Once again we find ourselves in the eternal summer that exists in Greenfield. I honestly don’t remember the last time it was a different season. The Aldens are codependently sitting on the porch when Benny casually mentions that his rent-a-friend Max has bet Benny that even the Alden family won’t be able to find an adventure in the sleepy little fishing village where his family vacations. I do enjoy how this is preceded by Benny ‘thinking,’ which consists of him sitting stock-still staring into space for hours before coming up with this simple sentence. I think Gertrude is really spot on with her character analysis in this case.
Max’s status as Friend clearly doesn’t give him the necessary clearance in the Alden Conglomerate to know that Grandfather orchestrates these elaborate schemes to keep his grandchildren entertained and out of his hair. Also, it’s a fair guess that Max is a figment of Benny’s imagination–we all know Mike is Benny’s token friend. What happened to Mike, Grandfather? Max very suspiciously never makes an appearance. It’s sad that the others don’t even have pretend friends. Only the cold comfort of one another.
Jessie is THRILLED with the town idea. “A dull town? That sounds like an AMAZING vacation spot! I wish we were there right now.” Fortunately, Max has already provided Benny with the necessary information for staying in Port Elizabeth, and Benny starts rattling off so many fun facts about the town that I suspect he’s been studying the brochure to prepare. The Aldens unanimously agree that Port Elizabeth sounds like an ideal place to spend the next part of their summer vacation, despite the fact that it means postponing Grandfather’s next surprise trip. Henry thinks that the inhabitants will be so backwoods folksy that he’ll be able to write a college paper about them. (The adjective is his. I think he likes to remind everyone that he is in college now. They probably forget because he’s always at home.) Oh, Henry. It’s a good thing you love school so much. You’re about to get more than you bargained for.
Grandfather: “Now, we’re not going to this dull town unless everyone agrees. EVERYONE. Are you sure that you ALL want to go?” OF COURSE they do. They won’t be deterred by the prospect of boredom. THEY MAKE THEIR OWN FUN. Besides, this is a perfect opportunity to take the station wagon on a sixty mile road trip. With Henry at the helm, they’ll have about four hours to enjoy its smooth ride and agile handling. Oddly enough, there has been no mention of Watch thus far. Usually we’ve waded through about 3 pages of discussion about whether or not he can accompany them on their adventures and why by this point.
As is their wont when they take a town by storm, they stop at the store on their way in. This is an excellent opportunity to let the storekeeper know that they are hella rich so that he can spread the word all over town. It’s the only store on the island, so everyone will be by at some point. It’s a good place to get the rumor mill rolling.
I particularly love that the storekeeper/hotelier Mr. Fenton shows them ‘something I don’t show to all my guests.’ Get your mind out of the gutter, it’s a kitchen. A KITCHEN!!! Take a moment to imagine Jessie’s overwhelming glee. Mr. Fenton goes on to share that there is no where to eat in the whole town, so the kitchen will be invaluable. I can’t help but think of Mr. Fenton’s other hapless hotel guests who aren’t lucky enough to be inducted into the secret kitchen. Do they just eat packages of potato chips and cans of ham while they wait out this hellhole? What kind of hotel is this weirdo running? (Just imagine Benny’s disappointment that they won’t be subsisting on canned ham and pork’n’beans for the duration of this trip. No one appreciates food from a BHP-laced can like Benny. Little does Mr. Fenton know how much potential canned food revenue he’s just given up.)
The Aldens take a drive around the town in their shiny station wagon to let all the backwater poor folk know where they stand. Violet has probably added some rhinestones for extra sparkle by now. They see a mansion on a hill and immediately feel a connection with whoever inhabits the big house. They also drive by a schoolhouse with a strangely-shaped chimney, which Violet points out to heavy foreshadowing.
After a hearty, well-described meal, the group goes to bed, only to wake up refreshed and full of judgement for whomever they may encounter. At the store, they see a set of twins buying some flour with COINS. They don’t even have a black amex or paper money. Mr. Fenton confirms their worst fears of ignorance and poverty by sharing the fact that these island children don’t even have necessities like TVs. It’s like they’re cut off from the whole world, living in an Amazon jungle, wearing loincloths, to hear him speak. It should be perfect for Henry’s paper. For college. Because he’s in college now.
While he has their undivided attention, Fenton takes the opportunity to drop even more knowledge on them – everyone in town works in the sardine factory. Even the kids. Including those cranky twins. Now Benny is confused (shocker). “So they DO have money? Don’t they know you don’t have to do all of that tricky math with the coins when you put everything on plastic? Maybe they carry the change around because of the fun jingling sound it makes in your pocket. I can get behind that.” Satisfied with this explanation, he tunes back in to Fenton, who is revealing that everyone in town keeps their money in stockings instead of the bank. This strikes me as a random thing to share with complete strangers. Even Benny picks up on how easy it would be to lose all of your money by employing this method of “banking.” Is Fenton trying to get a feel for how receptive these newcomers would be to relieving these hicks of their funds? “So, everyone in the family gives their wages to their father who stuffs the cash in a stocking….you know, in case that’s the kind of thing you find interesting…” It’s possible that the bling on their ride has led him to believe that they have cashed in on some hapless rednecks before. When no one picks up on his suggestion, he quickly changes the subject. “Bahahahahaha. Crazy locals. Aren’t their folksy ways charming? Just last summer they were selling old money to a nice, friendly guy with a flashy smile and a flashier car! He tried to get me to sell, too, but I’m smarter than the rest of the islanders. I don’t trust him. Let’s talk about that for a while, and hopefully you’ll forget all about my previous suggestion that we swipe all the money stockings in town.”
Kindly, Jessie and Violet agree to ‘forgive’ the twins for their unfriendliness and bad math skills, because they’re clearly only marginally better-educated than cats. This altruism is further enhanced when we learn what the villagers are saying behind their backs. Adjectives like ‘stuck-up’ and ‘showing-off’ are bandied about. There is some indignant mention of the station wagon’s probable air conditioning. And then one villager (undoubtedly a character actor planted by Mr. Carter) sticks up for them, claiming that everyone else is ‘just jealous.’ This immediately makes everyone recant their previous feelings and want to befriend the Aldens. Just. Like. That.
Several days later, whilst sitting on the beach, watching the fisherman bring the boats in, and complaining about how the whole town reeks of fish and how happy they are not to permanently live in this hellhole, the Aldens make some friends!
Violet is (oh-so-predictably) watercoloring, poisoning the tidal pools by washing her lead-based paintbrushes in them. Marie and Hal Moss are drawn like a flame to her Monet-like talent, and it’s not a few minutes later that the twins beg the Aldens to TEACH THEIR SCHOOL.
Yes, you might be surprised that two children would ask other children of the same age to teach them in summer school, completely unprompted, with no prior knowledge of the Aldens or their ‘qualifications.’ I mean, I’m sure Henry has told everyone he’s come into contact with that he’s attending college, and obviously Violet owns paints, so I can see how they look like Grade-A teaching material, but Jessie? Benny? I can’t suspend my disbelief far enough to imagine that these kids want to attend school in between their chores and hours at the cannery, let alone that they would pick THIS family to ‘educate’ them. I guess Gertrude is operating on the idea that rich=smart?
Anyway, the Aldens are thrilled to finally have an excuse to go harass the woman living in the mansion on the hill. I imagine they’ve been itching to go ring her doorbell ever since Mr. Fenton told them she doesn’t like to be bothered. Now they have the perfect excuse–using the schoolhouse for their ‘educating.’
They’ve been warned that Ms. Gray is a little prickly, but they won’t be deterred. Just look at how they conquered those cross villagers. I like to imagine that Jessie leads them in a rousing chorus of Poor Unfortunate Souls in the station wagon to get their courage up on the way over. Also to remind them that they’re doing it for the kids. Eyes on the prize, etc. They probably do it in a round. I don’t know what the big deal is about Ms. Gray. They just did almost the exact same thing to Lovan back in Mountain Top Mystery, and that turned out fine. I can only conclude that they’re nervous this time because Ms. Gray is rich, and they don’t want to alienate the only other prosperous person in the area. They didn’t learn anything from their experience with Lovan since once again they knock on a stranger’s door and go inside and sit in silence. Benny is already sulking that they’re not getting a very warm welcome, which is ridiculous since they’ve arrived at a stranger’s door uninvited and barged in. He’s basing this conclusion on the fact that Miss Gray isn’t smiling at them like a loon. She didn’t slam the door in their faces or make them explain their errand on the porch, so most people would take the win, but not Benny. If you’re not overflowing with glee that the Aldens have graced you with their presence, it’s just not good enough for him. I suppose we should be grateful that Henry decides to break the silence by explaining their errand before Benny jumps up to lead them in an encore performance of Poor Unfortunate Souls. Small blessings.
Thanks to Ms. Gray’s unsociable ways, the kids get out of there pretty quickly, but not before Henry has had the opportunity to share the fun fact that he is HENRY JAMES and his grandfather is JAMES HENRY. Once she has their names so that she knows who has the keys (because there are so many strangers on the island), the kids skedaddle. “Grandfather! We made everyone on the island except Ms. Gray love us! And we bent her to our will, so all is not lost. WE WIN AT EVERYTHING! And now we’re going to teach school and brainwash them into our ways. Let’s go into town and buy out the school supplies. Then they’ll be doubly indebted to us.”
Everyone jumps at the chance for a nice long ride in the station wagon. After a detailed description about buying out all the school supplies in town, they decide that they need some nourishment, and fortunately there is a restaurant in this town. They’ve really hit the big time. They notice a red convertible in the parking lot, and then a blond guy comes out and flashes a glittering smile at them. “OMG! That must be that shady Money Man that we’ve heard so much about! I don’t know why everyone is so excited about him. Haven’t they noticed how much cash we’ve been dropping in this town? This dude is totally going to steal our thunder. We’ve got to take him and his toothy grin OUT.”
When they get back to the island, the twins are waiting for them with the news about the Money Man. The Aldens grit their teeth through the praises, but they are rewarded for their patience because Marie suggests that they all go CLEAN THE SCHOOL. If there’s one thing that the Alden kids love, it’s cleaning and organizing. And making kitchen utensils out of junkyard trash. And eating canned goods. And cruising in the station wagon. FINE. THEY HAVE A LOT OF HOBBIES. I like drinking wine and watching TV. We all have our strengths.
They’re immediately cheered up by the prospect of some good healthy scrubbing and scouring, but before they all scamper off to the school, Henry points out that they won’t have time to do it that afternoon (don’t try to pre-empt his organizing, Marie), and he immediately schedules out the next two days. The next morning, Henry takes charge. I think we all remember how much he enjoyed organizing Dr. Moore’s garage back in the dear old boxcar days, so this is unsurprising.
Everyone is DELIGHTED with the cleaning. So much so that Benny is taken aback when one of his new
slaves students wants to beg off early. “What could you possibly have to do that would preempt my whims?!” Benny wants to know. Well, no big surprise Mr. Big Grin comes up again. He is purchasing more ‘worthless’ things, like old bottles and enormous scrimshawed whale’s teeth. The Aldens are starting to get wise to the fact that maybe the Money Man is cheating these Poor Unfortunate Souls. Let’s ignore the fact that these people are selling what (to them) is worthless crap, and getting (to them) a lot of money for it. At this moment, everyone is happy with the way these transactions are going, and lets be honest, without the Money Man, what do these people have? Ebay? But the Aldens are about to ruin it for everyone.
The first day of school starts with Benny ringing the school bell for absolutely no reason since all the children have already assembled, and then teaching them to read in about five seconds. But then comes my favorite part–art appreciation taught by Henry. We zero in on the painting of George Washington hanging above the fireplace. I can tell that this painting is somehow integral to the mystery because it has been ‘casually mentioned’ about 200 times thus far. We can also tell it is a very good painting, according to Henry, because the wig looks like real hair. I’m not even going to bother to explain why that made me slowly lower my head to the table.
Benny notices that one of the buttons in the painting is less of a button and more of a straight up hole, but the children don’t have time to investigate, because it is 2 p.m., their standard time for meddling. Grandfather has beaten them to it, and is on his way to Miss Gray’s house.
After letting her know that the Money Man is going to get what’s coming to him, he meets up with his grandchildren. Jessie and Violet look ‘tired,’ literally from ‘thinking too hard.’ Silly girls, when will they learn that thinking is for the menfolks? It’s so adorable how they try, just like a kitten trying to get out of a paperbag.
The family spends their dinner spying on Moneybags, while laughing at Mr. Money’s attempts to con Grandfather earlier that evening.
“Nobody could cheat you Grandfather!” Benny chortles, “you’re the godfather of cheating people!” On their way home from their espionage mission, they get caught by the high tide, and can’t cross back over to the island. Logically, this is a good chance to sleep in the car, just like ALL OF THEM have always wanted to do.
But then, Mr. MoneySmileEvilGenius OUTSMARTS them! He rents a boat! Apparently they can somehow see this while still parked in the woods sleeping in the car. Or maybe just Henry’s spidey-senses were tingling. Regardless, the Aldens quickly go rent a boat too. Mysteriously not only did Cheater McCheaterson rent a boat, but also another mysterious gentleman did as well. THE PLOT. IT THICKENS.
The next day, before school, Benny arrives early for his investigatin’. And lo’behold&etc. he finds WHITE PAINT CHIPS by the window. I suddenly feel the need to capitalize many things. If that clue wasn’t enough to indict Mr. Smooth Operator, the SECRET ROOM HIDDEN IN THE CHIMNEY sure as hell is! Somehow…it proves he’s guilty? Of something? Even though Henry had to basically tear down a wall to find it, so obviously Mr. MoneyforCoins hasn’t been using it.
Anyway, I’m relieved that they found the secret room in the chimney that has been alluded to in just about every vague conversation ever had about the schoolhouse. Similarly, I am delighted by Henry’s college-educated lecture about how ‘most New England homes’ have hiding places in the chimney. I tried my darndest to verify this a la google to no avail.
Then, in a completely illogical and totally awkward turn of events used only to further the plot, Benny happens to visit the island’s library right when Moneypants is sneaking around in there. We know he is up to no good, because even though the library is open to everyone, and he signs the books he takes out of the register, he inexplicably exits via the window. This seems counter-intuitive, as he has, as previously mentioned SIGNED HIS OWN NAME TO THE BOOK LEDGER, effectively checking the books out exactly as the system requires. So why did he climb out the window? Precisely because crooks are shady and confusing characters, I suppose.
Are you ready to find out the identity of the other mysterious man who rented a boat? Mentally prepare yourself for a shock.
It’s Mr. Carter. Even though Grandfather didn’t send for him, he magically sensed he was needed, and showed up, disguised for no apparent reason, as a visiting Englishman, in full ‘Englishman’ garb, which I can only imagine means knickerbockers and tweed everything. And a full on Englishman accent which I like to think is somewhat like Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter–resplendent with phrases like, ‘cheerio,’ and other words that I’m pretty sure he made up.
All the Aldens pretend not to know Mr. Carter, and to not be interested in him, probably immediately blowing their cover by acting horribly unnatural and making awkward eye contact. Benny tries not to smile at him, since Benny smiling at strangers would be such an anomaly.
The Aldens work out a note-hidden-in-a-log system that Mr. Carter will magically know how to locate, and then Benny, Mr. Carter-disguised-as-Englishman and Mr. FinanciallyDevious visit some villagers to watch poor people get weasled out of their rare belongings. Mr. Carter lets the Aldens know that Moneypants is wanted in Canada for smuggling and has all sorts of crimes under his belt (but none as scandalous as stealing library books). Mr. Carter and Benny catch Mr. Canadian Smuggler while hiding in the secret fireplace room (well, naturally). And when Mr. CoinLover (I’m seriously running out of names for him, but I can’t remember his actual name) protests that Mr. Carter can’t arrest him, not being a police officer and all, Mr. Carter informs him that he was ‘made a special policeman a week ago in Northport.’ This just warms my heart. Of course you were Mr. Carter. No surprise to me. That’s how this justice system works.
Then we learn that meddling is part of our ‘duty as American citizens,’ (I expect a medal to be forthcoming), Miss Gray will be continuing the schoolteaching now that the Aldens have cured her agoraphobia by sheer willpower, and Benny gets to tell Max all how we was wrong and is also an idiot.
We get to here another ‘hint’ about what Grandfather has planned next for the Alden children, and Benny says there is ‘almost time to go to the moon.’ This of course gives me a false sense of hope that Benny and his tiresome siblings will be shot into space via a faulty rocket, and it cheers me, if only for a moment.