of her devotion to the horse, Mrs. Burley is fine with the arrangement.

The Secret of Stonehouse


The Secret of Stonehouse by Lynn Hall, 1968.

Heather has lived her entire life (as far as she can remember) in Scotland with her grandmother and her uncle, Donald.  Donald has raised her since she was small.  He’s been like a father to her, and she loves him like a daughter.  However, he recently decided to move the two of them to the United States, taking them to a small town in Wisconsin.  Heather can’t understand the reason for the move, and for the first time in her life, it seems like Donald is keeping secrets from her.

Donald seems oddly concerned that Heather shouldn’t tell people that she is adopted, something that he’s never seemed concerned about before.  Heather has asked him about her parents before, but all he can tell her is that his wayward brother Ewen brought her to the family farm in Scotland, saying that she was his daughter and that her mother was dead.  Ewen simply left her with Donald, never trying to see her or talk to her again and never sending her any money. Heather also knows that, although says that he’s going out to search for a new job, he’s been hanging out in other places, spending time with the mysterious Mr. Worley.

Heather makes friends with a boy named Gus who lives nearby.  Gus lets her ride one of the horses that his family owns, Cloud, and invites her to go riding with him sometimes and participate in local riding events called “shodeos.”  Heather loves horses and enjoys their rides together.

On one of these rides, the two of them go near a large, old, stone mansion that gives Heather a strange feeling.  Gus’s family tells her the tragic story of the family who used to live there, the Selkirks.  They were wealthy, but young John Selkirk was killed in an accident the day that his beautiful young wife, Molly, gave birth to their only child, a little girl named Hebron.  John’s parents never recovered from the loss of their son and passed away soon after, leaving just Molly and the baby.  However, when Hebron was only three years old, she was apparently abducted for ransom and later murdered, and her mother died soon after.  The story makes Heather uneasy, and the house gives her a strange feeling, like she’s drawn to it.

However, other sinister things start happening.  Someone in a car that looks disturbingly like Donald’s tries to run her and Cloud off a bridge.  When Donald spends the night away from home “on business”, someone sneaks into the house.  Heather begins to realize that someone is out to get her, some mysterious person means her harm.  Memories, dangerous ones, are beginning to surface in Heather’s mind, and someone is determined to try to keep her from remembering.

Part of the mystery is pretty obvious (at least, I thought it was, and you might guess it from my plot description), but the part that I didn’t guess was who was behind it all.