I had no memory of the Caboose Mystery until I picked it up again and the whole crazy-pants plotline came rushing back to me, like the morning after a long night of drinking. Truly, Gertrude outdid herself–it is more bananas than anything we’ve seen so far.
It starts out (just like the Schoolhouse Mystery) with Benny thinking (I hope Benny thinking is not going to become a recurring theme). Benny is musing about how ridiculously eventful his life with Grandfather and his siblings has been thus far…almost ‘unbelievable,’ if you will. I think for a moment that Benny is about to wise up to the fact that his life is in fact a farce, manipulated by Grandfather’s puppetmaster ways–but just as he almost becomes sentient–he is distracted. Damn ADHD.
Grandfather breaks the news that their new adventure will be traveling the world (or a 20 mile radius) in an old fashioned caboose! He actually has rented two, so the boys and girls don’t have to mix, avoiding incestuous scandal. The real surprise here is that NO ONE mentions ‘the old boxcar’ fondly. It’s as if the children have never spent copious amounts of time inside a train car–it’s eery almost–especially remembering a few books back when they wouldn’t shut up about it. I guess all the mind-modifications have damaged their memory.
Grandfather’s ‘friend’ Mr. Carr who manages the ‘cars’ of the train (I mention this only to point out how delightful the children find this coincidence) mentions that the big caboose has a ‘history.’ Benny, with his attention deficit disorder is only half listening and thinks he says ‘mystery.’ Thanks for giving away the plot Benny.
The next morning, arriving at the train yard, there is a mailman hand-delivering letters to Mr. Carr. I’m guessing the postman is integral to the plot by all the detail lavished on him; also he is fat, which the Boxcar children always like to point out with wide-eyed wonder. AND he wants to see the inside of the biggest caboose, ‘just for a moment,’ but there isn’t a moment Mr. Postman because this is a train and trains run on tight schedules and we don’t have time for your mysterious questions!
Benny remarks that he ‘has always wanted to live in a caboose.’ I doubt this very much, not just because that’s a freaking weird thing to have ‘always wanted,’ but also, as aforementioned, THEY USED TO LIVE IN A STUPID BOXCAR! IT’S PRETTY MUCH THE EXACT SAME THING. Grandfather lies and says he always wanted to live in one too, which is a pathetic excuse to try and relate to his young grandson, with whom he shares no common interests. Benny is not yet old enough to enjoy hookers and blow.
The train turns out to be the perfect vacation for the Aldens, as it allows them to enjoy one of their favorite pastimes–sitting down and staring into space. For the next several hours (after exhausting the topic of how fat the postman is) they sit silently, watching the scenery pass by. This might have been more exciting if the scenery wasn’t just endless rows of corn, since we all know the Alden universe consists of only 10-12 actual buildings.
It wouldn’t be a true Boxcar story if there weren’t pages and pages of food descriptions, so I’m unsurprised that the engineer owns some of these corn fields, and they stop the train (was this on the train schedule?!) to pick some corn for dinner. Which they have with hamburgers, even though there is no explanation on how they cook said hamburgers in their caboose. On a train. I guess Jessie is just such a great housekeeper that she grills them with pure willpower.
The train guy, Al (who’s job as far as I can tell is just to babysit the Aldens) tells them that the train will stop in the morning at Beaver Lake. Beaver Lake has real live beavers AND a crazy old man that lives nearby solely to protect said beavers from lawless poachers. AND crazy old man’s name is Old Beaver. It’s pretty much the best thing ever.
Al and the Aldens troop down to the Beaver Lake in the morning and the beavers put on quite a show, doing just about every exciting beaver-type thing that I’ve ever heard of, which is remarkable, and not just because beavers are primarily nocturnal.
On the way back to the train the group runs into Old Beaver, which obviously I saw coming, because you can’t mention that there’s a guy named Old Beaver and then NOT have him appear. Benny introduces himself by pretty much telling the poor guy his life story, ‘and we are also traveling in a big caboose that has the number 777 on it!’ Benny only awkwardly throws in the number on the caboose, creating a sentence that no human would ever naturally use in conversation, so that we can see the strong negative reaction this garners from Old Beaver. How mysterious!
The train stops next in Pinedale, where all the workman stop to point and laugh at the big caboose. Fed up, Benny asks them the story behind 777. ‘Well,’ says the workman, ‘it used to be a circus caboose!’ Oh, finally! That makes sense then. So the men are laughing, I assume, because circuses are funny? Or something?
One of the workman is wearing a tiny hat and large shoes, and despite seeming to be clinically depressed, also inexplicably looks and sounds hilarious. This is of course because he used to be a clown, as Benny quickly intuits. Because once a clown, always a clown–you will never again be able to dress like a normal person. The stationmaster confirms this–not only was he a clown, but he traveled with the circus to which the caboose once belonged! And his name–it’s Cho-Cho. My god, I almost can’t even go on. If that isn’t bad enough, he used to be married to a trapeze artist named–I shit you not–Chi-Chi.
Chi-Chi and Cho-Cho.
I mean, with names like those being in the circus and marrying each other is pretty much your only option.
Chi-Chi was apparently the descendent of a long line of internationally famous European trapeze artists. Ok, totally believable. A king had given Chi-Chi’s mother a diamond necklace, which she then passed down to Chi-Chi. Then Chi-Chi was killed in a tragic (and probably incredibly traumatizing to hundreds of children who were just looking to enjoy a day at the circus) high wire accident. Only Violet and Jessie express emotion at the gruesome tale of Chi-Chi falling and breaking her neck. Benny just wants to know where the talking horse is now.
Oh, sorry. Because if being a clown with a ridiculous name, and having a wife with an even more ridiculous name who is trapeze royalty and owns a necklace worth millions of dollars WASN’T ENOUGH FOR YOU, Cho-Cho also had a talking horse. A horse of a rare, never before seen color (spoiler–it’s a palomino–which is not that uncommon), that could count and answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. He had to sell the horse to a rich family because he inexplicably became poor immediately after Chi-Chi died. ‘Why didn’t he just sell the necklace and keep the horse,’ Grandfather adroitly asks.
Well, obviously because the necklace is lost. MYSTERY ALERT MYSTERY ALERT. Chi-Chi didn’t trust her OWN HUSBAND enough to tell him where she kept it hidden (no one thinks that is strange by the way– maybe Cho-Cho had a gambling problem). The stationmaster has reached the end of his knowledge on the matter, but he encourages the children to go pester poor Cho-Cho with questions about his dead wife and his loss of his best friend/horse, and his descent into crippling poverty. ‘It’ll do him good,’ the stationmaster assures them.
Never ones to miss an opportunity to badger strangers with intensely personal questions, the Aldens pounce on Cho-Cho. He tells them that he believes his former friend, the Thin Man, stole the necklace. This idea was cemented in his mind when the Thin Man disappeared the next day. And to tie this all together, Old Beaver was the Thin Man’s best friend, and that is why he was so pissed off when hearing about the caboose.
Benny can’t drop the subject of the talking horse. Where is it? Can he see it? Will Grandfather buy it for him (he doesn’t actually ask that one, but come on, it’s implied). The family is going to see the Glass Factory at the next stop, but Benny wants to see the horse. Grandfather decides that Benny is old enough to
get lost in the woods and left behind go see the horse on his own, so they part ways. This seems like a terrible town to me, as the ground everywhere (even at the train station) appears to be covered in broken glass. I don’t even want to imagine what other OSHA rules are being broken over at the Glass Factory that would cause broken glass to litter the ground literally miles away from the actual factory. The rest of the family visits the factory where we learn all about how glass is made, and pick out plates (green for Henry, blue for Jessie, red for the missing Benny, and violet for Violet to complete their monochromatic worlds). Grandfather picks a yellow plate. From hence forth I will imagine Grandfather thusly:
Grandfather and the older children arrive back at the train. Before Benny left he had emphasized strongly that he would come straight back and go back to sleep in his bunk bed, that they were absolutely not to wake him, or check on him, or bother him in any way. The writing makes such a point of it, that when Violet makes a move to check on Benny before the train departs, and Henry stops her, I know, with the certainty that only an extremely heavily Gertrude-style foreshadowing can give you–that there is no way that Benny is actually on the train.
Benny almost immediately becomes lost following the path through the woods to the talking horse’s house. Still, he manages to find the house, boldly marches to the front door and insists that he be shown the horse and all of it’s tricks. Now, this horse supposedly can nod ‘yes,’ shake his head for ‘no,’ and ‘count’ by pawing. Usually I would say, like circus horse Clever Hans, for example, the horse reads the person’s body language, and reacts accordingly. But for this to work, the questioner has to know the answer to the question they are asking, otherwise the horse won’t be able to ‘read’ the answer. Based on this logic, and the fact that Benny cannot possibly do even the simplest math problems, I’m inclined to believe the Cho-Cho’s talking horse is actually gifted with human-like intelligence, making it worth more than Chi-Chi’s diamond necklace, and a scientific wonder in animal cognition.
After harassing the poor horse with a litany of mind-numbingly simple equations, Benny realizes he should probably return to the train. Since he had such a difficult time following the path the first time, his logical solution is to just fling himself headlong into the woods in the general direction of the train station. Unsurprisingly, he becomes lost immediately, and ends up in front of a little house with a woman and boy outside. I would be slightly perturbed to find a cottage in the middle of a thick wood with no path or road going in or out–in fact it sounds like the beginning of a gruesome fairy tale, but Benny has the confidence that can only be gained by great wealth and stupidity. The boy (introduced as Charley as they are running through the woods to the train) is some kind of wilderness guru that rescues Benny after he becomes tangled in vines, and stops him from wallowing in poison ivy. They predictably have missed the train, so they just sit at the station eating apples from a tree.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t occur to the rest of the family that this is the perfect time to abandon Benny and start out on a happier, less obnoxious life. Instead, they take a cab back to get him, and meet back up with the train at another station. Rats.
Since it’s raining too hard to enjoy their favorite pastime–staring outside–they decide to look for clues about the necklace. Benny finds a postcard with the clue, “If you are a clown/ be on the lookout/ for things in a crown.” Well, first of all, this is a stupid poem, and secondly, it doesn’t help them get any closer to finding the necklace. The train’s engineer invites Benny to see him run the train. He shows Benny the ‘dead man’s pedal,’ which he keeps his foot on all the time, in case he suddenly dies. Benny secretly hopes he’ll keel over now so he can see how it works. Then he spots a tree that has fallen across the tracks. There is brief excitement (about two sentences of heart-pounding action) while they clear the tracks. Then everything gets dull again and Jessie decides to mend Benny’s mattress.
What I can’t understand is why in the world Jessie would be sewing something when we all know that Violet is a maestro with a needle and thread. Maybe Violet is feeling extra delicate at the moment. Anyway, Jessie is rearranging the mattress stuffing to make sure it will be perfect, and what does she find but the diamond necklace. What a surprise. Instead of immediately giving poor Cho-Cho a call and letting him know that his horrible life is about to get slightly better, Grandfather decides it would probably be best to take it to a jewelry store themselves. Not that he’s planning on selling it and keeping the cash for himself…hohoho. Right? I mean, I wouldn’t put it past him. Anyway, once the appraisal is complete, they go ahead and also tell everyone on the train and everyone they meet on the street that they’ve found a priceless diamond necklace. I guess since it’s not their necklace they aren’t worried about being robbed, and it is in Grandfather’s pocket, so it’s pretty safe.
The ride back on the train seems to take about 2 hours. They create a radio message for the Thin Man, telling him to meet them in Pinedale. I like how they assume that when the Thin Man ran away, it would only be to the next town over–it’s not like he’d leave the state or something preposterous, just because he’s wanted by the law! Grandfather also has already gotten the talking horse on the train for the glorious reunion with Cho-Cho. Cho-Cho gets his necklace back, his magic pony, and they all have a party in the caboose where Jessie serves coca-cola mixed with orange juice as a special treat. Sounds delicious. And guess who shows up? The Thin Man. And guess his secret identity! It’s the fat postman. I know you would never have thought that, being as how one is so FAT and the name is THIN MAN so it’s such a surprise!
And everyone is happy and Gertrude squeezes in some other scenes in a hodgepodge of sentences and poor editing and then the book ends with a weird sentient thought from the train.
Gertrude doesn’t even HINT at the next adventure, which is very uncharacteristic of her, and also dumb, because next is the Houseboat Mystery which I have been looking forward to for months. MONTHS PEOPLE. You’ll see why, as the mysteries continue to be less and less grounded in any sort of reality and give up attempting to seem natural or believable in any ways.