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.

Island of Adventure

Enid Blyton’s Adventure Series

Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton, 1944.

Philip Mannering is spending part of his summer holidays at the home of one of his teachers, doing some extra studying, which is a bit depressing.  He has fallen behind in school because he recently suffered from Scarlet Fever and Measles, and he is trying to catch up.  He’s not the only boy studying at the teacher’s home, but he isn’t really friends with the others.

One day, he’s doing some studying on the hillside and hears a strange voice telling him to shut the door and not whistle.  There is no door on the hillside, and he wasn’t whistling.  Philip is very confused until he realizes that the voice is coming from a big, white parrot sitting in a tree.  Then, he hears a child’s voice calling the parrot from the garden of the teacher’s house.  Philip is happy, thinking that another boy has joined the study group, but it turns out that he’s only half right.

The voice in the garden belongs to Lucy-Ann Trent, who isn’t a student and isn’t there to study.  Her brother, Jack, is the one who needs to catch up in school because he never focuses on his studies.  Jack has only one interest in life, and that’s birds.  Jack owns the parrot, Kiki, and wants to be an ornithologist when he grows up.  He is bright but disinterested in anything that isn’t related to his chosen field.  Lucy-Ann is only there to spend time with him and keep him company while he gets extra tutoring.  The two of them are orphans.  They don’t remember their parents because they died in a plane crash when the children were very small.  Most of the time, they live at boarding school, which is why they don’t spend as much time together as they like.  Usually, during their holidays, they live with a fussy uncle, which is why the parrot is always barking orders at the children.

Philip also usually lives with an aunt and uncle when he’s not at school.  His father is dead. His mother is still alive, but she spends most of the time working at her art agency.  He also has a sister named Dinah, but they don’t usually get along.  Philip is surprised at how well Jack and Lucy-Ann get along with each other because he’s always fighting with his sister, who has a temper. (Although, admittedly, he does push Dinah to lose her temper.)  Strangely, Philip finds himself wishing that Dinah were also there because, when he becomes friends with Jack and Lucy-Ann, it occurs to him that she would nicely round out the group.

Philip, Jack, and Lucy-Ann become friends by bonding over their shared love of animals. Philip likes the parrot and tells Jack and Lucy-Ann that they would probably like his aunt and uncle’s house because they live by the sea, and there are many sea birds in the area.  Philip doesn’t know much about birds in general, but he likes collecting various small pets, including mice and caterpillars.  The teacher isn’t too happy about these animals because they disrupt study sessions.

Then, Jack and Lucy-Ann get a letter saying that they’re going to have to continue staying with the teacher through the rest of the summer because their uncle has broken his leg and can’t take them back.  The children aren’t happy about that and neither is the teacher because he had other plans after the summer tutoring session ended, even though the uncle has provided a generous check for the children’s care.

Then, Philip has a wonderful idea: maybe Jack and Lucy-Ann can come visit him and his sister at his aunt and uncle’s house.  Dinah has written to him that she’s bored and lonely and misses him, even though they usually fight.  She would like the company, and Philip knows that his aunt and uncle could use the money the children’s uncle is willing to offer for their boarding.  Jack and Lucy-Ann like that idea, but they’re not sure that their uncle and teacher would agree to let them go because they don’t know Philip’s aunt and uncle, and they think maybe Philip’s aunt and uncle wouldn’t want two strange children staying with them.  The children know their plan would be best for everyone, but since they’re not sure that they can persuade the adults, they take the attitude that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission and plot for Jack and Lucy-Ann to run away and join Philip on the train home.  Jack and Lucy-Ann secretly send their trunks to the train station along with Philip’s and tell the teacher that they’re just going down to the station to say goodbye to Philip when he goes.  Then, they quietly buy their train tickets and leave.

When the children arrive at Philip’s home, Aunt Polly is irritated because she isn’t prepared for unexpected guests.  There are no rooms or beds for them, and she says that they can’t stay.  However, she is surprisingly won over by Kiki, who says, “Poor Polly!” over and over in a sad tone.  Not knowing that Kiki is also sometimes called Polly, Aunt Polly thinks that the bird knows her name.  She often feels overworked and rarely gets any sympathy, so she appreciates this gesture from Kiki, who repeats the phrase more often, seeing that it pleases Aunt Polly.  Aunt Polly is also charmed that Polly tells people to get a handkerchief when they sniffle or sneeze because she’s always saying that to Dinah.  When she telephones the children’s teacher to discuss the situation and learns about the fee the children’s uncle is willing to pay for caring for the children, she decides that maybe the children can stay after all.  The relieved teacher promises to endorse the check over to her.

Aunt Polly is relieved to get the extra money, and she reveals to the children that she’s been very worried about expenses because Philip and Dinah’s mother has been ill and hasn’t been able to send the money she usually sends from her job.  Her doctor says that she’s run-down and needs a rest, but her job is an important source of money to the whole family.  Everyone is relying on her, but since she hasn’t been able to send her usual support money for the children, Aunt Polly is worried about how she will afford the children’s school fees.  Philip bravely says that he’s willing to quit school and get a job instead to help out the family, but Aunt Polly says he’s still too young.  Philip has wished before that he was old enough to be the man of the family and provide for his mother.  His uncle isn’t much help with money and doesn’t pay attention to family expenses, too absorbed in his academic work.  Aunt Polly says that the money she’ll get from boarding the Trent children will help out.

Philip says that part of the trouble is that the house where they live is really too large. About half the house is crumbling into ruins from neglect, and the other half is really too big for Aunt Polly to maintain.  Aunt Polly agrees but says that moving would be difficult because few people would want a house like this one, crumbling and located in a rather lonely spot along the coast.  Besides, the children’s uncle loves it because he knows all the history of the area, and he wouldn’t want to leave.  Philip thinks the only thing that will really help is when he and Dinah are old enough to get jobs.  Then, the two of them will be able to help their mother afford a place for three of them.

Philip’s aunt and uncle have a gloomy man named Joe working for them, and he tells the children that the tower room where the boys will sleep on an old mattress (a prospect that seems adventurous to them instead of an inconvenience) isn’t a good room because it’s the only room where they can see the Isle of Gloom.  He says that bad things are associated with the Isle of Gloom because bad people who did terrible things lived there.  Jack asks Philip about the Isle of Gloom.  Philip says that it’s difficult to see, even from the tower room, and it’s always covered in mist.  Nobody lives there now.  Jack thinks it sounds great because the birds on the island have probably never seen people before and won’t be afraid of them, so he could get some amazing pictures.  He thinks maybe he’ll even find some rare birds.  Philip says that he and Dinah have never been there before themselves, and he’s not sure whether there are birds there or not. 

Staying at the house by the sea isn’t easy.  All of the children are expected to help with the chores.  There is no electricity, and they use oil lamps that need to be cleaned.  The water has to be pumped from a well.  Still, Jack and Lucy-Ann think that it’s just part of the adventure.  They enjoy going swimming and fishing with Philip and Dinah, and Jack has fun bird-watching, but Joe the handyman is always spying on them and acting creepy.  He keeps telling the children spooky stories about things lurking in the dark.  For some reason, Joe tries to discourage the children from exploring the area or going out in a boat, but they soon make an interesting discovery. 

While the children are exploring a cave, Philip teases Dinah, and she hits him.  He stumbles back and ends up in a hidden tunnel.  Philip and Jack explore the tunnel and discover that it leads to some carved stone steps and trapdoor that leads up to a storeroom that’s part of the cellars at the house.  Philip says that he never knew this part of the cellar existed.  The boys discover that the door to the storeroom is usually hidden by boxes, but Joe has the key and comes in.  Kiki, who is with Jack as usual, makes some sounds that terrify Joe, who thinks that there are strange and spooky things in the cellar.  The boys think that it’s hilarious that Joe got scared when he’s always trying to scare them.  They steal the key that Joe left in the door so they can come and go whenever they like, but they wonder why Joe even hides the door to the storeroom in the first place.  Philip is sure that even his aunt doesn’t know about that storeroom, or she would have mentioned it before.

Joe is definitely doing something suspicious, going out at night in a boat, fearful that the children will find out what he’s doing. The children make friends with a nice man named Bill, who is staying in an old shack nearby. Bill says that he’s there for bird-watching, but he doesn’t seem to know that much about birds or talk about them as much as Jack does. Bill has a boat and takes the children out sailing, but he doesn’t want to take them to the island and warns them to be careful of Joe. Does Bill know something the children don’t, or does he have some dangerous secrets of his own?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). It was first published in Britain, and some US copies use the title Mystery Island instead. The book was made into a movie in the 1980s, and you can see it on YouTube. The movie has John Rhys-Davies as one of the villains.

My Reaction

First, I’d like to get it off my chest that I didn’t like many of the family relationships throughout the book. Aunt Polly’s marriage is a little disturbing because she doesn’t have enough money to run the household, but her husband not only says that he has none to give her and wouldn’t give her any even if he did have money. He doesn’t seem to care about the welfare of either Polly, who is eventually revealed to have a heart condition, or the children in his care. He buries himself in his study most of the time and has almost no idea of what’s going on in the rest of the house or even who’s there. He’s not just obsessed with his studies, but at times, it seems like he’s deliberately hostile toward everyone else, including his wife, like their existence in the house is a terrible inconvenience to him.

I didn’t like the way Philip and Dinah were portrayed as always fighting physically in the book. Admittedly, my brother and I got into physical fights when we were little, but Dinah is twelve years old, and Philip is older than she is. Both of them seem to be too old to be acting the way they do in the story. Dinah is very emotional and has a hair-trigger temper, and Philip, knowing this, intentionally baits her into losing his temper. He likes to put creepy-crawly creatures on her or act like he’s going to, knowing she doesn’t like it and that she’ll react, and then he’s not happy when she lashes out and hits him. While Dinah shouldn’t react by hurting people physically, I could sort of understand it if she constantly has to put up with this from Philip. Living with someone who is always baiting you and escalating his behavior until you break would probably leave anyone broken in the end, and I can’t help but think that Dinah’s emotions would stabilize more if she didn’t have to deal with someone always trying to throw her off balance. Maybe she’d still be an emotional person, but I notice that it’s particularly Philip who gets her to fight physically while nobody else does because they don’t bait her into it. I found that sibling relationship kind of disturbing because Philip seems to know exactly what he’s doing, and as I said, he’s too old to be doing this stuff innocently.

Jack and Lucy-Ann seem to have a more fond sibling relationship. Lucy-Ann sometimes seems a little clingy with Jack, but I think that might be because the children are orphans and are not fond of their stern uncle, so they don’t really have anybody else to be close to except each other.

My copy of the book is one of the later editions that had some of the names and language changed to remove racially-problematic aspects of the story. In the original version of the book, the sinister handyman was a black man called Jo-Jo, and his race was unduly emphasized. I prefer the version where he’s just a weird guy named Joe.

The mystery isn’t bad. I knew right away that Joe was suspicious because he kept acting suspiciously, but the mystery is one of those type where it’s not so much about “whodunnit” as about “What is this person doing?” Readers know that Joe is up to something, but it isn’t clear for much of the book what it is. I had a couple of ideas early in the story, but neither was right.

Bill is also an interesting addition to the story. For part of the book, he looks a little suspicious because readers can tell that he’s not the bird-watcher he pretends to be, but he doesn’t seem to be allied with Joe. Bill is actually a good character, although he’s not what he appears to be, and he becomes one of the important characters in other books in the series.

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 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.

The Bell Tolls at Mousehaven Manner

The Bell Tolls at Mousehaven Manor by Mary Deball Kwitz, 1991.

This book is the sequel to Shadow Over Mousehaven Manor.

Since the characters’ adventures in the previous book, Minabell Mouse has come to live with her Aunt Pitty Pat in their ancestral home, Mousehaven Manor. Just as Aunt Pitty Pat and Minabell have finished their spring cleaning, Minabell’s cousin Violet Mae arrives for a visit … apparently a long one, based on the amount of luggage that she brought with her.

Also, the prairie hawk who brought Violet Mae to Mousehaven Manor brings a package for Minabell, although there’s nothing to say who the package is from. Minabell finds the package disturbing and is afraid to open it. Instead, she stashes it in the music room. Still, the package leaves her feeling weak and unwell, as if it were somehow cursed.

That evening, their friend Percy the bat comes to dinner, and they are also joined by a mysterious stranger bat who calls himself Count Von Flittermouse. Count Von Flittermouse is a traveler, but he has no luggage except for a large box, which he declines to bring inside. They invite him to join them for dinner, but he says he’s already eaten, so he will just join them in conversation. Aunt Pitty Pat asks the Count if he’d like to spend the night at Mousehaven Manor, but the Count says that he’s a nocturnal creature, so he’s active at night. He asks for directions to Springfield because he says he wants to camp in the Oak Ridge Cemetery and visit Lincoln’s tomb. After dinner, the Count leaves, and they see he’s carrying a long box on his back. He’d mentioned that he brought his bed with him, so they figure that’s what it is. Percy seems a little uneasy about the Count, and Minabell notices that the Count left some odd kind of dust on the chair where he was sitting.

Minabell is in charge of security at Mousehaven Manor, but that evening, she accidentally leaves the music room window open. At night, Minabell hears someone moving around the manor, but she never sees the mysterious intruder, and in the morning, nothing is missing, so her aunt thinks it might have been her imagination.

Meanwhile, a country singer mouse called the Rhinestone Rodent arrives in town. (A joke on the Rhinestone Cowboy song.) Minabell is shopping when she stops to watch the singer perform. Then, an alarm goes up among the mice in town because Mousehaven Manor is on fire! Minabell rushes home, and Percy rings the bell at Mousehaven Manor to summon help. Others come to form a bucket brigade, and they successfully put the fire out. Aunt Pitty Pat is fine, but it takes them awhile to find Violet Mae. Violet Mae casually strolls downstairs and tells them that she was upstairs, having a nap and missing the whole thing.

Part of the mansion is damaged from the fire, and they have to clean everything up. Violet Mae meets the Rhinestone Rodent and develops a crush on him. While Violet Mae and Aunt Pitty Pat go to see the Rhinestone Rodent perform, Minabell and Percy inspect the site of the fire. They determine that the fire was set deliberately, but it was never intended to burn down the whole mansion. It seems like whoever set the fire was using it to cause a distraction while they did something else, but they’re not sure what.

The mysterious package that Minabell hid in the music room is still there, and Minabell finally opens it in front of Percy. It turns out that it’s from Wendell Weasel, a member of the local law enforcement agency, the Illinois State Ski Patrol. The mysterious package contains an equally mysterious ancient box, and Wendell’s letter explains that this box has been passed down in the Mouse family for generations, always held by the head of the family. Until recently, it was in the possession of Colonel Mouse, who was Violet Mae’s guardian but has recently passed away (something that Violet Mae has completely failed to mention to anyone, which is weird). Wendell says that Violet Mae doesn’t know anything about the box, but Colonel Mouse wanted Minabell to look after both the box and Violet Mae. Wendell says that there is a document in the box itself that will explain the purpose of the box, but each caretaker of the box is bound to use its contents to help others and not just for personal gain. Also, there are evil people who may try to steal the box, so Minabell is going to have to be careful.

In the mysterious antique box, Minabell finds a pile of sand surrounding a bottle holding something intensely cold and an old map written in Spanish. It seems like this is what their mysterious intruder was looking for, but what does it mean, and who wants it?

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

My Reaction and Spoilers

This story is more supernatural than the previous book in the series, which was an adventure story. I thought that the villain in the story was pretty obvious, although I did have a couple other suspects in mind for a more devious twist. It turned out to be the obvious choice, though.

Count von Flittermouse is not what he seems, in more ways than once. Percy figures out pretty quickly that the Count is a vampire bat, but what that seems to mean in this version of the animal world is not only different from what vampire bats actually are, but it’s also kind of confusing. I expected that he’d turn out to be like a human vampire, only with a bat as his main form – drinking blood, being immortal, etc. But, that’s not it. Count von Flittermouse is a shapeshifter. He can change into different scary animals, like wolf and spider. That’s his main super power. So, he’s not exactly what I think of as a “vampire”, he’s more like a werewolf, or werebat, or werewolf bat or something. We never see him drink blood or try to drink blood, although there are some bones in his lair that suggest that he might eat other animals. They don’t really go deep into the lore of it or outline the rules for vampire bats in their version of Illinois. You just have to take their word for it that vampire bats are shapeshifters, and that’s it. That’s their thing. Also, their vampire bats aren’t immortal vampires. That’s really the problem that Count von Flittermouse has. He’s actually a very old vampire bat and not likely to live much longer unless he can get his little winged paws on the package that Minabell received.

The bottle in the mysterious package turns out to contain water from the Fountain of Youth. Generations back, one of Minabell’s ancestors accompanied Spanish conquistadors on their search for the Fountain of Youth, and they not only found it but saved some water from it. Count von Flittermouse wants it to restore his youth and make him immortal. It wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t also evil and a werewolf bat.

Of course, our heroes are victorious. They find a way to use the special water so that it benefits everyone, except for the evil bat, and everything ends happily. I actually think that this book might make a fun Disney cartoon, something like a more supernatural version of The Great Mouse Detective. Even though I thought that the book’s version of what a vampire bat is and what it does is a little confusing, a movie version could clarify some of the rules regarding what vampire bats are supposed to be and what they do. The lore about human vampires varies depending on the source, although they usually do have the ability to shapeshift into bats, an ability which is kind of pointless if the vampire happens to already be a bat. It’s understandable that the story has to tweak the traditional vampire lore to fit into this animal society. I kind of picture that the vampire bat would only be able to change into things whose blood it sucked earlier, but that’s just my theory; the book doesn’t clarify that point. Still, it’s a fun story, and I think a movie version would also be fun.

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.

The Mystery of the Other Girl

The Mystery of the Other Girl by Wylly Folk St. John, 1971.

It’s a rainy Saturday in Florida for the Barron family when Stevie (short for Stephanie) gets a strange phone call from Mobile, Alabama that’s meant for her ex-boyfriend, John Henderson. Stevie just broke up with John, who likes to call himself “Ian” because he thinks it sounds classy, the day before, and she has no idea who the strange girl on the phone is or why she’s trying to reach John/Ian at her number. Stevie asks the girl for her name, and she says that she’s Morna Ross, but suddenly, the girl screams and is cut off, like someone put a hand over her mouth, and then someone hangs up the phone at her end. Stevie is disturbed by the call, fearing that something bad happened to the other girl, but she doesn’t know what to do about it because she doesn’t know Morna Ross and doesn’t know exactly where she was calling from or why she wanted to talk to Ian.

Since Stevie already has a date to go dancing with friends at a place where Ian and his band are performing that night, she tells her friends about the weird phone call and asks them what she should do. They say that they’ve never heard of Morna Ross and tell her that she should talk to Ian about it. However, Stevie feels too awkward about the breakup to talk to Ian and asks a couple of her friends to do it for her.

That evening, Stevie and her friends run into Stevie’s old friend, Hope. She and Hope haven’t seen too much of each other lately because she’s not interested in dancing and dating and other things that Stevie wants to do. This evening, though, Hope is out with a visiting cousin from Mobile, Alabama named Phil Walters. Stevie is glad that Phil is getting Hope to come out of her shell a bit. Stevie and Phil say that the style of dancing popular with teenagers today is better than older styles of dancing because they don’t have to take any lessons to learn it – it’s just moving to the music, like everyone else. On impulse, she asks Phil if he’s heard of Morna Ross, but he says he hasn’t. Stevie’s friends say that when they asked Ian, he claimed not to know Morna Ross at first, but then he said something about her being a girl who’s “crazy about him.” Apparently, he dated her before he dated Stevie, and since he and Stevie broke up, he decided to invite her to the Old Seville Festival that’s happening next week, a local celebration of the history of their town. Stevie thinks it’s strange that Ian didn’t mention that Morna lives in Mobile, since that’s the place she was calling from. Stevie’s friends think maybe Ian was lying about Morna being crazy about him and that he probably doesn’t really know her because Ian is always bragging about things, like how great his family is. Hope thinks Ian makes up things to brag about because he wishes they were true even though he knows they really aren’t. After she thinks it over, Stevie thinks that’s true, that Ian likes to keep up appearances and a superior attitude because, underneath it all, he’s actually a very insecure person. But if he made up his relationship with Morna, and he doesn’t really know her, why was Morna trying to call him?

Before the evening is over, Ian confronts Stevie and reminds her that their first date was almost a year ago, at the last Old Seville Festival and that he’s planning to see her there again this year because they promised each other that they would see each other during the festival every year. In return, Stevie confronts Ian about Morna. Ian says that she’s just another of the girls who have come to see his band perform and likes him. When Stevie asks why nobody’s met Morna at any of the teenage hangouts in town, he says that they like to hang out at the more adult spots. He begins spinning a story that Stevie is sure is at least half fiction about how he and Morna order non-alcoholic drinks at adult nightclubs but they sneak in some gin to mix in with it and how they’ve tried marijuana. (Keep in mind that marijuana was illegal everywhere in the US at this time.) Ian says that he and Morna don’t really want to become potheads, but they see trying these things as part of growing up, “to experience everything and then make a choice.” Stevie pauses to wonder about the word “everything.” (That is always a good thing to wonder about when someone talks about wanting to try “everything.” Define “everything.”) Stevie asks him where Morna lives, and he says that she lives across town, but her family has moved around a lot because her father deals in real estate and sometimes even sells their own house and moves his family to a different one. (Ian sounds like he thinks that’s clever. I thought it sounded really suspicious, like maybe Morna’s family is actually involved with the mafia or something and has to keep on the move.) Stevie doesn’t really believe any of this, but she pries a few more details out of Ian about what Morna looks like. Although she thinks that Ian made up most of the things he said about Morna, there is still the girl who called her earlier and screamed like she was in trouble. She was a real person, even if what Ian said about her wasn’t all true.

When Stevie gets home, she tells her mother what Ian said about Morna and how Ian likes to make up things. Stevie is still concerned about the girl who called and wants to find out who and where she is and if she’s okay. Her mother says that her father will be coming home from a business trip the next day, and they can ask him what to do about it. Stevie’s father is a fingerprint expert at the police department, so he knows about police procedures and can make inquiries. Stevie wishes that she had Morna’s fingerprints so her father can analyze them himself, and in another weird development, she gets that opportunity.

The next day, Stevie gets a letter from Morna. The letter is addressed to her and not Ian. Morna didn’t know her home address, so she addressed it to the high school she attends, and the letter was forwarded to her from there. Stevie handles it carefully so she won’t disturb any fingerprints. The letter even has Morna’s return address, so she knows where she lives in Mobile. The contents of the letter are strange. Morna talks about her school band and how they’re always short of instruments. She says that she’s liked Stevie since she saw her playing with her school band in a competition (Stevie really is in her school’s band) and wonders if her school would be willing to sell spare instruments. The letter is oddly worded, the word “see” is underlined twice, and there are doodles all over page. Also, the specific instrument Morna says that she wants is written in French and doesn’t sound at all familiar to Stevie. Stevie looks up the term Morna uses, and it turns out to be a French horn. But, if Morna meant “French horn”, why didn’t she just say that? Also, the price she mentions for the French horn is far less than what an actual French horn would cost. It seems like Morna is either crazy or trying to say something else in her letter.

Stevie has a younger brother named Lyle who is really smart, and he suggests that the letter might be in some kind of code. As they talk it over, Stevie realizes that the French horn refers to Ian because he plays the French horn in her school band. Lyle wants to study the letter more to see if he can figure out other parts of the code, and Stevie decides to invite her friends over to see it, too, because most of them are also in the band and might notice something else in the message that’s music-related. Little by little, the kids begin working out the real meaning of Morna’s message. First, the amount of money that didn’t make sense is meant as a clue the reader that there’s more to this message than just an inquiry about musical instruments. Second, Morna phrases sentences oddly in order to work certain words into the message and put them in the right order for her hidden message. Third, the doodles around the message are the beginnings of pieces of music. Stevie and her friends providing their musical knowledge and Lyle coaches them through code-breaking techniques. After awhile, Lyle goes to his room to work on the code alone because he finds it easier to think by himself and likes surprising people with his discoveries. When he returns, she has the final solution.

Morna’s message says that she has to get in touch with Ian. She says that she is being watched and her mail is being read, which is why she has to communicate in this way. Morna asks Stevie to write to her in the same way, promising to explain the situation later. Stevie remembers that Ian wanted to see her at the Old Seville Festival, so she decides to tell Morna when and where to come if she wants to see Ian. Shortly after Stevie mails the letter, Morna calls again, saying that she needs to warn Ian because someone might try to kill him. Then, she screams and someone hangs up the phone again.

At first, Stevie’s father thinks that Morna is some kind of prankster or maybe having some kind of paranoid fantasy because she’s into drugs or something, but Stevie is sure that Morna really is scared. The danger is real, and Stevie’s family realizes it when Lyle is kidnapped at the Old Seville Festival.

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

My Reaction

I was pretty sure, for much of the early part of the book, that the whole thing with Morna’s mysterious phone calls and messages was just an act that Ian dreamed up and got someone to do for him as one of his dramatic bids for attention. It seemed weird to me that Morna second phone call ended exactly the same way as her first, like it was part of a rehearsed routine. Also, someone who wanted to interrupt Morna’s phone calls and keep her from talking could do it in easier ways that wouldn’t involve dramatic screams that would get attention. They could have just unplugged the phone or held down the hang up button. (Remember, this is the early 1970s. Morna’s using an older style of telephone that has to plug into the wall, and there are buttons where the handset rests that hang up the phone. That was the first type of phone I ever used as a kid, and I know that you can push those buttons down with your hand to end a call even if someone is still holding the handset.) I would think that if a sinister person was watching Morna, they would cut her off that way rather than try to put a hand over her mouth while she screams. Also, if they really didn’t want her to communicate with anyone, I don’t think they’d let her write any kind of letter, not even one that just seems to be about band instruments. Even if they couldn’t figure out the code, I doubt that they’d want to take the chance that she might communicate something to the wrong person. It all just seemed too theatrical and not realistic. So, I couldn’t really blame Stevie’s father for initially thinking that the whole thing might just be some kind of prank. However, I did wonder why he didn’t just phone the Mobile police department and ask a colleague to do a welfare check on the girl at the address on the envelope to find out if it was a prank or not. Better safe than sorry, and if it turned out to be just a prank, knowing that the police knew about it would probably be enough to get the girl to stop.

As it turns out, it’s not just a prank. There is something genuinely sinister going on, although I wasn’t sure what it was for quite awhile. I thought it might have something to do with drugs because there were repeated references to drugs in the story, but that’s not what’s going on. It turns out that Ian/John has been having trouble with his self-image and even self-identity because he’s adopted. He’s aware that he’s adopted, which is why he secretly worries that he doesn’t really fit in with his family or friends and makes up fantasies about himself to impress people while being inwardly insecure. However, there’s quite a lot that Ian/John doesn’t know about his past, not even his birth name, and the truth of Ian’s past is even stranger than anything that he’s ever imagined. His blood relatives love him and didn’t forget about him, even though they couldn’t take care of him when he was a baby, and now, they’re trying to protect him from a very real threat. Finding out the truth comes as a shock to Ian, but it’s an important step in making peace with himself and realizing just how important he is just for being himself, not only to his adoptive family but to the family who gave him up for adoption and to the friends who cared about him even when he was a bit of poser and who took great risks to protect him and help him find the truth.

Lyle is fun as an eccentric genius character who has a pet walking catfish. I hadn’t actually heard of a walking catfish before reading this book, but that’s part of the fun. I enjoy stories that bring up interesting facts that I didn’t know before. Walking catfish can actually survive out of water for long periods of time and move across land. The walking catfish ends up playing a role in catching the bad guys in a way that actually makes sense, which is nice. I also like that, although Lyle is pivotal in solving the mystery, he didn’t get all the answers too easily, like some geniuses in stories, and he needed some specialized knowledge from other people. That makes him a more realistic character.

I would like to discuss the costumes that the characters wear to the Old Seville Festival, though. They explain that it’s common for people attending the festival to dress in historical costumes from different time periods in the town’s history to get into the spirit of the event. Ordinarily, I would think that’s fun and be completely supportive, but there’s one exception that I think crosses the line a little. Some people, including Lyle, dress in Native American costumes. I’m not Native American myself, but I know that real Native Americans are usually not too happy to see traditional forms of dress being used as costumes. I would cut the characters more slack for it if they confined themselves only to wearing clothes like traditional Native Americans, but what pushes it over the line for me is that Lyle is described as darkening his hair and his skin as part of his costume. He also does some kind of warpaint on his face, but it’s the skin coloring that he does that I think is unacceptable. I think that’s going too far, and that’s what pushes this costume into the realm of the tasteless and offensive. A little more restraint, just sticking to the clothes might have been okay, but looking like one of those white actors trying too hard with makeup to pass for a minority in an old black-and-white movie is just too much. It’s one of the things that really dates this book because fewer people today would be willing to take it that far, at least not without some embarrassment or criticism from other people. It was published in the early 1970s, and may possible take place a little earlier, in the 1960s, because no exact year is given. I’ve heard some people claim that it was normal for them to wear racial face makeup as part of costumes when they were kids, and never having seen that even once when I was a kid in Arizona during the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve wondered just when and where kids did that of their own free will when they were given the opportunity to wear literally anything else, and I think I have at least a partial answer here. Lyle carries a tomahawk as an accessory to his costume and gives war cries. He also comments about how hippies are bringing Native American style headbands back into style, which further dates the story.

I should also explain that Lyle is not just dressing as any random Native American; he is trying to be a real historical figure. He is specifically trying to be William Weatherford, a mixed-race plantation owner known for his involvement in the Creek War in the 1810s. I like the part where Stevie wonders about the authenticity of Lyle’s costume. Apparently, Lyle got some help from someone at the local museum, but Stevie realizes that nobody else at the festival is going to know (or care) whether Lyle’s war paint designs are accurate or not, and even if he’s dressed accurately as a Native American of the area, the real William Weatherford probably typically dressed in the British style favored by other plantation owners of the era because he was living in the same manner as fully white plantation owners and going by his English name rather than his Native American name. I’m not actually sure how the real William Weatherford dressed because this isn’t a part of history that I know much about, but Stevie’s logic makes sense. My guess is that he probably wore a variety of different clothes in his life, depending on his circumstances at the time. (After all, various other historical figures did. Emperor Hirohito was photographed at various times wearing traditional Japanese ceremonial clothing, Western-style suits, and military uniforms, depending on the event.) One thing I could state with confidence is that William Weatherford probably didn’t have a pet walking catfish on a leash, which Lyle does because he insists on bringing his pet to the festival with him.

It’s part of the plot that Lyle is wearing an outlandish costume and has his walking catfish with him when he’s kidnapped, but I still think that there are equally outlandish historical costumes that he could have chosen that could have chosen that would have worked. It’s important that Lyle dyed his hair for the costume, so he had the same hair color as Ian on the day he was kidnapped when his ordinary hair color is much lighter, but I think there could be other ways around that or maybe he could have worn a hat so his hair wasn’t visible at first. I wouldn’t mind if he just dyed his hair, but the skin coloring is just too much.

Personally, I prefer the costumes that Stevie and her friends wear to the festival. They decide to dress as Gibson girls from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They basically wear old-fashioned-looking skirts and blouses and put their hair in the typical Gibson Girl hairstyles. Historical costumes that are based on wearing different clothes and hairstyles are the type of costumes I favor.

Aside from the costume issue, I really liked the story. I honestly wasn’t sure what the real problem was until the very end of the book. I had several theories, but Morna really surprised me when she explained who she really was and why Ian was in danger. I thought that she might turn out to be a relative, but the situation wasn’t what I expected.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, 1958.

This is a book that is often used in American schools or recommended to students, but because of the complexity of the story and dark subject matter, I wouldn’t recommend it to young children. It’s more appropriate for middle school level children and older.

The year is 1687, and a sixteen-year-old girl named Kit (short for Katherine) Tyler is traveling by ship from Barbados to the Connecticut Colony. Kit was born in Barbados, where her grandfather owned a plantation, which he received in a grant from the king. However, Kit was orphaned at a very young age, and now, her grandfather has died, so Kit is on her way to live with her Aunt Rachel, her mother’s sister, who is married to a Puritan and is living in Connecticut.

In Barbados, Kit was part of a prominent, slave-owning family, but in Connecticut, she’s just another girl. The people in Connecticut are Puritans, which puts Kit on the opposite site of a political conflict. Her father’s side of her family in Barbados was on the side of the Cavaliers, who supported the king against the Puritans, or “Roundheads” in the English Civil War (1642-1651). Because her Aunt Rachel has married a Puritan, Kit’s Connecticut relatives are on the side of the Roundheads. When Kit first sets off on her journey, she has very little idea of the difference between the two and what it’s going to mean for her future life.

People in Connecticut do things differently, and from the very beginning, Kit strikes them as strange and unpredictable. She is impulsive, and even her grandfather used to warn her about thinking before she acts. Kit is accustomed to living in luxury, giving orders to slaves, and generally being allowed to do as she pleases. It comes as a shock to her that not only can she no longer do these things, but others may heap harsh judgement on her for behaving oddly, even when she does it in the name of a good cause.

Kit gets her first impressions of what life in Connecticut will be like when she talks to the ship captain’s son, Nat Eaton, and an aspiring clergyman named John Holbrook. John Holbrook is the son of a tanner who has had to work by day and study by night since he was young, and he struggles to complete his education because his family doesn’t have enough money to send him to college. Because Kit’s grandfather was wealthy, Kit has never really had to think much about money before. She never had to work or even do chores when she was young, and when she tries to talk to John Holbrook about the books that she’s read, he disapproves of her choice of reading material because he thinks that reading should be reserved for the serious study of religion.

Kit’s naivety and views of slavery are challenged when Nat Eaton talks her about the horrible conditions slaves endure when they are transported from Africa to the Americas and how many of them don’t survive the experience. Kit is accustomed to owning slaves and having them work for her, but just as she has never had to think about the cost of the fancy clothes and other luxuries that her grandfather gave her, she realizes that she’s never given a thought to where slaves come from and how. Kit learns that, while there are people in the North American colonies who own slaves, there are others who vehemently disapprove of the practice, including Nat Eaton. He says that if his family had dealt in slaves, they could have a lot more money, but they’re doing fine carrying more humane cargo and passengers.

Note: Racial issues are more of a side issue than the main part of the story, and this is the part of the story that addresses the issue the most. I can’t say that Kit ever comes to reverse her early view of slaves completely, but this is the beginning of a revelation to her, one of the first indications to her that the life she previously lived is actually the exception instead of the norm, and not everyone looks favorably on people who live the way she used to live. None of the main characters in the story are black.

Kit is dismayed that there seem to be few topics from her old life (politics, money, slaves, the luxuries she owned, the relative freedom she had, not having to work, having plenty of time to read whatever books she liked whether they were useful or instructive or religious or not, etc.) that don’t cause some awkwardness, discomfort, or disapproval from the people who live in the community she is about to join and who will now be playing significant roles in her life. People don’t seem eager to be friends with her, and they look at her suspiciously as a stranger.

As her ship nears its destination, a little girl on board loses her doll overboard and Kit jumps into the water to get it back, alarming everyone. Most of the other women and girls don’t know how to swim, and they think it’s strange when Kit says that her grandfather taught her how to swim when she was little. The sea around Connecticut is too cold for swimming, so they’re not used to the idea of recreational swimming. (This time period was part of the Little Ice Age, so the area was even colder then than it is today.) Some people also consider that one of the tests for witchcraft involves seeing if a woman could float in water, and they begin whispering that Kit might be a witch.

When Kit finally arrives at the town where her Aunt Rachel and Uncle Matthew Woods live, Wethersfield, she is disappointed to see that it’s much more rural than the community where she used to live. The streets are not paved. Kit is dressed in an overly-elegant way for the community and even for her own family. When she finally meets her aunt, she thinks that she must be a servant at first because she is dressed so plainly. Aunt Rachel is happy to see her, and Kit meets her cousins, Judith and Mercy. Judith is very pretty, and Mercy walks with crutches. Kit is surprised at the very simple way they live, and they are taken aback at her fine clothes and all of the possessions she brought with her in her trunks from Barbados.

Her relatives are stunned when they find out that Kit plans to stay with them. They had not even expected her to come for a visit, and they had not heard about her grandfather’s death. Uncle Matthew asks why she didn’t write to tell them that she was coming, and Kit admits that she was afraid to write to them because she didn’t want them to tell her not to come and she didn’t have any other choice but to come to them. After her grandfather’s death, the overseer of the plantation sold off the entire crop and kept the money for himself, and all of the other plantation owners in the area presented Kit with debts her grandfather had with them that needed to be repaid, so she was forced to sell off the slaves and almost everything else to pay them. (From Kit’s description about the sudden influx of supposed debts after her grandfather’s death, I wondered whether at least some of these supposed debts were fraudulent and if Kit was simply too young and naive to challenge them, being accustomed to her grandfather handling all of the family’s money and business arrangements, but I can’t really be sure. She doesn’t go into detail about what proof the creditors offered of the debts or if she simply took them at their word, and its only real importance is in helping to provide her with a reason for going to live with her relatives.) Aunt Rachel says that Kit did the right thing by repaying the debts and coming to them, but Uncle Matthew seems less sure. He disapproves of Kit’s grandfather for being a royalist and seems reluctant to take on a now impoverished relative accustomed to a luxurious life.

Kit tries to share some of her fancy clothes with her cousins when they admire them, and Judith and Mercy love the new clothes, but Uncle Matthew puts a stop to it. He disapproves of Kit’s clothes because they are just too fancy and he thinks they encourage vanity. Uncle Matthew is very direct with Kit, explaining to her that people in this family and in this community live a very different life from the one she is used to, and she is going to have to adjust to their ways if she wants to live with them. Adjusting to this new life, which is so different from everything she knew before, is a major struggle for Kit throughout the story.

Privately, Kit confides in Mercy that she had another reason for wanting to leave Barbados. There was a man there who was a friend of her grandfather’s. Her grandfather also owed money to him, but he would have forgiven the debt and paid the other debts if Kit had agreed to marry him. Other people in Barbados said that it was a smart match and that she should marry him, but he was fifty years old, and Kit couldn’t bring herself to marry someone so much older than herself. That’s why she wanted to leave Barbados in such a hurry and didn’t want to wait even long enough to write to her relatives. (The issue of the girls’ marriage options and what they mean for their family and future lives is a major focus of the story. It is taken for granted throughout the story that all of the girls will get married at some point and that their primary future occupation will be being someone’s wife. However, what being a wife means for them depends on who they marry, what their husband’s occupation and position in society are, and the type of lifestyle they can support.) Mercy says that Kit did the right thing by leaving Barbados and that her Uncle Matthew will get used to her being there if she can demonstrate that she can be useful (an important factor in the occupation of being a wife or daughter of a Puritan family).

Being useful is a problem for Kit, who is unaccustomed to doing work of any kind. She doesn’t know how to do even basic chores. People need to explain to her how to do everything, and even then, Kit is extremely clumsy and lacks the patience to follow their instructions properly. Judith loses her patience trying to teach her and isn’t happy to learn that they’re now going to have to share a bed. Kit appreciates Mercy for her understanding and her quiet strength. Even though some people disregard Mercy because of her disability, Kit knows that Mercy has valuable skills and that she can work as hard as anyone. Life with the Woods family is a monotonous series of chores that previously Kit would have thought of only as labor for slaves that she would never have to do.

Then, there are religious differences between her and her relatives. When Kit lived with her grandfather, they never attended regular church services, but Uncle Matthew’s Puritan household is strictly religious, so Kit is expected to go to church with the family. At the church services, she sees that other people in the community are wearing clothes that are about as fashionable as her own, so not everyone in the community is as strict in their dress as the Woods family is. However, Kit is bored by the services (which last all day), the other parishioners don’t seem very friendly, and it seems like word has spread that Kit is a charity case that her aunt and uncle have taken in. However, she does attract the attention of a young man named William Ashby, and Judith meets John Holbrook for the first time.

As Kit spends more time with her relatives, she discovers that Uncle Matthew is a local selectman but that he has political disagreements with some of the other men in town, and some of them think that he is less loyal to the king than he should be. Kit also becomes involved in the romantic interests of her cousins and confronted with some choices she needs to make about her own future. William Ashby is from a wealthy and socially prominent family, but Uncle Matthew dislikes the Ashby family for being Royalists. Kit learns that Judith was interested in William Ashby before she came, and she worries that Judith will be angry with her for attracting his attention, but Judith tells her not to worry about it because she is now in love with John Holbrook. Kit still feels uncomfortable at William’s sudden interest in her because she has only just come to live in the area, she knows very little about William, and the two of them don’t seem to have much to talk about during his visits with her. However, Aunt Rachel and her cousins encourage her to pursue the relationship because William Ashby’s family is prosperous and he can provide a good living for her. Kit is flattered by William’s attention because he admires her whether she is “useful” or not. With his family’s money and position, William Ashby could give Kit a life similar to the one she had before with her grandfather with nice clothes and relative freedom from routine household chores.

However, Kit’s views and ambitions in life begin to change when she starts helping her cousin Mercy to teach young children in the community’s dame school. Basically, a dame school was when a woman of the community would teach children basic lessons, such as reading and writing, informally in her own home for a fee. (For more information, see Going to School in 1776.) Mercy explains that after children learn to read in the dame school, they can go on to the more advanced lessons in the community’s formal grammar school. Kit always enjoyed reading and discovers that she likes working with the children. As a dame school teacher, Kit earns fees from the students and performs a useful service that she enjoys much more than weeding gardens, scrubbing floors, and other household chores. Kit was not raised to have a profession, but there is more than one kind of work in the world and even in this small community, and this particular kind of work suits her. It pleases Kit that the students appreciate her and enjoy her lessons and stories.

The girls’ romantic dreams and life decisions as they come of age and begin making lives for themselves in the community could make for an interesting historical novel by themselves, but there is more to this story. This is a witch trial story. Kit has already had people making witch comments about her because of her odd behavior, but through her work at the dame school, she demonstrates other odd habits that cause her to get on the wrong side of community members. When she gets the idea of having students act out the story of the Good Samaritan instead of simply listening to it, the situation gets out of hand. She is criticized for using the Bible for play-acting, and the dame school is temporarily closed. Then, Kit befriends Hannah Tupper, a somewhat eccentric widow who lives in an undesirable area near Blackbird Pond that often floods. Nobody understands why she wants to live out there, all alone with her cats, and people in the area say that she’s probably a witch. The truth is that she is known to be a Quaker, and the Puritan community doesn’t like to associate with her because of her religion. Kit likes Hannah because she is kind and understanding to her and calms her when she is upset, but her family doesn’t like her to associate with Hannah, saying that evil can seem innocent at first. Kit also realizes that, while William Ashby admires her, he is also scandalized by her behavior. Hannah, on the other hand, is supportive of Kit and helps her continue to secretly teach a young girl whose mother doesn’t want her to have reading lessons.

Kit’s friendship with Hannah gets her into trouble with community and even puts her life in danger. People in Wethersfield start to die from a disease that has struck the community, and Hannah is blamed. Kit risks her life to save her from an angry mob. Although she successfully gets Hannah to safety, Kit is also accused of witchcraft and put on trial.

I often find stories of people falsely accused frustrating, but this one has a good ending. There is a note in the back of the book that explains the historical background behind the story. Kit Tyler is a fictional character, but there are some real historical characters in the book, and the political situation involving the colony’s charter is real.

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

My Reaction

The time period of the story is a time of witchcraft suspicions, like those that sparked the infamous Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts (1692-1693). Historically, suspicions of witchcraft and actual witch trials were more likely to occur in communities suffering from internal divisions and instability, especially when the community suffered some further calamity with no apparent explanation, such as a sudden epidemic of illness (possibly ergotism in Salem), heaping panic on top of existing community tension and anger. Then, the community would take out its feelings on someone who was generally disliked by a majority of community members, usually targeting someone who lacked resources to fight back against the allegations of witchcraft, like a poor woman or a widow. Basically, the community wanted someone who could serve as a convenient scapegoat (as described by the Salem Witch Museum) or whipping boy for the commu,nity’s roiling emotions and real problems that they either didn’t want to address or lacked the means to address. Even when it became obvious in hindsight that they had killed innocent people, most of those involved wouldn’t even suffer feeling guilty or bad about themselves for murder because there was always Satan and his trickery to blame for their own actions and decisions. No one could prove that they hadn’t been honestly deceived by the devil, so they would not be held responsible by their friends, who liked them personally and had been actively involved in the entire episode themselves. The community would already be accomplished at mental blame-shifting, so their minds would be relatively untroubled by personal responsibility. Knowing that they didn’t experience regret or remorse for their actions, that they felt right and good about their personal choices, doesn’t help the people they killed, the families of their victims, or people vicariously experiencing the injustice through history or historical novels. Miscarriages of justice are deeply frustrating, which is why I don’t normally like this type of story, although in the past, I’ve been fascinated by the historical background of this incidents, which is why I wrote a couple of papers on witchcraft trials, both American and European, in college, back when I majored in history. (Don’t make the mistake of saying anyone was burned at the stake for witchcraft in America. It’s not true, not even at Salem. The accused were hanged, and some were pressed to death with heavy rocks, but nobody was burned at the stake for witchcraft in the American colonies. That happened in Europe but not America, and it always annoys me when people get that wrong.)

In the book, the community in Wethersfield has all of the historical elements necessary for producing a witch hysteria. From the beginning, Kit notes the the political divisions in the community. Particularly, her uncle is at odds with other prominent community members about specific local issues and the amount of loyalty owed to the king, and there is also a conflict over the colony’s charter. Even though Kit would be the side of those favoring the king, more so than her uncle, the feelings that community members have about her uncle’s political position would give them a natural prejudice and suspicion toward what they would view as the strangest and most problematic member of her uncle’s family. Then, there is a sudden sickness that causes community members to die. The community also has an outcast who would make a convenient scapegoat, Hannah Tupper. When Kit first hears about her, her cousin Judith tells her that some people already think that she may be a witch. As both a widow and a Quaker outcast, she would have been unable to save herself from the townspeople without Kit’s help. When Kit provided that help, and the community lost their first choice of scapegoat, they picked Kit as their second choice, an acceptable substitute.

On the one hand, my own anger at the injustices of the past leads me to return the witch hunters’ judgement with some harsh judgement of my own. Some of the world’s most judgemental people are so unaware of any other emotions besides their own that they are shocked to discover that other people actually have minds and feelings and an equal ability to look back at them and assess what they see. I suppose that these people wouldn’t have guessed what future people would think when they looked back at them because their views of themselves wouldn’t match what independent observers, seeing their actions and the consequences across time, would see. Human beings often have internal fantasies about themselves where they are more brave, clever, attractive, and on the side of moral right than they actually are, and I think the witch hunters are a definite example of that. I don’t like people who wriggle out of personal responsibility, no matter why they do it, and if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, I only consider people as “good” as their own personal behavior and the way they affect other people around them. Nobody’s “good” simply because they say they are or like to think of themselves that way, especially if their real actions say otherwise. Actions speak louder than words. There are many things about the people in the community in this story (as well as in real historical communities) that don’t live up to my high personal standards. Offending me isn’t a criminal offense, and there aren’t many consequences for doing it, but it does provoke a lot of griping.

I think that there’s little point in having standards if you don’t actively live them, and although I think some of that sentiment would have been in the witch hunters’ thoughts, I further believe that everyone has an equal responsibility for both the standards they have and how they choose to demonstrate them. If people would give more thought to the “hows” of their actions and the consequences of what they do, I think there would be fewer problems in the world in general. I also think letting people get away with harmful behavior and not at least clearly criticizing it sets a terrible precedent that is likely to lead to further harm. In the book, once Kit’s name is cleared, she is inclined to forgive her accusers, although she is offered the opportunity to charge them with slander. I understand the reasons why Kit would decide not to pursue these charges, but at the same time, there is clearly one person in the story who was more responsible than the others for the charges brought against Kit and who has also been shown to be hostile toward her own innocent young daughter, and this person does not receive punishment for her actions in this story. I did feel better that the father of the child, realizing that his wife has been wrong about their daughter, falsely labeling her as a half-wit and keeping her from the education that she should have, stands up for the child and her continued education in the end, but I still kind of wanted to see the rest of the community give the mother more of a direct, official warning or censure to bring it home to her that there would be consequences for further misbehavior on her part because of the serious consequences, even possible death, that she almost imposed on others. Sometimes, I feel like this sort of conflict comes to an end too quickly and easily in stories with kind of an air of “We’re all good here now” without some of the underlying problems really being confronted or resolved. It happens sometimes like this in real life, but it’s not very satisfying, and just because some people say “We’re all good here now” doesn’t mean that everything is really fine and everybody involved is really fine. I’m never comfortable with pretending that things are okay that are clearly not. The mother of the child seems to have some mental issues of her own and some kind of emotional conflict over her own child that gives her a warped view of reality. That isn’t fully explained or resolved in the story, probably because the other characters don’t fully understand it, either.

Perceptions are important, but a person’s perceptions don’t stop reality from being, well, real. I know that, in real life, all or many of the supposed witch threats probably seemed real to the individual accusers in the middle of their personal panic, but the reality of the situation is that they did a great deal of harm to innocent people who were unable to stop them. In fact, they specifically targeted people they knew couldn’t stop them, which sounds pretty calculating. They did it because of their own personal problems and the demons that lived in their own minds, whether or not those mental demons had any supernatural help. It’s frustrating because you can’t communicate completely rationally with determinedly irrational people any more than you communicate can with dead people or fictional people and convince them to change their minds. There are times when there’s just nothing you can do when there is no way for the other person to receive new information or they’re just determined not to and no way to help someone who not only doesn’t want help but doesn’t think they need it and would be deeply offended and suspicious at the mere offer. On the other hand, the psychology of such incidents is kind of interesting.

Years ago, I attended a talk given by a team of professional ghost hunters where they said that people who call them to investigate hauntings in their homes tend to be people who are already troubled about something else in their life, such as money problems, marital problems, health problems (mental and/or physical), problems with their kids, or some combination of these. Then, when something happens that seems strange and inexplicable, they get startled by it because they’re already on edge. People who are more secure in their lives and are generally happy might brush off one or two odd things that happen as just rare oddities and forget about them, but people who are already upset about something else tend to seize on them. They become hyper-vigilant. They start noticing more and more odd things that they might otherwise have overlooked and draw connections between these things in their minds, actively looking for more. Soon, they have themselves convinced that they’ve got a full-blown haunting in their house, when at least some of what they’ve experienced is just the ghosts in their own minds. In one case, they said that a man was troubled by a mask he bought at a garage sale. He thought it was cursed because, soon after he got it, a bunch of bad things happened to him. (As I recall, his wife divorced him, he lost his job, and he had health problems.) The ghost hunters said, “To be fair, we don’t think that this mask was cursed when the man bought it. We think it became cursed because he bought it, and he continually blamed it for every bad thing that happened to him around that time, even though these things were probably going to happen anyway.” This is basically the same process that leads to witchcraft trials, except that in witchcraft trials, it happens on a larger scale. Witchcraft trials involve whole troubled communities instead of just a single troubled household.

This still happens in modern communities, but in places where people don’t believe in witches, it’s more likely to take the form of a kind of moral panic, where people get upset about a possible infiltration or excess of people seen as some kind of disruptive moral deviants, rather than a witch hysteria. In both cases, the community experiences extreme fear or paranoia about some perceived threat, but in moral panics, the perceived threat comes from some part of human society, like Communists during the Red Scare or some variety of criminal, not a supernatural force. Actually, I believe that we’ve been living in a state of moral panic in the US for at least the last few years, probably longer, on more than one front. I can’t help but notice that much of what’s been happening in modern times fits all the criteria and follows the typical stages of a moral panic, particularly the parts about the “hidden dangers of modern technology“, a belief in “a ‘hidden world’ of anonymous evil people“, and fear of an “evil stranger manipulating the innocent” (which, weirdly, is what I think is behind the willingness of some people to believe conspiracy theories in the first place as they accept stories that come from apparent “friends”, or at least people who look like people they might want to get a beer with or something – some people use them as their primary source of media, thus checking another box in the requirements for a moral panic and leading up to the final point). In my experience, the fear is particularly about evil people who want to “control” others and tell them what to do, the ultimate community boogeymen where I live. I’ve heard a lot about it for years from real people who habitually like to tell me what to do and how I should feel about things themselves.

This is kind of a digression from the story, but I put it here to illustrate that we might not have to question how people can get themselves into community hysteria over perceived threats, most of which prove to be not that threatening in the long term. Most people might not believe in witches anymore, but they’ve found plenty of creative substitutes for the same basic process over the years. A complete list would take too long to compile, but if you spend any amount of time on social media, you can come up with several “evil” or “deviant” groups or ideological concepts that people hate and fear in the space of a few minutes. Thanks to modern technology, you don’t have to wonder what’s going on in people’s heads. You can Google it. Many people will just tell you right up front what boogeymen are lurking in their minds, and they’ll gladly share that information with untold numbers of total strangers through Twitter, Facebook, and Quora, feeling validated and supported if faceless usernames agree and spread their stories, no matter why they do, and often raging against sinister forces trying to spy on them at the same time. It’s not rational, but it is recognizable. I put it to you that a few moments of honest self-reflection, considering not how you feel but what you’re actually going to do and what it’s going to mean in real terms, can be the stitch in time that saves nine. There are dangers to modern technology, but I don’t think they’re really that hidden. They’re the same dangers human society has caused itself in the past, just much faster, and they come mostly from the demons in the minds of the people involved. There is nothing online that wasn’t designed, written, promoted, spread around, and ultimately accepted by individual humans. It’s when people lose touch with the realities of the situation and the consequences that their actions have for real people around them in the real world that I really worry. It seems to me that blaming the Internet or the media for the things people have decided to do themselves has become the 21st century version of “The devil made me do it.”

Once Upon a Dark November

Once Upon a Dark November by Carol Beach York, 1989.

Katie Allen likes her part-time job helping Mrs. Herron with her housework. One of the best parts of the job is that she gets to see Mr. Herron, her English teacher, at home. Katie has a crush on Mr. Herron, although no one but her best friend knows it.

One day, while she’s at the Herrons’ house, Mrs. Herron tells her that her cousin Martin is coming for a visit. She says that Martin hasn’t been in Granville in years, although he used to live with their aunt when he was young. Their aunt is Miss Gorley, the creepy lady who lives across the street from Katie’s house. When Martin arrives, he turns out to be pretty creepy himself. He never says very much to anyone and spends a lot of his time just staring out the window. Mrs. Herron is not happy to have him there and wishes that he would leave.

One day, Martin disappears, and the next day, Miss Gorley is found murdered in her house. Did Martin return to Granville just to murder his aunt? Where is he now, and who is that mysterious person who tried to attack Katie at her house, dressed in a Frankenstein costume? Did Katie see something that she wasn’t meant to see?  Katie doesn’t remember seeing anything important, but now she has to figure out what it was before it’s too late!

This book is not for young children.  It would be best for kids in middle school (about 12 and up).  There is murder and attempted murder, including the attempted murder of Katie, who is a child, because the murderer of Miss Gorley thinks that she knows too much.  There is also some discussion of child abuse, which was part of the motive behind Miss Gorley’s murder.  Katie did see some things that are important to the case, but their full importance doesn’t occur to her until the attempt on her own life.  People are not quite who they seem to be, and some of Katie’s initial impressions were closer to the truth than someone wants her to know.

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

Beware the Ravens, Aunt Morbelia

Beware the Ravens, Aunt Morbelia by Joan Carris, 1995.

This is the sequel to Aunt Morbelia and the Screaming Skulls.

Years ago, Aunt Morbelia inherited the Fearing family estate, Harrowwood, after her cousin died.  Aunt Morbelia goes to England to inspect the estate and make some decisions about its future.  The estate is in disrepair, and taxes have been eating up the funds intended for its upkeep.  Todd and his friend, Jeff, also go to England with Aunt Morbelia to see the family estate and famous places in London. 

Some of Aunt Morbelia’s fascination with creepy stories becomes apparent as she recounts the dark history of the estate and the mysterious death of her wicked, possibly murderous, uncle.  He was apparently killed by animals after his cruelty to the animals on his estate was discovered.  When they spend the night at the estate, Todd and Jeff hear a frightening howl.  They are only too happy to move on to London and go sightseeing. 

At Harrowwood, Todd finds an old journal belonging to his aunt’s cousin, Albert, and he thinks it would be interesting to see the places that he visited when he went to London years ago.  Albert was an eccentric man who died in an insane asylum because people thought he was crazy for going around town making bird sounds all the time.  Still, Todd is fascinated by the strange drawings and cryptic notes in the journal.   Before Todd can figure out what they mean, he and Jeff spot mysterious characters following them around, and someone leaves a threatening note at the bed and breakfast where they are staying.  Todd is determined to find out who their mysterious stalkers are and put and stop to it!

The first book in this two-book series wasn’t a mystery, but this one is. (The first book in the series had more discussion of Todd’s dyslexia in it than this one did.) There are things that Aunt Morbelia doesn’t know about her family and the family estate. The estate has meaning for her, but it has greater meaning for someone else, and so does the journal that Todd found. The Fearings have always been an eccentric bunch, and when they learn who has been following them around, Todd and Aunt Morbelia have some suggestions that change things for the better.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.


Aunt Morbelia didn’t know it, but her cousin had a son before he died, and he is bitter that Morbelia inherited the estate instead of him.  He and his family have been secretly living on the estate for years, and they are afraid that Morbelia will have them thrown off.  They admit that they were trying to scare Aunt Morbelia and Todd away so they could have the estate to themselves.  They also want the journal that Todd found and has been carrying around the whole time.  The journal contains Albert’s notes of his research on birds and bird calls.  Albert believed that he had discovered the language of birds and could communicate with him.  His son wants to carry on his strange work and maybe learn to communicate with other animals, too.  Todd gives the journal back to them, and Aunt Morbelia assures them that she will not throw them off the estate.  In fact, she suggests that they give nature lessons to tourists in order to support the upkeep of the estate.  Because they demonstrated their skill with disguises and acting while following them around London, she also suggests that they put on mystery plays and host mystery weekends on the estate.  They enthusiastically agree to the plan, and Aunt Morbelia and Todd talk about visiting next year to see how things are going.