This book starts out with a bang, naturally, as Grandfather comes in and slams the door. And then slams another door. And he only said ‘hello,’ to Benny, instead of his normal, long-suffering pandering! That’s how Benny knows something is wrong. He immediately goes to Jessie and Violet with this distressing news, but they don’t know what to do, presumably because they’re girls and this is a man’s problem, so they shout for Henry, who girds his loins and leads the troops down to barge through the second slammed door.
Grandfather doesn’t want to talk about it, but are the Alden children going to let someone’s privacy or personal wishes stand in their way? I think not! So, in their usual charmless manner, they force him to tell them about his meaningless troubles. Supposedly this is to repay him for listening to their problems, but I think they’ve been mistaking glazed drunkface for actual concern.
Turns out, Grandfather has a sister. The children aren’t surprised they’ve never heard of her because, as Jessie points out, secret relatives constantly turn up, so it isn’t a big deal. The problem is that Grandfather’s sister Jane is a real bitch. She lives on a ranch all by herself, and after running it into the ground with her bad business decisions, has taken to her room and prepared herself for death. Grandfather has tried his normal problem solving solution–throwing money at it–but that hasn’t worked. And now the caretaker, Maggie, is threatening to leave, because (hilariously) Aunt Jane is literally refusing to let her eat anything. I am confused about how a starving and bedridden old lady is able to prevent her able-bodied caretaker from eating, but this doesn’t raise any red flags for the Aldens.
Predictably, Jessie and Violet feel that they can fix this in a week. Violet LOVES to care for sick people, and this is women’s work if anything is. Ol’ Gertie wouldn’t want to stray from her beloved stringent gender stereotypes. Grandfather, also predictably, jumps at the chance to rid himself of some grandchildren – he’s already packed Joe and Alice off to Europe (you think that they can pay for this themselves? These are people who spent their honeymoon in a barn where they work), where they are probably going by Oliver and Genevieve and selling the Surprise Island artifacts on the black market for ones of dollars. Sending young girls unsupervised on a train to a sparsely populated area with a possibly mentally unstable old woman? Eh, what the hell.
I bet their summer vacation essays are the best.
Somehow they make it through the entire train ride (let’s don’t even talk about how giddy they are at the idea of sleeping on the train) without a single mention of the dear old boxcar days. I feel like we should give them a medal for this achievement. Anyway, the most exciting part here is that Jessie and Violet get to smile at a handsome young man. He mysteriously disappears after carrying their bags for them, but we know he’s a good guy because he’s good looking. The bad guys are always unattractive. God made them that way so they’d be easier to spot when etiquette prevents them from wearing their black hats or twirling their mustachios.
Maggie picks the girls up from the train station with a horse and wagon, which I found exciting until it was revealed that the horse has one foot in the grave and is so old it isn’t capable of moving faster than a walk. A slow walk. I’m assuming that the horse is also suffering from the moratorium on eating since we hear about how thin he is on a regular basis. I want to go in and stuff sandwiches in all of their mouths. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’d appreciate this nourishing snack since Jessie’s idea of a tasty meal is French toast without the cinnamon, and Violet’s mouth waters at the orange-juice-raw-egg concoction that Jessie whips up for Aunt Jane to tempt her appetite. Several hours after leaving the station (I presume) the trio makes it to the farmhouse, which is wonderful, naturally, and the girls get to meet Aunt Jane. Crotchety Aunt Jane is instantaneously charmed by her grand-nieces. I wish I was exaggerating, but literally, just the sound of their voices warms the cockles of her heart and makes her a better person. Immediately. It’s not a full week before Aunt Jane invites the boys to come stay, and maybe a day later before she signs the entire ranch over to the kids. Most people would bequeath it in their will, but Jane is so enamored of her new relatives that she can’t wait.
“I just like you so much, in the like, five days I’ve spent with you, that I’ve decided to sign over everything I own to you. It’d be nice if I could keep living here until I die, but I won’t insist on that, being as how you are all so wonderful and deserve to get everything for free all the time.”
Violet has already picked out her room during her and Jessie’s exploration of the house – “Wouldn’t this room be AMAZING if it had VIOLETS on the wall, Jessie?” This is the Alden way of saying, “step back, bitch. DIBS.”
I’m a little disappointed how there is zero mention in this book about Violet sewing, drawing, or violining. She folds a tablecloth, but that’s hardly the same thing. Instead, she just nurses old Aunt Jane and talks about how her greatest ambition is to grow up to be a nurse. It’s kind of disheartening how she’s already realized that her only two career choices as a woman in the 20s (or 40s or 50s?) is to be a nurse or a teacher. Or, an overzealous housewife like Jessie. There is also an alarming lack of discussion of the color of anyone’s clothing. It’s a good thing that Benny’s comforting fixation on ham and eggs remains, or I’d suspect that ghostwriters had infiltrated Gertie’s study.
Aunt Jane insists that three strange men (that no one has seen) are pressuring her into selling her land. At first I was hoping that this was just the beginning signs of her dementia really setting in, but it turns out that some men were hanging around, camping on her land, and trying to steal her uranium mines! That’s right, this land that Aunt Jane just signed over to the kids, is worth millions of dollars! Except this is the 40’s right? So it’s worth thousands of dollars!
Gee these kids sure are lucky, huh?
Predictably, all the action of accosting the bad guys happens off camera. We do find out however that Handsome Stranger (aka Mystery Man – Jessie would probably collapse into a blushing fit of giggles every time his name came up if they started calling him Handsome Stranger) from the train is just a guy that Grandfather hired to look for uranium. We are told this in a way that implies that Grandfather just has a random guy out looking for uranium all over the country, and it’s completed unrelated to the enormous field of uranium found on his sister’s ranch. Yes, I’m James Henry Alden, and I have so much money that I’ve budgeted for a personal full-time uranium hunter as a cog in my money-making machine. TYCOON, BITCHES. Uhuh. I can’t help but feel the puppet master at work here.
I’m going to take a guess behind-the-scenes in Grandfather’s head:
“Oh no grandchildren, I have a difficult problem only you can solve! My sister is very sick and staying at the ranch I grew up on when I was a child. I am very familiar with this ranch, including the strange rocks everywhere, since the fireplace is made out of them and we mention them in every chapter. Won’t you go help my sick old sister who is probably dying of uranium poisoning since she lives in a house made out of uranium? Try to get her to sign over all the property to you before she realizes she’s sitting on a goldmine. Oh thank you grandchildren you’ve solved all my problems! I’m not hoping you’ll also die of uranium poisoning at all!”
Then guess what? Aunt Jane throws herself a birthday party, and she apologizes to Grandfather because he was right, like he always is, and they give her a puppy and everyone laughs and laughs and has a great time. And then they leave Aunt Jane at the ranch to deal with her four new telephones and their operators, the guard, the miners, and the rest of the minions that Grandfather sent in, and they get the hell out of Dodge before that uranium poisoning becomes serious.