I was going to read Surprise Island, and then comment on it, but every page is such a treasure trove of clichés, naïveté, and ridiculousness, that I think I might have to grace you with a running commentary.
Chapter One: The First Surprise
The book begins with Grandfather lovingly telling his grandchildren that he bought them an island, *cough* I mean, his father bought an island a long time ago, and they can stay there ALL SUMMER. He’d visit, but he’s just too busy.
Grandfather: (Shrug.) “But boy, I sure will miss you kids. It will be ever so quiet without Benny crying about milk and Watch barking at every gosh darn squirrel in the yard, and Henry constantly hammering on his next woodworking project” (a bookcase that leans crookedly to one side and can only support the weight of a few magazines).
Grandfather cleverly threw away all the supplies usually kept at the island, so his heirs will have the fun of buying all new things. The highlight of this chapter is when Grandfather tells them not to spend too much money, and they all laugh uproariously because they are fantastically wealthy and can buy anything they desire! Mwuhahaha!
Jessie harps on about bread and milk, which must be some symbolic thread that runs through all the books that I am just not picking up on, because otherwise I’m not sure why it needs to be mentioned in every chapter. Did Gertrude’s family own a bread and milk conglomerate? Because, stop me if I’m wrong, but despite Jessie’s many exaltations to the contrary, bread and milk are NOT adequate nutritional staples to live on. I love that she claims that they can live on bread and milk, ‘even if there’s nothing else to eat.’ It’s like she already has a sneaking suspicion that Grandfather is going to dump them on a deserted island and collect the insurance money.
Grandfather has kindly arranged a chaperone for the children, a Captain Daniel, who has acquired a possibly deranged young man as a roommate. Despite the fact that there is a seemingly perfectly serviceable empty house on the island, Grandfather commands that the children sleep in the barn. Which of course THRILLS them, because what do orphans love more than sleeping on scratchy piles of pine straw? Scratchy piles of hay of course! Henry is delighted by the large amount of scrap wood left behind by ‘workmen,’ which he can use for all his ‘woodworking projects.’ And of course there is cold water nearby, so everyone is pretty stoked.
Chapter Two: Housekeeping
Henry’s old friend Dr. Moore goes by and checks out the mysterious itinerant stranger that lives with the Captain. I guess solely because someone has to be a responsible adult and make sure they aren’t leaving four prepubescent teens with a serial killer. Dr. Moore is easily satisfied with ‘Joe’s’ tale of digging for Indian stuff and falling off a cliff and getting amnesia, because that all sounds pretty plausible. Joe even tells him his secret identity, which must be a doozy, because Dr. Moore agrees to deceive the whole family. I am desperately hoping that Joe will be revealed as Grandfather’s love child, or the orphans’ secret older brother, or even royalty forced to assume a peasant ruse to protect himself from an evil queen.
But who are we kidding? It’s probably just someone’s cousin that dropped out of college or something equally boring with zero reason for being a secret.
Grandfather is almost concerned about the hobo living with his grandchildren, but the lure of a kid-free summer filled with hookers and blow wipes any objections from his mind.
The group goes back to the mainland because Benny is all in a froth to ‘buy things.’ I like to think of him running down the aisles of the Pottery Barn, blindly grasping anything off the shelf to satiate his consumerist frenzy. It’s kind of disheartening how quickly these children have evolved from orphans satisfied by trips to the dump, to possession-driven machines. They decide that their school clothes are ‘too nice’ to wear exploring the island, so they have to buy new clothes. Specifically to get them dirty. Ugh, rich people logic.
Grandfather almost panics when Henry tries to once again convince him to come along. I actually laughed aloud here:
“He knew the children would not go at all unless he were careful. ‘I wouldn’t go with you if I could. I need a little rest without any children or dogs around.’
Sly like a fox Granfather. Tread carefully, or you might not be able to convince them to leave. The kids try to pretend that he is kidding, imagining some sort of twinkle in his eye, but deep down, they know they are just lying to themselves.
The rest of the chapter is taken up with the children washing their dishes and discussing the ubiquitous bread and milk.
Chapter Three: The Garden
Shockingly, Henry discovers a garden in this chapter. He meets ‘Joe’ the handyman for the first time, and learns that Grandfather has forced Captain Daniel to cultivate two gardens, so that Henry can have his very own to muck around in and pretend to grow things. It’s mid-summer, so literally everything in the garden is already planted and ready to harvest, but the children still enjoy pretending like they had something to do with this end result. Several scintillating pages are devoted to the girls shelling the peas, and Henry building a ‘dish cupboard,’ which I’m pretty sure consists of nailing two crates together. Then the kids eat the peas.
Chapter Four: Clamming
Because we haven’t gotten enough about food and it’s preparation in the previous chapters, now we get to read about the orphans digging out clams. After that educational program, the group goes swimming, where once again they encounter ‘Joe.’ I’m sure he’s not following them or anything. He tricks Benny into going into the deep water, which everyone considers to be a good thing. Flush with his success integrating himself into the children’s confidences, he foolishly makes a grave mistake identifying flora for Violet. This sets off alarm bells for Henry, because how would a handyman, who does menial jobs for low pay, know such scientific terms, like, “red seaweed,” and “green seaweed,” and “brown seaweed??” As he falls asleep, Henry muses his suspicions to himself.
“That handy man knew an awful lot about seaweed for an uneducated rube. And he knows a lot of colors.”
Better watch out ‘Joe.’ There’s no getting things past Henry.
Chapter Five: Summer Plan
The gang takes a break from eating to explore the island. After finding such exotic treasures as rocks, flowers, and shells, Henry has the brilliant idea that they should make their own museum. All of them tell him how brilliant this is.
Actually this is something I can see myself probably really enjoying as a kid, but I also read The Boxcar Children books all the time. So my thoughts are suspect.
Violet helpfully makes a list of what they should collect for the museum:
You know, so they won’t forget.
‘Joe’ is going to town, so the kids ask him to pick up some library books about rocks, flowers, and shells because learning is fun.
This results in a PLOT TWIST where we the reader learn that ‘Joe’ doesn’t even need to ask the librarian for help finding books because he already knows bunches of science books.
Based on all the heavy handed foreshadowing about ‘Joe’s’ scientific knowledge I am guessing he is either a mad scientist or a teacher.
Chapter Six: The Museum
Disappointingly, I now find all of ‘Joe’s’ scientific acumen to be suspect, since the book titles that he so suspiciously needed no librarian assistance to find are:
The Flower Book.
The Shell Book.
The Butterfly Book
Henry is again very suspicious of ‘Joe’s’ superior rock, flower, and shell knowledge.
Henry: (to himself). “This ‘Joe’ character seems to be having a very easy time identifying these rocks, flowers, and shells. He must be very intelligent to be able to look them up in the books that he brought, compare the object to the picture, and tell what it is. I don’t believe a regular handyman would possess such skills.”
While Henry is straining his mental faculties, the others are preparing the museum. There’s another heavy-handed hint of ‘Joe’s’ mystery identity when we learn that he receives two daily newspapers. Don’t worry Henry. He probably just uses them to wrap fish in.
Grandfather sends the children sweaters as a gift. Violet’s turns out to be *spoiler alert* purple, and she internally sighs with repressed disappointment. Jessie takes this as a sign that the weather will soon get cold and then it does. I am kind of wondering if the children are living in a kind of biodome controlled by Grandfather. If some sort of Hunger Games break out I’m not going to complain.
It rains during the night and the roof leaks. Henry has to stay up all night to empty the buckets when they fill up, because it would be inconceivable to let them overfill and ruin the nice dirt floor of the barn that they are living in. Benny complains about his bed being ruined, and I have to restrain myself from reminding him that his bed is a pile of hay. It has mice poop in it. Shut your trap Benny and GO BACK TO SLEEP.
The next morning it is still raining, and Henry has a conundrum. He can’t go out in the rain in the clothes he’s wearing because they’ll get wet. He won’t be able to change into his other clothes because they’re already wet from Jessie washing them. (I almost suggested to Henry that he could just wear his slightly damp clothes since they are immediately going to get wet anyway, but I knew no one would listen to me.)
Jessie and Henry decide the best way to solve this dilemma is to cut up all their blankets and make Henry a new outfit. Princess Consuela suggested to me that perhaps they came up with this plan so that Violet would have the joy of then turning the pants back into a blanket, seeing as she hasn’t gotten to hem anything so far. But I think that is way overestimating the intelligence of these children. Benny finally speaks up to point out that Henry could just wear his swimsuit, and then they could keep the blanket, for, you know, sleeping purposes or something.
It’s a sad day when your six-year-old little brother is the voice of reason.
Chapter Seven: Exploring
After breakfast (we are spared the preparation detail), the crew goes exploring. Violet brings her sketchbook, because she paints now. I get the feeling that Violet is going to be cast as the Sensitive Artist character, what with her needlepoint, and painting, and general quiet reflection on where her life went wrong (clue: when she agreed to run away with her siblings and live in an empty train).
They quickly find a huge pile of clamshells, which is a big deal apparently. Then they explore a cave and easily discover multiple Indian artifacts, which they pocket in the hopes that maybe they can sell them to a real museum.
Because that’s just what they need: more money.
Lucky thing they have Watch, because the dog is the only one intelligent enough to notice that the incoming tide is flooding the cave. They literally don’t notice until the water is deep enough to swim in.
They narrowly escape drowning, but no one’s too worried about it.
Chapter Eight: Indian Point
‘Joe’ is intrigued to hear about the shell pile that the kids found, because apparently he’s never seen it before, and it’s a sign that Indians once lived there. I’m going to ignore the fact that the Indian arrowheads are probably a more obvious sign that Indians lived there, and focus on the fact that ‘Joe’ has never seen this pile of shells before.
Firstly, ‘Joe’ has already told us that he grew up here. I would assume that he would have wandered by a huge pile of shells sometime during his childhood. Let’s pretend he was lying about where he grew up. It’s been mentioned multiple times that this is a very small island. I’m imagining a few miles circumference. I have a hard time believing that this pile of shells is even out of sight from the barn.
But that’s probably more believable than the children and ‘Joe’ launching their own archeology dig by the shell pile, and immediately turning up about 50 priceless artifacts. Including a skeleton with an arrow right through his ribs.
Goonies never say die.
Chapter Nine: A New Violin
Mysterious music leads the children to Captain Daniel’s, where ‘Joe’ is playing a real violin. Violet, the Sensitive Artist, is mesmerized, and just wants to hold the violin, and clutch it to her chest, and cry bitter tears because it is so beautiful, and she feels so alive inside for the very first time, and has an indescribable urge to buy ironic tshirts and listen to obscure synthesizer bands.
Jessie wakes up to crying, and surprise, it’s the Sensitive Artist, in tears because she can’t play the violin (and has never seen Blitzen Trapper in concert, probably). Jessie and Henry quickly reassure her that Grandfather will buy her the best violin ever—and she goes back to sleep happy that she is super rich.
Sure enough, Grandfather has someone (not himself, not going to ruin the Summer of George over at the Alden mansion) buy her a violin first thing in the morning. It’s probably a Stradivari. The others go fishing while she practices with ‘Joe.’
Then shockingly enough, Jessie cooks the fish. And they eat the fish. And they talk about cooking and eating the fish the entire time.
Chapter Ten: Grandfather’s Visit
Grandfather sobers up enough to realize that maybe he should go check in on his four underage grandchildren that he’s abandoned on an island, and stops by for the afternoon. He feigns interest in their little museum and anecdotes, probably while daydreaming about his massage appointment at four and cursing his wicked hangover. Jessie invents a delicious drink, which consists of milk, sugar, and eggs (yes, to DRINK), and he has to choke it down with a smile on his face.
Suspicious ‘Joe’ is suspiciously missing even though he (suspiciously) knew Grandfather was coming that day. Methinks that Grandfather knows ‘Joe’….(fingers crossed) longlost son, longlost son, longlost son….
Oh, yeh, and Grandfather takes the kids to a real museum, and then he’s all “This is my museum. My museum kicks your museum’s ass. And also I’m fantastically wealthy.”
That’ll teach them to use their IMAGINATIONS.
Chapter Eleven: Apple Pie
Jessie makes an apple pie. A stranger stops by, which no one regards as weird, even though they are on a private island. Mr. Browning is looking for ‘someone that used to go exploring for him.’ He thought he was dead, but he heard a rumor he was alive on Alden Island. For all their professing of great friendship with ‘Joe,’ the kids immediately spill all his secrets to this stranger that they just met.
Henry: “It’s probably him Mr. Browning. He’s supposed to be a handyman, but he knows all of these things about seaweed. It’s highly suspicious and I’ve been waiting and waiting for him to really slip up so I can report him to the proper authorities. Impersonating a handyman is just not right, and I won’t stand for it.”
Chapter Twelve: The Picnic
When ‘Joe’ returns, the children, his friends, are surprisingly tight-lipped about their little tete a tete with the mysterious Mr. Browning. Not even Benny drops a hint that some—possibly nefarious—stranger is looking for ‘Joe. ‘ Instead, the children distract him with the idea of throwing a party for their friends. They need his help because they’re not allowed to start fires by themselves. Now if you harken back to Boxcar days of old, you’ll remember that they set fires then all the time without adult supervision. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of them burned down Grandfather’s garden shed, and now they’ve lost their campfire privileges.
This picnic looks even more like a diversion tactic when we find out that the children invited their school friends. Yeh, like those are real.
Benny’s ‘friend,’ Mike, is a real hell-raiser, and he’s annoying all the older children until he ‘accidently’ is injured, forcing him to stay in sight the rest of the morning. However, he recovers enough to disappear with Benny, where they find an old letter in a bottle, that SURPRISE is a letter from their Grandfather when he was a boy, mapping the path to some BURIED TREASURE which turns out to be five bucks. Which they give to Mike because he won’t shut up about it.
That thrilling plotline is interrupted when shouts from the water reveal that someone has fallen out of a boat! And he can’t swim!
‘Joe’ rescues him, but not before muttering some suspicious things under his breath, that of course Henry overhears. The drowning boy ends up being Mike’s older brother, who gate crashed the picnic with his buddy.
Chapter Thirteen: Joe Again
It’s Benny’s birthday, and of course he has ridiculous demands about his cake and his meal and the preparation of the above mentioned. ‘Joe’ joins them for dinner, and Mr. Browning shows up!
And then we have ‘Joe’s’ big reveal as ‘John!’
And by big reveal, I mean, Mr. Browning calls him John, and then Joe/John is like, “oh btw, my name is John. I was in an accident awhile ago and had amnesia, but I’ve been better for like, a year now, just didn’t feel like telling anyone. Even my best friend, Mr. Browning—thought it was best to just hang out on this island with a senile old fisherman instead. Oh, almost forgot! Hoho, silly me. I’m also your cousin. Your Grandfather’s been sick with worry about my disappearance, but for some reason I’ll never explain, I decided to just let him freak out while I hung out on his island.”
Chapter Fourteen: Everybody’s Birthday
Everyone is thrilled that Joe/John is their cousin and that the shock of the discovery didn’t kill Grandfather, and they name the island ‘Surprise Island,’ which everyone thinks is SO CLEVER, and then they eat. I don’t want to ruin the story by describing in detail every thing they ate, but unfortunately Gertrude wasn’t so thoughtful.
Chapter Fifteen: Good-bye Summer
Joe/John (he continues to call himself Joe even though now we know his real name) announces to the children that they are no longer allowed in the cave full of Indian artifacts, because skilled archeologists (himself, and probably his drinking buddies) are needed to ‘properly’ excavate the site. By blowing the whole top of with dynamite of course.
Benny is seriously pissed to be denied a dynamite experience, and for the first time acts his age—by throwing himself on the ground and throwing a fit. The rest of the chapter is a boring and unnecessary trip to look at lobster traps. The one bright spot is—as always—Grandfather and his mysterious puppet-master ways. Why can’t the children go in the Yellow House? What ‘plans’ is he cooking up for them next?