Mystery Behind Dark Windows

MysteryDarkWindowsMystery Behind Dark Windows by Mary C. Jane, 1962.

Recent years have brought misfortune to the formerly wealthy Pride family.  First, Tony and Ellie’s father was killed while on a business trip on behalf of the family’s mill.  Then, the workers in the mill went on strike, and the children’s grandfather died.  Their Aunt Rachel blames the strikers for putting stress on her father while he was still grieving for his son, thereby causing his death.  Because of that and because she doesn’t believe that she can handle the running of the mill herself, she has closed down the mill, putting all of the workers out of a job.

The townspeople of Darkwater Falls struggle to get by without the mill and are angry with the remaining members of the Pride family for the lay-offs, but Aunt Rachel thinks that their suffering is earned and so does nothing to help.  If Aunt Rachel would be willing to sell the mill to someone who would put it back into good use and employ people, the community’s problems would be solved, but Aunt Rachel can’t bring herself to do that, in spite of the offers she’s received and the urging of the family lawyer, Mr. Ralph Joslin.  She has high hopes that Tony might revive the mill one day when he’s grown up, and in the meantime, she wants to punish the strikers with unemployment and underemployment.  However, Aunt Rachel, absorbed in her personal pride and bad feelings, is ignoring some serious issues.  The taxes on the disused mill are costing the family dearly, the equipment is rusting, and Tony isn’t even sure that he wants to go into the family business.  Tony and Ellie are unhappy with their family’s situation, their aunt’s bitterness, and the way many of the townspeople now look at them, but they’re not sure what to do about it.

MysteryDarkWindowsMillSearchThen, one night, Ellie goes out to look for her aunt’s missing cat and hears someone in the old, supposedly empty mill.  When she tries to tell Tony, he doesn’t take her seriously, but Ellie knows what she heard.  Ellie later goes back to the mill to take another look at the place, and she sees Jeff, a boy from Tony’s high school, hanging around.  Later, she confides what she’s heard and seen in Hank, an old friend who lives on the other side of the river, and Violet, another girl from her class whose family has suffered since the closure of the mill.  The two of them start helping Ellie to investigate.

Some people in town have become concerned about children in the area getting into trouble, and they think that maybe some of the local youths have formed a gang.  Ellie worries about Tony, who has started sneaking out of the house at night to hang out with friends.  Is he now part of a gang?  Are he and his friends the ones who were sneaking around the old mill? Or could it be some of the disgruntled townsfolk, bitter about the mill remaining empty and not providing much-needed jobs?

While the kids have a look inside the mill, they discover that someone has been using the place as a hideout.  A fire at the mill reveals a number of secrets and sheds light on a town and a family caught in a cycle of bitter feelings and revenge.  Aunt Rachel is stunned when some of the townspeople accuse her of setting the fire herself in order to get insurance money for the mill.  The fire was clearly arson, and since Aunt Rachel has gone out of her way to make life difficult for people in town, many of them would be ready to believe just about anything of her.  It’s up to the young people to put the pieces together and reveal the true arsonist before the mill, the town, and the Pride family are completely destroyed.

Many of Aunt Rachel’s decisions are guided by a mixture of grief and anger, but she is also stubborn and prideful.  The Pride family was aptly named.  Although they have suffered misfortune, their privileged position as the (former) main employer of the community has given Aunt Rachel the sense that she and others in her family could do no wrong.  Aunt Rachel is absorbed in herself, her own feelings (which she places above others), and the past to the point where she feels justified in deliberately causing harm to her community and the people in it, failing to see the consequences of her actions, even the effects that her attitude has on the orphaned young niece and nephew in her charge.  Ellie feels like they don’t have a real family because her aunt’s bitter feelings prevent her and her brother from getting close to their aunt.  Her aunt’s actions have also made it difficult for her and Tony to get along well with other members of the community, further isolating them from comfort in their own grief.

In a way, the fire brings Aunt Rachel back to reality, forcing her to see the consequences of her actions (and inaction).  It comes as something of a shock to her that, while she felt fully justified in her bad feelings for the town, they are also fully justified in feeling badly about her.  Somehow, it never occurred to her how someone, doing the things she’s been doing and saying the things she’s been saying, would look to the people she deliberately set out to hurt.  For most of the story, the only feelings that were real to Aunt Rachel were her own.  Even when she thought about how people hated her, she didn’t think that what they thought would matter until she began to see how it was affecting Ellie and Tony as well as the other children in town.  Ellie can see that many things would have been resolved sooner if both her aunt and her brother could open up and discuss things honestly, both within the family and with other people.  Although neither of them set the fire, their secretiveness and self-absorption at first create the impression that they did.  Ellie’s eventual outburst at her aunt and the real guilty person force both of them to acknowledge the reality of their actions and motives.

I was somewhat fascinated by the motives of the arsonist, who understands the effects that Aunt Rachel’s bitterness and revenge have been having on the young people in town, even her own nephew, better than she does.  This person was wrong in the path he tried to take to fix the situation, but he does correctly see that unemployed men not only lack the money they need to properly take care of their families but may also set a bad example for boys and young men, either through the habits and attitudes that they let themselves fall into or by becoming too absorbed in their difficulties to see what’s happening to their own children.  I also agree with his assertion that those responsible for putting people out of their jobs bear some responsibility for the results of their actions, something which resonates in today’s economy, where many people are still unemployed or underemployed.  The Pride family’s previous high standing in the community was directly because of their ability to employ people and improve the lives of others.  When they began making life hard for others and refused to use their ability to help people, they lost that standing.  Aunt Rachel was just the last to realize it, which was part of the reason why she was surprised to discover just how badly the town thought of her.  She didn’t have a good reputation because she had done nothing to earn one, no matter what her family used to do.  She was no longer using their powers for good, so she turned herself into a villain.  However, it’s important to point out that the arsonist isn’t really in the right himself because, as Ellie points out, the spirit behind his actions isn’t much different from her aunt’s.

Ellie is correct in pointing out that both her aunt and the arsonist were wrong, not just because of what they did, but because of the feelings and motives behind it.  In their own way, each of them set out to deliberately hurt others because they had each been hurt.  Which of them was hurt first or hurt worse ultimately doesn’t matter.  Their mutual desire for vengeance against each other not only hurt the people around them but kept each of them from doing what they needed to do in order to heal their own wounds.  That is also a message that resonates today, in these times of political division, with two large parts of society trying to one-up each other and even actively harm one another, largely because they can’t stand the idea of someone wanting something or believing something that they don’t.  Whatever the circumstances, when people focus on winning on their own terms, no matter what the cost, everyone loses in the end.

Toward the end of the story, as Aunt Rachel and the arsonist begin making grudging apologies to one another and reluctant steps to fix things, Ellie decides that grudging and reluctant aren’t good enough and finally gets up the nerve to tell them what she really thinks, what they most need to hear:

“Just selling the mill won’t make things better . . . It’s the way [they] feel about it that’s wrong. That’s what made them act the way they did in the first place. They just wanted to get even with people, and hurt people, because they’d been hurt themselves. And they feel the same way still. You can see they do.”

How much can people help what they feel? It partly depends on what people choose to do about their feelings.  Actions guide feelings, and feelings guide actions.  Aunt Rachel and the arsonist indulged their bad feelings, nursing them, amplifying them, and making them their first priorities, the guiding force of their actions.  As long as they keep doing that, Ellie knows that the problems aren’t really over, and everyone will remain trapped in this bad cycle.  Ellie’s honest outburst finally breaks through to both of them, showing them what they really look like to others and making them reconsider their feelings and priorities.

One of my favorite characters in this story was Mr. Joslin, the lawyer.  Although he looks a little suspicious himself for a time, he is actually a good man, who looks after the family’s interests and genuinely cares about them as well as about the town.  He is the one who convinces Tony to be honest with his aunt about the friends he hangs out with and helps persuade Aunt Rachel to see things from others’ point of view.  He loves Aunt Rachel, in spite of her faults, and is honest with her about those faults, telling her what she needs to hear.  Of all the characters, with the exception of Ellie, he seems to have the most insight into other people’s feelings and situations.  He supports what Ellie says, quoting Lord Bacon, “A man who studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.”

A Hugga Bunch Hello

HuggaBunchHello

A Hugga Bunch Hello by Phyllis Fair Cowell, illustrated by Ron C Lipking, 1985.

Bridget likes having her grandmother living with her and the rest of her family. Her grandmother always has time for her and is willing to give her a hug. Her parents are often too busy, her brother thinks hugs are just for girls, and her Aunt Ruth is too fussy.

Then, Aunt Ruth tries to persuade everyone that Bridget’s grandmother should go live in a nursing home. Bridget doesn’t want her grandmother to leave, but she doesn’t know what to do about it.

While she worries, a strange little person steps out of her bedroom mirror. This little person is Huggins, one of the Hugga Bunch. She says that she knows about Bridget’s problem and thinks that she can help. She invites Bridget to come with her to Huggaland.

HuggaBunchHelloMirror

In Huggaland, the Hugga Bunch take Bridget to see the Book Worm, who may have the solution that Bridget seeks. Both the Hugga Bunch and the Book Worm say that aging can be slowed by affection and “the knowledge that they are needed,” but Bridget thinks that the only solution is to find a way to actually make her grandmother young again.

The Book Worm says that if that’s what Bridget wants, then her grandmother must eat fruit from the Youngberry Tree. Unfortunately, the tree is in the territory of the Mad Queen of Quartz. Although the Hugga Bunch are afraid of her, Bridget is willing to face her for her grandmother’s sake.

Getting there involves going through a few obstacles, including walking sideways on a sideways sidewalk and facing a frightening beast who turns out to be a baby elephant who was under a spell. When they reach the tree, the mad queen takes them prisoner and turns Bridget into a statue. Fortunately, the others manage to break free and save her.

HuggaBunchHelloTree

Bridget is happy at being able to bring the Youngberries to her grandmother, but as she passes through the mirror into her room, she accidentally drops them, and they disappear.

Not knowing what else to do, Bridget runs to give her grandmother a hug before she leaves, encouraging her brother to do the same. Bridget’s father wasn’t happy about her grandmother leaving, either, and seeing how much the children will miss her, he declares that she should stay.

This book was made into a made-for-tv movie.  It is currently available on YouTube.  It follows the plot of the book pretty closely.

Magic Elizabeth

MagicElizabeth

Magic Elizabeth by Norma Kassirer, 1966.

Young Sally’s parents are away on a business trip, so she’s been staying with Mrs. Chipley, but now Mrs. Chipley has a family emergency to tend to. Mrs. Chipley’s daughter is ill, and Mrs. Chipley needs to go and help her with her children. While Mrs. Chipley is gone, there is only one other person for Sally to stay with: her Aunt Sarah, an elderly woman who Sally doesn’t really know. Aunt Sarah moved to California when Sally was just a baby, and the only reason why she has returned is that she has decided to sell her old house.

MagicElizabethArrival

Sally is a rather shy girl. She’s uneasy around Aunt Sarah, who is obviously unaccustomed to spending time with children, and Aunt Sarah’s creepy cat, Shadow. The house is old, chilly, and filled with strange things. However, Sally is enchanted with the bedroom that Aunt Sarah gives her and the portrait of a girl and her doll that hangs on the wall. The girl looks very much like Sally herself, and Aunt Sarah tells her that the girl was also called Sally and lived in that bedroom as a child, many years ago.

MagicElizabethKitchen

Fascinated by this earlier Sally and her beautiful doll, modern Sally decides to try to find the doll. Although her aunt tells her that she shouldn’t go poking around in the attic, Sally can’t help herself. She finds a trunk with Sally’s name on it full of girls’ clothes, just the right size for modern Sally to wear. There is a doll in the trunk also, but it’s not the same doll as the one in the portrait. When Sally reads the diary in the old trunk she learns the reason why. The doll in the picture, Elizabeth, was lost many years ago, when the earlier Sally was still young. As modern Sally plays dress up with the earlier Sally’s old clothes and studies herself in the mirror, she finds herself taken back in time, seeing the house through earlier Sally’s eyes. In the past, it was a busy and happy household with parents, an elderly aunt, earlier Sally, Sally’s little brother, and Sally’s pet cats.

A short time later, Aunt Sarah wakes modern Sally on the floor of the attic, and they assume that it was all a dream, but this look into the past changes Sally’s feelings about the house and her aunt’s cat, who suddenly seems friendlier and reminds her of the mother cat she saw in the past. Aunt Sarah also seems a little less stern as they discuss earlier Sally and her lost doll. Aunt Sarah says that no one ever saw the doll again after it disappeared on Christmas Eve all those years ago.  Earlier Sally had put the doll on top of the Christmas tree, like an angel, and after the family finished singing Christmas carols, the doll was gone.  They could never figure out what happened to her.  Modern Sally thinks that sounds very sad and wants to investigate the mystery of the missing doll, although Aunt Sarah isn’t very enthusiastic. She says that if the doll could be found, it would have been found long ago, and the earlier Sally has long since grown up and no longer needs it. Although, oddly, Aunt Sarah remarks that the earlier Sally had always thought that Elizabeth was “a little bit magic.”

Modern Sally continues to look for the doll anyway and also continues having moments when she sees the past as the earlier Sally did many years ago, especially when she looks into the mirror in the attic. One day, she invites a neighbor girl named Emily over, and while the two of them are looking around the attic, Emily finds Elizabeth’s old doll bonnet. The girls are excited because they now know for certain that Elizabeth is still in the house, waiting to be found. The girls are running out of time to find her. If Aunt Sarah agrees to sell the house, it will be torn down to build apartments. But, Sally falls ill with the flu, and it isn’t until Shadow gives her an important clue that Sally realizes where Elizabeth must be.

This book is currently out of print, but it’s one that I’d dearly love to see in print once more!  It is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction and Spoilers

Adults reading this story will probably realize before the children do (spoiler) that Aunt Sarah herself was the earlier Sally, the one who lost her favorite doll many years ago. “Sally” is a nickname for Sarah, like “Molly” can be for Mary and “Peggy” can be for Margaret, although any of those names can also be used by itself.  (In the Middle Ages, it was common for popular names to get different variations of nicknames by changing one sound in the original name and then changing one more sound in the first nickname to get another one, and sometimes even moving on to change one more sound to get yet another nickname that was very changed from the first. Those nicknames that look significantly different from their original names are a holdover from that practice, having lasted even into modern times.  John/Jack works on the same principle.  Fun fact!)  When Aunt Sarah grew up, she stopped using her childhood nickname, but the name was passed on to modern Sally.

At first, modern Sally sees her stern aunt as being witch-like, all dressed in black and fussy, but gradually, the memories of the past, her new relationship with young Sally, and the finding of her slightly-magical doll soften her. There are hints of Aunt Sarah’s youth in the attic, although Sally at first dismisses thoughts that some of the lovely things there could have belonged to her cranky old aunt because she has trouble thinking of her aunt as once having been young, pretty, and sweet. However, part of the theme of the story is that everyone was young once. Aunt Sarah is is bent and achy from arthritis, giving her the witch-like appearance and making her short-tempered at times. She also hasn’t been around children much for years, and part of her fussiness comes from forgetting what it was like to be young herself. Modern Sally, with her resemblance to her elderly aunt, and Elizabeth the doll both work their magic on her, reminding her what it was like to be a young girl and helping to revive a more youthful spirit in her.

I was happy that (further spoiler) Aunt Sarah decides not to sell the house after all, not just because she and Sally will get to spend more time together, but because old houses like that are rare these days. I like the idea that the old family heirlooms in the house will now be preserved, like the sleigh out in the old barn and the melodeon, a type of small organ.  I liked the way the book described the melodeon making musical sounds as people walk past it because of the way the floor boards move.  I also loved the description of the gas plant that Sally sees in earlier Sally’s memories.  If you’d like to see what a gas plant looks like when it’s lit, have a look at this video on YouTube.MagicElizabethMelodeon