Monday, October 12, 2009

The Bob-Whites added Arizona to "Places I've Been"

(In other words, Sarah Schmelling's Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float is definitely worth a read. And maybe a place in English classrooms, for when you need a break from comparing Poe's brand of horror to that of Ambrose Bierce.)

Sorry about that. Totally unsolicited (and uncompensated) book plug over.

Actually, Trixie could use a dose of lit humor in The Mystery in Arizona, since she starts the book by announcing
"I'm not passing math and English, and it's all your fault, Honey Wheeler. I would have spent more time studying if I hadn't been having such fun up at your place skiing, sledding, and skating on the lake."
Sure you would.

But even though Trixie's failing two of those tedious classes, her parents decide it would be too cruel to keep her from joining the rest of the Bob-Whites on a trip to Diana Lynch's uncle's dude ranch.

Which leads to important questions like this:
Would she, Trixie, stick out like a sore thumb if she didn't wear things like real cowboy boots and a ten-gallon Stetson hat?
The idea of the Other is predominant in this book, from "genuine" cowboys to "Navaho" jewelry to "ancient Aztec" customs. Arizona is exotic territory for the Westchester-bred Bob-Whites. Not surprisingly, the book is filled with headdesk moments, which I'm not going to bother quoting.

But the book does have some fun with the Otherness of the West, in terms of both the ignorance and expectations of tourists.

At a rodeo, one guest assumes all those fancy clothes are just costumes:
"I always thought you wore those kerchiefs as decorations. I mean, instead of a necktie. And those things you wear on your legs - chaps - they're just for fun, aren't they?"
And when one of Trixie's mysteries gets cleared up:
"A lot of the dudes wouldn't like it if they knew I was working for my Ph.D. They want their cowboys to behave and talk like the cowboys theyve read about and seen in the movies and on TV."
Sure, there's value in confounding expectations and overthrowing stereotypes, but it doesn't bring in as many tourist dollars.

Trixie doesn't get to escape schoolwork, even on vacation:
"Jim has given me ten absolutely impossible problems. They're all mixed up with fractions and decimals and yards and miles and square feet with a few gallons and ounces thrown in."
And later:
"I did those in school last month," Trixie told him with a sniff.

"That's right," Jim said with a mischievous grin. "The idea now is for you to do them correctly."
Finally our intrepid heroine admits why her grades are so bad:
"The truth is that I have no patience. If I had, I wouldn't have had the answer come out in gallons instead of square miles."
Which is why just about every math class - and a decent number of my science classes - made such a big deal about getting the units right. It's so easy to confuse area and liquid volume.

At the end, Jim does take a break from tormenting Trixie to dance with her. And we add another "aw" moment to the collection.
"You've got to wear one of those darling new dresses you bought in Peekskill."

Trixie shrugged. "I suppose I will, but I won't be responsible for the consequences."

"I will," Jim said gallantly. "As my partner, you will be the most graceful lady on the floor."