The Mystery of the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, 1993.
This is the fourth book in the Indian in the Cupboard series. It’s also the longest book in the series and the one that reveals the most about the history of the magical key and cupboard and how their secrets tie into the secrets in Omri’s own family. It was my favorite book in the series when I was a kid!
Omri’s parents have surprised him by telling him that they’re planning on moving to a new house again. Omri wasn’t exactly happy with their last move, and his room and other parts of their new house were damaged after his last adventure with time travel, when his friend Patrick brought back a tornado with him. However, now that the house has been repaired and he’s settled in, Omri doesn’t like the idea of having to pack up and leave and get used to a new place again. His parents want to move to the country, but it’s not even the area where Patrick now lives. Instead, they’re planning to move to a house that his mother has just inherited.
The house Omri’s mother has inherited belonged to an older cousin of hers she never actually knew. He didn’t leave his house specifically to her; it’s just that he died and left no will, and Omri’s mother happens to be the nearest living relative his lawyers could find. When they finally see the house and find out how much land is attached to it, it turns out to be much better than Omri expected.
There are just two things that concern Omri. The first is the package that he asked his father to store at a bank for him – the magical cupboard and key. Although Omri asked his father to put them in a bank deposit box to keep them safe and prevent himself from being tempted to use them again because it’s too dangerous, he doesn’t like the idea of them being too far away from where he’s living. His father promises to have them transferred to a bank near their new home. The second thing that worries him is that his cat mysteriously disappears soon after they move into the new house. (The cat is okay, she just sneaked away to have kittens.) His parents say that she’s just roaming her new territory and might be a little angry for being moved from her old home and that she’ll come back to Omri once she’s settled in, he still worries about her.
One night, he think he hears his cat crying and goes looking for her. He doesn’t see her, but he stumbles on something that was hidden in some old thatch that fell of the roof of the house. It turns out to be a metal box and a notebook belonging to someone named Jessica Charlotte Driscoll, written in 1950. Omri doesn’t know who she is, but the notebook is a story of her life, in which she describes incredible things happening to her which her family doesn’t believe. Omri wonders if she could be a relative of his, and the name Charlotte reminds him of his grandmother, Lottie. He never knew his grandmother and his mother doesn’t even remember her mother because she died in a bombing during WWII, when she was very young. The woman who wrote the notebook couldn’t have actually been his grandmother because she would have been dead for several years by 1950, but perhaps it was a family name.
Omri questions his mother about the cousin who owned the house and her family’s history. Jessica Charlotte turns out to be the sister of Omri’s great-grandmother, his mother’s great-aunt. Great Aunt Jessica Charlotte was the younger sister of his mother’s grandmother. After her mother was killed in the war, Omri’s mother was raised by her grandmother. Omri’s mother had asked her about her younger sister when she was a girl, but her grandmother didn’t like to talk about her. Apparently, Jessica Charlotte had been an actress with a somewhat scandalous past. However, the cousin who used to own this house was Jessica Charlotte’s son, Frederick. Frederick never married, and although Omri’s mother thought that Jessica Charlotte had lived abroad somewhere, it’s possible that she lived at this house for a time.
Much of the story is told through entries in Jessica Charlotte’s notebook. When Omri begins to read the notebook, written toward the end of Jessica Charlotte’s life, he learns, to his shock, that Jessica Charlotte was the original owner of the magic cupboard and that she had her own Little People who visited her from other times and were her friends. After Omri reads that, he questions Gillon, the brother who gave him the cupboard, and he admits that he didn’t really find it in an alley, like he said. He actually found it in the basement of their old house with a bunch of other junk. He just didn’t have the money to buy Omri a birthday present at the time, and Omri had kind of a fascination for secret drawers and boxes, so Gillon thought that he might have some fun with the old cupboard, and he made up the story about mysteriously finding it to make it more interesting. (I suspect that the author was just retconning this part to make it agree with the idea that the cupboard was passed down through Omri’s family, but I like the way this comes out, so I’m okay with that.)
The notebook further explains that Jessica Charlotte had been envious of her older sister because she was prettier, luckier, and often seemed favored by everyone. However, in mocking the young men who came to court her older sister, Jessica Charlotte discovered that she had a talent for mimicry, which led her to become an actress, although her family thought that it was a disreputable profession and disapproved. Jessica Charlotte also discovered that she was psychic and sometimes had visions of the future. She eventually left home and became an actress. Her sister, Maria, still visited her secretly sometimes, against their parents’ wishes.
After awhile, Jessica Charlotte became pregnant with Frederick, which was when she first came to the old house where Omri’s family now lives. She didn’t have any money and couldn’t work while pregnant, and because she was unmarried, she would have been considered shameful if people knew. At that time, the house was a farmhouse belonging to a relative of Frederick’s father. By that point, Jessica Charlotte realized that her boyfriend wasn’t a good person and wasn’t going to be a good father to their son, but he did arrange for this relative of his to help her through her pregnancy. Frederick was born in the house, and because he was illegitimate and sensed his mother’s complicated feelings about him and the circumstances of his birth, he and his mother were never as close as they really should have been.
Meanwhile, Maria got married and had a daughter, Lottie, who was Omri’s grandmother, the one who was killed in the war. Jessica Charlotte says that she did something that wronged Maria and Lottie, and Omri stops reading the diary for a time, but he decides that he really has to continue and know the full story.
Over the years, Jessica Charlotte lived a hard life, supporting Frederick through a mixture of acting and other odd jobs, including fortune telling because of her psychic abilities (although she never used her gift to see into the future for herself or anyone close to her because she was afraid she might see something bad happen to them and be unable to stop it). Meanwhile, Maria was living a very comfortable life with her husband and daughter. Even after their parents died, Maria still had Jessica Charlotte visit secretly because of her tainted reputation, and she never wanted to meet Frederick or talk about him because his birth was the cause of her sister’s scandal. Still, Jessica Charlotte continued to see her sister and became fond of Lottie.
However, Maria was basically a pampered snob who didn’t understand her sister’s life and hardships and also had a streak of self-centeredness. One day, when Lottie was a young child, Maria said that when Lottie was older, she didn’t want her to see so much of her aunt, implying that Jessica Charlotte would be a bad influence on her. Jessica Charlotte was deeply offended by that, but she was also fearful about losing the last family members who were still speaking to her. She had lost so many of her other relationships that she still felt the need to be close to Maria and Lottie as much as she could and visit their pampered and comfortable little world, enjoying occasional tastes of their happier and more comfortable lives.
Yet, Jessica Charlotte’s jealousy for Maria’s pampered life and anger at her callousness continued to eat at her. One day, when Maria was showing her all of her nice jewelry, Jessica Charlotte got the urge to steal a beautiful pair of earrings. First, Maria was being, at the very least, thoughtless and callous for showing off all of her nice jewelry to her much poorer sister, who could never have things like that herself. Maria not only had no concept about what her sister’s life was like outside of her occasional visits, but she purposely never asked her about how she was doing, how her son was doing, or even where they were living, how they were getting by, if they needed anything, or if she could help them in any way. She didn’t know because she didn’t want to know any of these things, and the fact that she didn’t want to know any of that indicates that she knew enough to understand that their circumstances weren’t pleasant. To show off all of her pretty things like that just seems like rubbing it in. Second, Jessica Charlotte had been in need for so long that she saw all of the pretty jewels as symbols of Maria’s comfortable life, something she hungered for herself. The pair of earrings weren’t something that Jessica Charlotte wanted just for the sake of having them but because of what they represented to her, the life that she couldn’t share in and which she knew that Maria would soon shut her out of when she declared that her visits with her young niece would have to stop soon.
Jessica Charlotte planned out the theft in advance, making a duplicate key for her sister’s jewelry box and thinking that her sister would just assume that she’d mislaid that one pair of earrings somewhere. Unfortunately, when Maria noticed that the earrings were gone, she thought Lottie had done something with them, and when she kept insisting that Lottie tell her where they were, Lottie got upset and ran out of the house into the street. Matt, Maria’s husband and Lottie’s father, chased after her and was hit by a cab and killed. Jessica Charlotte felt terrible when she heard the news because she hadn’t meant for anyone to get hurt, but there was nothing she could do to take it all back.
Omri knows how Maria and Lottie’s lives went after that point because of what his mother told him about their family history. After Matt died, Maria and Lottie didn’t have very much money to live on, just a little pension, and then their house was burgled, and many of Maria’s nice things were stolen, including the rest of her jewelry, so she couldn’t sell them for extra money. Maria had to move to smaller, cheaper lodgings and get a job for the first time in her life in order to support herself and her daughter, living a life closer to what her sister had been doing. When Lottie was grown and married, she and her husband helped to support her mother, but after they were killed in WWII, Maria took in Lottie’s daughter (Omri’s mother) and had to keep working in order to raise her. Although they were now living in more equal circumstances, the two sisters did not become close again because of Jessica Charlotte’s guilt about what she’d done. Jessica Charlotte ended up buying the old house in the country where her son had been born and told her sister that she was going to live abroad, never telling her exactly where. She had not expected to see Maria again anyway since Maria was planning to cut her out of her daughter’s life before Jessica Charlotte stole the earrings, and after Matt died, Jessica Charlotte couldn’t bring herself to face Maria. Jessica Charlotte lived in the country house until her death in 1950.
When Jessica Charlotte became too weak to write any longer, shortly before her death, she had Frederick finish the story in the notebook. Aside from the difficult feelings between Frederick and his mother because of the circumstances of his birth and the rough and poor childhood he endured, Frederick also says that the two of them don’t really get along because they are very different types of people. When he was grown, Frederick went into business as a metal smith, eventually owning his own factory that made toy soldiers and other metal toys. During WWII, the government had him convert his toy factory to manufacture munitions. He wasn’t happy about it, but it did make him fairly well-off. After the war, Frederick had hoped to go back to making metal toys, but plastic was coming into vogue as the material of choice for toys, and Frederick couldn’t stand the stuff. He thought that the newer plastic toys were cheap and shoddy compared to his detailed works of art in metal. (It was kind of true.) There were basically two choices before Frederick: convert to making the cheap plastic toys he hated or switch to making different types of metal products. He switched to making metal boxes and cabinets.
Frederick never really believed in his mother’s supposed psychic powers, but when he was upset about plastic ruining his metal toy business, he admits that he let his mother talk him into participating in a silly ritual. He was so angry and upset that his emotions were ruining his health, so his mother told him to build something to put his feelings into and shut them away. Frederick built Omri’s magical metal cupboard. When he was finished making it, his mother had him visualize cleansing himself of all of his anger and hatred of plastic and shutting that feeling away in the cupboard. To his surprise, his mother shut and locked the cupboard with a different key from the one that he’d made to put in the cupboard’s lock (her key to her sister’s jewelry box). He thought that this ritual was kind of crazy at first, but he did feel better after he did it. He felt weak for a time, but then he recovered. He still didn’t like plastic, but not to the point where it harmed his health anymore.
Jessica Charlotte had said her son had also inherited her psychic “gift”, even though he didn’t believe in it. Apparently, his strong feelings about plastic produced a kind of magic spell or curse that affected the key and the cupboard and created the effect of bringing plastic toys to life. Jessica Charlotte discovered this herself because her son had given her a set of plastic figures in order to demonstrate to her how these little figures were inferior to his metal ones. Jessica Charlotte put them in the cupboard and brought them to life, and these little friends of hers brought her some happiness in her final days. Frederick thought that her mother was imagining that she was talking to fairies or something and never found out about his mother’s little friends or the magic of the cupboard.
When Jessica Charlotte realized that she was dying, she used the cupboard to send her little friends back to their own time periods, except for one little maid named Jenny, who refused to go back because she’d had a terrible life in her own time. Instead of making her go back, Jessica Charlotte confided in one of the workmen fixing the thatch on her roof and gave Jenny to him. This man, Tom, was lonely because his wife left him for someone else, so Jenny was good company for him for many years, until one day, she simply turned back to plastic suddenly. When Omri finds Tom as an old man and introduces himself as Jessica Charlotte’s distant nephew, Tom explains all of this to him, saying that all he can think of is that Jenny’s physical body must have died in her own time after having been in an apparent coma for years. He buried her little plastic figure respectfully. Tom is also the one who sent the cupboard and key to Maria after Jessica Charlotte died along with a note dictated to him by Jessica Charlotte, hinting at the nature of the cupboard and key and tacitly admitting to the theft of the earrings, so Maria knew the truth of the theft before her own death.
Omri comes to realize that the metal box that Jessica Charlotte left behind, and which was sealed with wax, must contain her collection of little figures. When his friend, Patrick, comes to visit him at his new house, Omri explains the whole situation to him, and Patrick suggests that Omri’s magic key will probably open this metal box, too. Of course, he also points out that if Omri opens the box with that special key, it will bring the figures inside to life, just as it has with the cupboard and Omri’s old trunk. Omri sees Jessica Charlotte’s old figurines as a way of finishing her story and feels compelled to bring them back to life one last time, although he knows that bringing figures to life always comes with complications, and he will have no way of knowing who or what the figures are until the box is open.
When Omri gets the chance to talk to Jessica Charlotte’s little friends, he not only learns more about his great-great-aunt’s past and the history of the cupboard but also sees an opportunity to change the past of his mother and great-grandmother by preventing the robbery that made them poor. But, if he meddles in the past, what will that mean for his future?
The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).
This is my favorite book in the Indian in the Cupboard series. I suspect that the author of the series didn’t originally have an explanation for why the cupboard and key were magic, but that’s just a guess on my part. The explanation behind the magic in this book makes sense, and those parts that didn’t quite mesh with the earlier books (like Omri’s brother’s original explanation of finding the cupboard in an alley) were briefly explained. Sometimes, when book or movie series try to explain something magical or a mysterious secret they’ve left hanging, it turns into a let-down because the explanation feels rushed or implausible or fits clumsily into the earlier parts of the story, but this one was pretty smooth, intriguing, and also opened up some new story possibilities.
In previous books, Omri and Patrick both did impulsive things with the cupboard that put their small friends, themselves, and other people in danger, but in this book, both of the boys seem to have matured. Although Patrick thinks of Jessica Charlotte as a bad person and a thief for stealing her sister’s earrings, Omri tries to explain to him that she was a much more complex and conflicted person than that. Yes, Jessica Charlotte was a thief, but her motives were beyond mere greed, and it wasn’t long before she regretted what she’d done and the lasting hurt that she’d caused her family. In considering Jessica Charlotte’s theft and the theft that the burglar who was one of Jessica Charlotte’s little friends later committed against Maria, partly out of personal greed and partly as retribution against Maria on Jessica Charlotte’s behalf, Omri and his mother both come to terms with their family’s history. Patrick, who in previous books had been the more impulsive one when he and Omri interacted with the little people from the past, acts as a restraining influence in this book when Omri is tempted to change his family’s past for the better by preventing the thefts that left his great-grandmother without money. Patrick is the one who makes it clear to Omri that, just as Jessica Charlotte’s theft of a single pair of earrings radically changed the lives of her sister and niece, if Omri tries to stop those events from happening, he might change his family’s past so much that he might accidentally prevent himself or even his own mother from being born in the first place. After Omri tells the thief to give back the jewel box he stole, Omri worries that he’s gone too far, but it turns out that one request was actually fated to happen, just as it turns out that Jessica Charlotte later realized that she had met Omri briefly in what she thought was a dream when he brought her plastic figure to life. Not all of Omri’s “meddling” with the past was really meddling but was actually part of what was fated to happen and has already had an effect on the past even before he knew it.
At the end of this book, something that Omri has alternately dreaded and wanted to happen: his father discovers the secret of the cupboard and meets Omri’s small friends. In books, there is usually this assumption that if parents ever find out about their children’s magical adventures, they will end because the parents will put a stop to them or somehow, the magic will be ruined. However, in this case, the magic is not ruined, and there is one more book in this series where both Omri and his father take part in the magic.