So, I was totally going to copy Rhymenocerous and live blog The Yellow House Mystery. There is just so much here to work with. I started taking notes and everything. And then I noticed that I had pages and pages of notes and I was only on chapter 4 and at this rate I was probably never going to finish the damn book because I was spending so much so time writing down my thoughts. So I abandoned that plan and I’ve opted to summarize instead so that we don’t test the character limits of wordpress. It still might be long. Like I said, I have a lot of thoughts, and without my witty commentary you could just read the jacket copy instead of this post. I know you come here for the snark.
When we last saw the kids, dear Joe revealed that he is actually their long lost cousin John who had been suffering from amnesia but is totally fine now. He just didn’t say anything for reasons that are not even a little bit clear. (Sidebar about a developing trend: Grandfather’s young relatives seem to avoid him like the plague until they come around and adore him again with no obvious reasons for the sudden change of heart.) Joe appears to have abandoned going by John altogether, and I’m guessing it’s because the kids were resistant to the change. They know him as Joe, so how could they possibly switch his identity in their minds to John? Grandfather is more flexible, I suppose. Or he just calls everyone “my boy” and doesn’t bother learning anyone’s name. This habit also comes with the added bonus of hinting at condescension and possessiveness, which will remind everyone of how rich and powerful he is. He is such a rich and powerful citizen that he can’t be arsed with anything so pedestrian as learning names. Anyways, turns out that the-handyman-formerly-known-as-John-but-now-known-as-Joe is actually an archaeologist (remember how he was suspiciously knowledgeable about the colors of flora and fauna for a mere Mr. Fix-it? There is no fooling that Henry. Sharp as a tack, he is. Except studying about ancient cultures still doesn’t explain why he’d know all about modern day flowers and shells, so Henry probably still suspects him of something shady. Unless he figures that book learning is book learning and it doesn’t matter what you study because it all makes you smarter than people with practical skills) and is excavating the cave that almost became the kids’ watery grave in Surprise Island. Instead of doing it the slow and careful way that archaeologists everywhere prefer, he’s opted to blow the top off of the cave with dynamite. This seems like a great way to protect the artifacts buried inside, especially after he made the kids stop digging in the cave because they weren’t being careful enough. They talk a lot about how easy it was to find the arrowheads and tools when they first discovered this little treasure trove last summer, so it seems reasonable to blow whatever is sitting on top of the sand to smithereens to make it easier to get to them. If there are any cave paintings a la Lascaux, they’re being sacrificed on the altar of convenience, too.
Anyway, the book opens with Joe calling Benny to come over to the island to watch the blasting. Benny is obviously excited – what seven year old wouldn’t be? Of course the other kids are also beside themselves with anticipation, so in this case, it’s not just because he’s seven. Maybe they’re putting on a show of being as excited as he is, but somehow I doubt it. That would be a lie, and I think we all remember the crisis of conscience Henry suffered in book 1 about whether he was being honest enough when he only gave his first and middle names to Dr. Moore instead of providing all possible information at once. I also don’t think they’d fake enthusiasm to humor Benny. They go on and on about how it’s going to be SO MUCH FUN to blow up a cave and possibly destroy valuable evidence. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Anyway, they all fall all over themselves getting ready, charging up and down the stairs and creating quite the hullabaloo. Just when Violet points out that they couldn’t possibly go without Grandfather (no more running away from him like he’s the devil incarnate. They’ve gotten over that and are now crazy co-dependent instead), his driver pulls up. What, did you expect Grandfather to drive himself? He is a wealthy business TYCOON. As they all head out to the island, the kids are pretty worried that Joe is going to blast without them, which makes me wonder whether they’ve been punk’d by him before. Why would he bother to call and tell them to come over to watch them blow the top of the cave off if he’s going to go ahead with it before they get there? I’ve decided that the idea of wasting time is what is bothering the kids instead. They don’t strike me as the kind of people who enjoy lazing around and relaxing – if they had gotten all ready to blast a cave open and then been told to wait, they would probably drive themselves crazy with the waste of perfectly good worktime. In just a few pages, we’ll see Henry going to school, then to rowing practice, and then straight to the island to haul boxes of rocks and artifacts around every single day. If they didn’t have something to do all the livelong day, they would drive themselves to distraction. The idea of waiting around probably makes them antsy. They are all going to grow up to be workaholics glued to their Blackberries 24/7. Except Jessie. Jessie absolutely adores to keep house (more on that later), so if she has a Blackberry, it’s going to be for organizing the ultimate soccer mom schedule, probably with projected menus, a list of outfits worn and to be worn for all family members, various music lessons, and upcoming science projects.
The blasting is exciting, sure, but this is the age of Mythbusters, and we’ve seen explosions aplenty. Instead, the most important thing that happens in this chapter is that we meet Alice. There is a thrilling debate about whether Alice is a girl or a lady, but everyone agrees that she’s awfully pretty, and Jessie likes her at once because she has such a beautiful smile. Superficial much? Please. PEOPLE ARE BEAUTIFUL ON THE INSIDE, JESSIE. That’s what counts. Remember that Alice is also an archaeologist. Maybe you could like her for being smart, too. Of course, since she’s cosigned on the whole cave-blasting business, it’s possible that she’s not the most careful scientist. Or she’s just humoring Joe since Grandfather is bankrolling this operation, and she needs the work. I can’t imagine that there are a lot of opportunities around for female archaeologists in the 50’s, so she might be taking what she can get. Or she has ulterior motives *cough* golddigger *cough*. This is the most likely scenario IMHO. Benny is the only one who picks up on the fact that Joe & Alice are secretly dating. You’ll know that he’s noticed something no one else has when he says HO HUM. That’s the signal in this book, and it happens pretty regularly. Now that he is uber rich and doesn’t spend all his time crying for milk, he might be the smartest of them all, ho-humming along while he waits for his siblings to catch up. Sometimes it takes a while – Henry’s probably still contemplating the source of Joe’s incredible knowledge about colored seaweed, Jessie is ALWAYS focused on keeping house, and Violet is likely plotting ways to incorporate other colors into her wardrobe and decor, even though she is named after a color. HO HUM – Benny predicts a wedding, and two pages later Joe and Alice are engaged. Everyone is ecstatic, of course (seriously, when do these people not get worked up into a tizzy over news of any kind). Jessie is relieved – she’s been worried about Joe being lonely living in the house with just the four kids, Grandfather, and a passel of maids and other servants. It seems that he has the top floor all to himself, making him the Uncle Jesse of this scenario, especially now that Alice is also going to move in. These guys don’t bother with Uncle Jesse & Aunt Becky’s rules about treating their attic apartment like a separate house, though, with requirements about knocking, boundaries, personal space, etc. Grandfather & the kids barge right in whenever they please. For instance, when they are pining for Joe & Alice after the wedding, they all go up and Grandfather settles into an easy chair to watch the kids rummage through the wedding gifts that have arrived so far (sidebar – a lot of this seems to be canned food, including a whole ham. Who gives potted meat as a wedding gift? I think that their so-called friends actually hate them.) Jessie is giddy thinking about how much fun they’ll have keeping house up there, of course. Sometimes I wonder if she ever thinks about other things.
They planned the wedding for when school is out to suit the kids – they don’t want them to be too busy to fully participate in this life event. I’d imagine that the BCC are involved in TONS of extracurricular activities, and a wedding might interfere with their busy schedules. I think that they know the kids will do all the work if they let them, and since we know that Grandfather will shell out all kinds of dough to keep them occupied and out of his hair, it’s a win for everyone. The kids get the fun of planning and organizing (imagine Jessie’s joy at the thought of making a seating chart and Violet’s enthusiasm about hemming all the dresses), Joe and Alice get a big, fancy wedding, and Grandfather is left in peace to conduct the covert activities of his choosing. Naturally the nuptials go off beautifully, probably thanks to a lot of sleepless nights for the staff at Alden Manor who do the actual work. Violet wears purple, of course, and plays the wedding music on her violin. She’s been playing for a year, so she’s probably mastered it by now. Jessie wears blue, as usual, and Watch wears a festive ribbon. Henry & Benny’s outfits surprisingly don’t merit a mention, but I’d imagine that, not being two wild and crazy guys, Benny wears red and Henry wears green. When everything is over and the happy couple has gone off on their honeymoon to the barn on Surprise Island (don’t even get me started on all the ways this is the worst wedding trip ever) the kids really start to miss Joe & Alice, and so they go up to the top floor apartment for the aforementioned rifling through their things. Even this invasion of privacy doesn’t cheer them up, and they decide that what they need is a story, so they ask Grandfather about the little yellow house on Surprise Island and why no one is allowed to go in there anymore. Except obviously they can’t just ask. Henry brings it up, but he’s worried he’s being rude, so they talk about that for a while before he ever asks the question. Once Grandfather actually starts telling the story, a pause prompts the kids to beg him not to continue if he doesn’t want to. They are seriously worried about dredging up history. All signs point to an unspoken shadiness in the past. Grandfather finally gets a word in edgewise and is able to give us all the rundown.
The Aldens used to own a lot of racehorses, and they lived in the barn on Surprise Island. (I understand from our resident equine expert Rhymenocerous that this is a ridiculous premise, but roll with it. It won’t be the first or last time you’ll be asked to stretch your imaginations to accommodate these stories.) A man named Bill McGregor was in charge of the horses, and he lived with his wife Margaret in the little yellow house. It seems that Bill was a bit of a doormat and would do anything that his brother Sam told him to do. Sam was involved with bad people. I like to imagine that they were moonshiners or mobsters or both. Anyway, Bill sold two horses, but he never gave the $4,000 to old Mr. Alden, and he disappeared a few days later. The police came out, of course, but these are the worst Barney Fife cops that I’ve ever heard of. Their crackerjack sleuthing that consisted of looking under the barn and the dock didn’t reveal any clues at all about Bill’s whereabouts or the letter he was seen reading a few days before. Margaret points out that she thinks the clues are the grating noise she’s been hearing and the paint she’s been smelling for the past two nights, so these guys take up the rugs in the living room and shine a light down the chimney. Unsurprisingly, they come up empty, and the trail goes cold. Grandfather points out that the police in those days weren’t as good as they are now, but this is just pitiful. No one seems to raise a fuss about how useless they are, though. Margaret moves into the big house and becomes the housekeeper for the Alden family. Naturally, the BCC are ecstatic to find out that their very own Mrs. McGregor is at the heart of a mystery, and they are dead set on solving it. Grandfather is skeptical – after all, what are four kids going to find that the police didn’t? It’s like he didn’t listen to his own story about their efforts (or “efforts.” Let’s be honest here. This is a safe space) to find Bill. Everyone is raring to go, and then they realize that they can’t possibly go without Joe and Alice. These kids are seriously codependent. The atmosphere at this realization is like a deflating balloon. Fortunately, the newlyweds drive up in a BRAND NEW STATION WAGON right at that very moment, so everyone piles in and heads out to the island to search for clues. That was a very close call – they were right on the brink of spiraling back down into a codependent depression with no one there to entertain them.
Once they’re all in THE VERY ROOM where Bill sat reading just before he disappeared, they take a tally of what could make a grating noise, and Benny volunteers the chimney. Everyone humors him – their responses are all described as “kindly” and “gently” – but you can tell that they’re secretly thinking that there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that the chimney has anything to do with it. They’re all betting on the drawers in the desk and table and the floorboards, none of which contain the letter Bill was seen reading. I don’t blame them for thinking that the police might have missed it if it wasn’t sitting on top of the desk with a red flag on it. They do find a paintbrush covered in whitewash, which the police had deemed unimportant, even though one of the major clues was the smell of paint, so you can see what they have to work with. While everyone rests after their efforts to suss out a clue by disassembling the furniture, Benny goes to work on the chimney, tapping bricks with a hammer, and LO AND BEHOLD HE FINDS ONE THAT SOUNDS DIFFERENT. They pull the brick out – grating noise – and there is a letter in the hole! Did I mention that the chimney is painted white? Seriously, worst cops ever. I’ve decided that they were in cahoots with Sam and the bad crowd, and that must account for their total incompetence. No other explanation is necessary. Hopefully they were getting paid in moonshine.
The kids are on a roll now. The letter mentions Bear Trail and a little house in Maine, so obviously they have to go check that out. Turns out that Joe used to be a guide on Bear Trail, and he knows all about it! It’s like Christmas come early. And, as if things weren’t exciting enough already, they can take the new station wagon! A frenzy of getting ready to go camping starts up. Joe wants to buy everything once they get there (why not? They are SUPER rich, and it’s not his money), but Grandfather insists that they get ready here so that he can see what they’re taking. He doesn’t trust them to buy enough blankets to keep Violet warm, apparently. She is a delicate flower. Benny is pretty excited about the dehydrated and canned food that they’ll be eating. He volunteers to carry the bacon and eggs around.
They drive to Maine in the station wagon (such a great purchase!), and stop by the store to buy all the things they’ll need. Apparently once Grandfather was satisfied that Violet would be warm at night, he lost interest in supervising the rest of the packing. The storekeeper remembers Joe from his guiding days (incidentally, NOT as John Alden, but as Joe Alden, even though this was a pre-amnesia job – cogitate on that for a bit), and there is a lot of dull description of their conversation and what groceries they purchase. Once they finally get in the canoes and underway, Joe and Henry do all the paddling. Violet is probably too precious to paddle, and Benny would be too enthusiastic, but you’d think that Jessie & Alice could take a turn. Have you guys ever paddled a canoe? I get tired after about five minutes, and even though Joe & Henry are probably better at this than I am, I still think they’ll need a break. Alice actually does volunteer to help if Henry gets tired, but the rowing captain is probably too proud to ask. The next several chapters are all about the canoe trip, and nothing really exciting happens. There’s a lot of making & striking camp, cooking dinner, and wildlife sightings. All of it is greeted with boundless enthusiasm. I won’t bore you with the details. And then, on the last lake, a storm comes up! Finally, something worth reading about. All their food washes overboard, and they have to camp at an undesignated campsite. It starts off a little scruffy, but Jessie takes the ax and gets it cleared off in no time. Violet stands around shivering and everyone is concerned. Same precious flower. Joe is worried about how the kids will fare in this pickle, but he shouldn’t concern himself. They soon start reminiscing about the dear old boxcar days, especially after Alice and Benny rescue a bag of potatoes to cook. Jessie is concerned that they don’t have any salt or butter to eat on the potatoes until Henry reminds her that they should be happy to have anything at all to eat and maybe she could make the best of it. As they go to bed that night, Benny declares that they shall call this place Potato Camp. And they DO. Forever afterwards.
The next day they reach Old Village, the end of Bear Trail. They haven’t found any clues about Bill McGregor’s whereabouts so far, but they are undeterred. In fact, they are still pretty excited about looking for more clues. They start to ask all of the denizens of Old Village if they know anyone by that name. Sadly, no one knows anything about a Bill McGregor. This is disappointing, but the kids are still determined to make the best of it. They settle in a house that campers use and start to tour the village. A Native American girl is weaving a basket nearby, and Violet immediately goes over to learn a new crafting skill. Also, the kids never pass up the opportunity to make a friend (they’ve already befriended the restaurant owner). Violet is making her own sweetgrass basket after about two minutes of lessons from Rita, and everyone is ooohing and aaahing over her new skill when they realize that Benny is missing because he doesn’t have something nice to say about his sister. Naturally, everyone is frantic, and Jessie starts crying (I bet you thought that Violet would be the one to fall to pieces, didn’t you? I know. I was surprised, too). They all start running around like chickens with their heads cut off until someone points out that they need to act like grownups if they’re ever going to find Benny again. It’s a small village, and he can’t have gone far. They run back to the restaurant (a good call – Benny never passes up an opportunity to eat), and Jim hasn’t seen him, but he does point out that the local Indians can find ANYTHING in these woods, and that Rita can probably help. They all charge back to Rita, who is probably picking up the basket that Violet flung aside in her distress and thinking that these people are total whack jobs. Nevertheless, she is anxious to use her stereotypical Native American tracking skills, and they all set off to the woods, where she immediately finds clues. They follow Benny down to the hermit’s house, where he has befriended the old man who won’t talk to anyone in town. Obv. A sobbing Jessie tells Benny how worried she’s been about the whole thing, and they all go home. Everyone is all gloomy about the general lack of clues about Bill’s whereabouts, so Benny follows a toad under the house to get away from the depressing atmosphere. It’s fortunate he did, too, because the toad is living in a wooden box that also contains a tin box that contains $4000! Jiminy Cricket! He’s found the missing money! Everything is sunshine again.
HO HUM. Benny put the pieces together once again! Suddenly everyone begins to notice that the house they’re staying in is exactly like the yellow house on Surprise Island. They didn’t notice before because they were looking for a yellow house, and this one is brown. Clearly they’ve never seen a house that has remained unpainted for 70 years. It would be brown either way. The house belongs to Dave the hermit, and Benny realizes that it must be an alias because this is Dave’s house, but it’s exactly like Bill’s house, and what is the likelihood that the two houses would be the same if the same guy hadn’t built them both? So, they all troop back to Dave’s house in the woods. He tries to ignore this invasion of his space by going inside and slamming the door, but we’ve already seen that this family doesn’t know much about personal boundaries. Benny decides to call him BILL, and the man almost has a coronary. But he does come back outside, so we’re going to count it as a win. They take him into town and feed him up (seems that being a hermit isn’t the most lucrative profession) and give him a haircut so that he doesn’t look so much like a crazy guy from Deliverance country. Now everyone is anxious to get him home to Mrs. McGregor for their happy reunion, but they are stranded in Old Village without the station wagon! Fortunately, the storekeeper drives up with it before they can start rending their clothing and pulling out their hair in abject despair. Instead there is much rejoicing about the WONDERFUL TIMING of it all. They make Bill up a bed in the back (again, the station wagon is ABSOLUTE PERFECTION and an AMAZING PURCHASE) and head home. The rest of the book is pretty dull. There’s the drive, of course, where they make up a telegram to send to Grandfather. And then they get home where Bill is welcomed with open arms, even though he once planned to gamble away the money from the sale of the racehorses. Grandfather doesn’t even charge him interest on the four grand that he’s owed for the past seventy years. (Just to give you an idea of the inflation alone – $4000 in 1950 is about $37,000 today if the internets can be trusted). Grandfather is a forgiving man. He’s even going to let him stay and recuperate free of charge. Bill offers to take care of the remaining horses, but I bet he’s never allowed to sell one again.
This concludes our discussion of The Yellow House Mystery. Stay tuned for Mystery Ranch whenever we get around to it.