My daughter Lydia is about to start kindergarten and is not really reading yet, only recognizing about 10 words. That’s fine. When I was her age, I was reading on about a fourth-grade level, and that was fine, too–except that I got bored with the books in my classroom. My father mentioned to a co-worker that he was looking for books that would both interest and challenge me; the co-worker mentioned it to his wife, and she loaned me the first books in two mystery series she’d enjoyed as a girl . . . and then the second books, and then the third, until I’d read all she owned and had to get later volumes elsewhere. Nancy Drew was all right, but I preferred the other girl detective whose first two adventures I’ve just read aloud to Lydia:
The Secret of the Mansion and The Red Trailer Mystery by Julie Campbell
Trixie Belden’s first adventure was already 30 years old when I first read it and is 71 years old now–yet Trixie’s personality still crackles off the page! Lydia was quite ready to follow the plots of these two connected stories, although she can’t read them yet. She’s a big fan of the King & Kayla series of easy-reader mysteries and is excited that Trixie Belden’s stories are longer and more complicated.
Trixie is enduring a lonely summer on her family farm in upstate New York, doing chores and watching her annoying little brother, when a new family moves into a nearby mansion–and they have a girl her age and horses! Honey Wheeler soon becomes Trixie’s best friend and co-detective.
The Secret of the Mansion is not exactly a mystery. It’s a highly suspenseful story of a boy, Jim Frayne, trying to find out whether inheriting money from his great-uncle can save him from the clutches of the abusive stepfather who is his legal guardian. Jim happens to have run away and found his great-uncle’s decaying mansion the very day after Trixie’s father found the great-uncle staggering out to the road, very ill, and took him to the hospital. Trixie takes the opportunity to show Honey this local curiosity–a house that was once luxurious, allowed to decay by an old man spending as little money as possible although rumor has it he’s hidden a fortune in cash somewhere in the house. The girls meet Jim and agree to keep him a secret so his stepfather doesn’t catch him, while they all search for the money and the will naming Jim as the sole heir. Nearly every chapter ends with someone in peril–thrown from a horse! bitten by a copperhead! falling off a ladder! cornered by a mad dog! on a bike in the path of a truck!–and Trixie in particular is like the Arnold Schwarzenegger of girl detectives, sustaining injuries that you’d think would have more of a lasting effect, jeez. It’s very exciting and hard to put down.
The Red Trailer Mystery begins immediately after the first book wraps up with the late Mr. Frayne’s attorney telling Trixie and Honey that he’ll help Jim get a competent guardian and access to his inheritance, but somebody has to find Jim: When his stepfather tracked him down at the mansion, Jim fled, presumably to his Plan B of seeking work at a summer camp. Conveniently, Honey’s governess is totally willing to take Honey and Trixie on a trip in the Wheelers’ travel trailer and sit around the campground while the girls go off alone to wander into boys’ camps and ask if anyone’s seen Jim. In the process, they notice a family that seems impoverished yet is living in a luxurious trailer, and they hear news about a string of trailer thefts, and clues keep piling up to stoke their interest in those mysteries as they’re trying to focus on finding Jim. This one has more of a classic mystery structure with a less appalling rate of injury, but it’s equally good at making you want to know what happens next!
These books seem old-fashioned in some ways but generally hold up well. Lydia has been read many books that are even older, such as the original Oz books published over 100 years ago, so she’s accustomed to the idea that sometimes I have to pause and explain how people used to do something a different way. Although the standard of care for a poisonous snake bite has changed, I love the way Trixie Belden books explain exactly how to do a thing–The Secret of the Mansion also explains how to build an outdoor shower, for example–giving a sense that kids can do useful stuff and their skills can be trusted in a crisis.
What does strike me as bizarre is that none of the adults at any point raises the slightest concern about what could have happened if Jim was not such a good guy. Here we have two 13-year-old girls who go into a dilapidated house and find a 15-year-old boy who has run away from home and has a gun, and then they keep hanging out with him alone (sometimes just one girl at a time) for a week while keeping his presence a secret, culminating in his spending the night at Trixie’s house while her parents are out of town. Not one parent, governess, or attorney ever says, “Do you realize what a risk that was?!” So I talked about it briefly with Lydia, pointing out that if you meet a person who’s secretly living somewhere, you really can’t be sure if he’s telling the truth about who he is and why he’s there, and that if you surprise someone who’s got a gun there’s a chance you’ll get shot!
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Mrs. Richardson is living the good life in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland planned around enlightened principles that make life good for everyone who follows the rules. She’s got a happy marriage, four closely-spaced children who are now in high school, a big house to live in, and a duplex to rent for extra income. Mrs. Richardson has always liked finding worthy tenants, people who really deserve the advantages of living in Shaker Heights and who are just interesting enough to be assets to their proudly diverse community.
Mia and her daughter Pearl plan to settle in Shaker Heights so that Pearl can attend high school all in one place, after a childhood of frequent cross-country moves. They rent the upstairs apartment of Mrs. Richardson’s duplex, and within a few months, their lives are interwoven with those of the Richardsons in a tangle of friendships and other partnerships.
But that’s all backstory. The novel opens with three of the Richardsons in the street outside their burning home, all of them sort of feeling that they always knew something like this would end up happening. The book weaves together seven perspectives on the events of the past few months, their roots in the more distant past, and their connections to the controversy over a local transracial adoption. All the characters are very real and complicated and never fully understand one another, but the reader gets a very full understanding of what’s happened here, as well as a vivid experience of life in Shaker Heights in the late 1990s.
One interesting thing about this book is that the Asian-American author wrote viewpoint characters who are all white and have various opinions about the adoption of a Chinese immigrant’s baby by white people. Another interesting thing is that the character who turns out to be asexual is the last one you would’ve guessed. Overall, it’s a very good book that I look forward to rereading someday.
The Pittsburgh that Stays Within You by Samuel Hazo, with photographs by Paige Crawley
This meditation on the unique character of Pittsburgh has been updated five times, with each edition adding a section but making few changes to the previous text. (All the photos are recent. They’re great photos, but it would be more effective to illustrate each section with photos from that era.) The first part was written in 1986, five years before I moved to Pittsburgh, so it evokes that era but also the author’s memories of 1950s Pittsburgh. The newer sections reflect on some of the things that have changed since 1986.
The new keeps erasing and transfiguring the old until you think that the past is just something you dreamed. . . . Each fragment in time’s mysterious metamorphosis has already started to evolve into other fragments, and the changes never end because a city–any city–is not so much a place as it is an idea or rather a gathering of ideas where each idea influences every other idea as it inevitably and ineluctably realizes itself, and the resulting ferment and fusion define what we call a city in the similar difference of every ongoing minute. . . .
That’s a good example of what this poet’s prose is like: He’s on to something really interesting, he describes it in perfectly chosen words, and then he kind of rambles in a way that seems to be developing the idea but is more like braiding more and more strands into a rope of words until you’re marveling at what a lovely rope it is but may have kind of lost track of where it’s going.
This is a good book to read if you haven’t been to Pittsburgh or are here for the first time and want a sense of what it has been like, deeper than just seeing what it’s like right now. It’s also worth reading if you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for a while and begun to experience the layering of memories in places; this book is very good at evoking that experience and gives many vivid examples. But the book is so vaguely structured and detours into so much random detail (one page is basically just a list of people involved in the International Poetry Forum) that it’s kind of annoying. I read it in short stints over the course of several months.