Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bob-Whites in the big city

Next in our Trixie adventures is The Mystery of the Blinking Eye (1963).

I should start off by saying that I'm biased - while the book is hardly problem-free, it's one of my favorites in the series, mostly for its portrayal of a bygone era New York. Consider it a lingering effect of doing Guys & Dolls as a high school play (see photo evidence to right).

"A lot of people think of New York City as being full of nothing but taxis, high buildings, and gangsters," says our heroine. Since those three things take up a decent portion of the book, she might have chosen something else as her straw men, but we'll go with it.

(By the way, those taxis the Bob-Whites ride appear to take credit cards - in 1963. Somehow that went away, because the taxi-credit-card thing was a big deal in 2007.)

The Bob-Whites are spending a week at the Wheelers' pied-a-terre, a Central Park West penthouse, in order to play tour guides for their Iowa friends Barbara, Bob, and Ned. They visit the Statue of Liberty, the American Museum of Natural History, the United Nations, and all sorts of other landmarks that give the book a bit of a travel-guide feel.

And of course there's a mystery, too, this one involving a message in a purse (one that somehow retains its rhymed couplets when Miss Trask translates it from Spanish) and "three of the cleverest, most ruthless jewel thieves in the world."

Oh, and some choice vocabulary from Mart:
"Why do we always pirouette to her peremptory Pied Piper piping?"
Who meets his match:
"I don't care what it cost. In fact, I find myself curiously nonchalant about the whole fugacious performance," Mart said smugly.

"But not aphonic... rather ebullient," Bob said glibly and grinned mischievously.
But enough with the story; let's get to the atmosphere.

While there's certainly a sense of urban glamour
When they went down into the street after dinner, a fairyland spread around them. Whizzing cars threw their lights ahead in a golden blur. Red, blue, and green neon glowed to outline the names of theaters, restaurants, and even little tobacco and candy shops.
the Bob-Whites are aware of the city's underside, mostly thanks to the experiences of one member:
Dan laughed. "My budget didn't run to cabs when I lived in the city - my budget required making use of my own two feet."

"You must have had a wonderful life, turned loose in New York," Ned sighed with obvious envy.

"It wasn't what you might think. An orphan on the streets is not a person for anyone to envy, no matter who he is... I sure did get in with a bad bunch of kids here in the city. I never want to see any of them again. They're down around the Bowery and the waterfront."
Now, I'm not saying that today's New York is a big playground - check out A Wish After Midnight if you need a reminder of that - but this was the pre-Giuliani city, complete with SROs, Times Square sketchiness, and the results of Robert Moses' urban renewal.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Not the next book in the series

This is when we start skipping around in the Trixie Belden timeline. You may have noticed that the last book was #8, and now we're on Book 10. There's a very simple reason for it: I'm lazy. I've never acquired a copy of Trixie Belden and the Happy Valley Mystery (though I have read it, and can tell you that it involves Iowa, agriculture, basketball, and a boat ride) and don't expect to pick up a copy any time soon.

(Defensive? Moi? Hardly. Just disorganized.)

Anyway... instead we'll move on, to a world of child prodigies, herbal remedies, pirate legends, and unique names.

I'm serious about that last one. Ezarach Martin is a character in The Marshland Mystery (1962), part of said pirate legends. And according to Google, that's the only place that name turns up. The search yields matches from Trixie references, the e-mail addresses of several people with the last name Zarach, and pages in a language I don't read. It would seem that whoever wore the Kathryn Kenny hat this time around made it up.

The child prodigy is a diminutive violinist named Gaye Hunya, of some never-defined European background. (Also unanswered: If her guardian, Miss Crandall, is her father's sister, then where does Gaye's last name come from?)

Gaye's in town to perform as guest soloist with the local symphony, and she and Miss Crandall spend a few days at Manor House. From her first appearance, she's well on her way to diva status, as Brian explains:
"Our temperamental little friend is to appear as guest soloist with the symphony. And she gave a recital at Carnegie Hall when she was only five years old. Her father was a famous European violinist."
Naturally, she makes a complete nuisance of herself, just when Trixie has decided to go into plant collecting on behalf of her science teacher. Mart doesn't make it easy for her to figure out where to find specimens:
"There is one, but you probably didn't think of it as a swamp. It's called Martin's Marsh, but that would convey nothing to you, dear sister, because you, with your complete lack of familiarity with you native tongue, could hardly be expected to realize that marsh is simply a synonym for swamp."
Ah, Mart. Not so high-and-mighty after you dump blueberry pie all over your shirt, are you?

Thanks to Mart's clumsiness, I now know (at least in theory) how to get blueberry juice out of clothing. I also know that tansy is thought to be a freckle remover - oh, and white settlers pretty much figured out how to use native plants all by themselves. Seriously, I couldn't read this exchange without imagining Debbie Reese's reaction:
"Oh, yes. Miss Bennett says that when the pioneers were living in deep forests miles and miles from any doctors, they had to make up remedies for practically everything. I suppose they had to experiment a lot before they found the right ones. Of course, they learned a lot from the Indians."

Honey looked impressed. "I never thought of the Indians as people who needed medicine. The pictures always show them marvelously healthy, even if they must have nearly frozen lots of times, not wearing much clothing!"
Moving on, because I just don't know what I can say about that...

A couple other tidbits from the text:
  • The Wheeler household has expanded to include a butler and some assistant grooms. It's hard to picture Regan allowing anyone else in his stables, but whatever.
  • Sergeant Rooney represents Sleepyside's finest this time, instead of Sergeant Molinson. Feel free to correct me, but I don't believe Rooney gets any more appearances.
  • I can't take credit for this one, but - Di and Honey tease Trixie about the bracelet Jim gave her in Book 9, even though they "knew it wasn't really a sentimental gift, but they liked to make Trixie blush." Since when does "you're my special girl, Trixie" count as not sentimental?
  • Who says TV isn't educational?
    Trixie's blue eyes sparkled suddenly, and she reached over and pulled a bobby pin from one of Honey's long golden-brown tresses. "Let's turn burglar! I saw a girl in a TV show use one of these to open a door."
  • As always, Diana gets the opportunity to show that she's not the smartest Bob-White in the Glen:
    "Probably a bottle of myrrh, whatever that is," Di said dreamily. "Why don't people write romantic things like that nowadays?"
    Okay, so it was used in perfume. Still, "romantic" isn't the first thing I'd associate with myrrh.
Oh, and about that pirate thing:
"The legend is that Captain Kidd, the notorious pirate, was a friend and business partner of old Ezarach Martin, who owned all the land for miles around the swamp. So it was natural to suspect that Kidd buried a lot of his treasure in the swamp."
Ezarach (and his name) may have been made up by the Kathryn-Kenny-of-the-moment, but the Captain-Kidd-on-the-Hudson story wasn't. Although we tend to equate the golden age of piracy with the Caribbean (even before Johnny Depp rocked the kohl), Kidd reportedly spent a fair bit of time up this way, and as a result there are, in fact, rumors of his treasure being buried somewhere along the Hudson.

I'm not much for digging up swamps, but if you ever come across a pile of doubloons in Westchester, let me know.

A mitzvah?

Diversity - or more properly, the lack thereof - in kidlit has been a hot topic in our corner of the blog world lately. Some of the discussion has focused on historical fiction and its insistence on focusing on particular periods, especially slavery and the Holocaust.

Which is why this paragraph from recent non-kidlit reading caught my eye:
"To the 613 mitzvot counted by the rabbis, [Emil] Fackenheim added one: Thou shalt not grant Hitler a posthumous victory... Part of the obligation of this commandment rests with Holocaust remembrance, but it can go too far. We can read only so many books... Of those that have Jewish content, what percentage should be about the Shoah? Ten? Fifty? At what age should children be taught about these horrific events?... If the child cannot respond and later feels that she already knows all about it, the impact of remembrance is lost."
It's from Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews, by Melvin Konner.