I’m still participating in (and enjoying) the Shelf Discovery project at Girl Detective but I haven’t blogged about it much in the past few weeks. Chapter 3 was “Danger Girls” and of the books that Lizzie Skurnick mentions in Shelf Discovery I chose to reread The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and a book by Lois Duncan. The Westing Game was one of my favorites as a child and I’ve reread it probably a dozen times in my lifetime so there wasn’t a lot in it that surprised me. I enjoyed reading it again, just as much for the pleasure of remembering all the other times I’d read it as for the enjoyment of this reading. The other thing I realized when reading it this time was that it shouldn’t be surprising to me that this was a favorite of mine. I’ve always loved puzzles and logic games and mysteries. Clue has always been one of my favorite board games and I love those brainteaser kind of games you play on a road trip. I spent large parts of 3rd, 4th and 5th grade immersed in the world of Trixie Belden and in 4th and 5th grade me and two other girls wrote, directed and starred in two plays about Trixie. As an adult my favorite kind of light reading is mysteries or suspense. I think part of what attracts me to science and medicine is that at the best of times it is somewhat like solving a puzzle. All that to say that in rereading The Westing Game is was kind of neat to see how the child me was attracted to some of the same things that the adult me enjoys.
I was also a big Lois Duncan fan as a teen, which makes sense as Duncan is the queen of teen suspense. Skurnick reviews a different Duncan book in the Danger Girl chapter, Daughters of Eve, the dark look at 1970s feminism. I decided when doing this project to only go with books I could get from the library and my library system only had a few of Duncan’s books. They Never Came Home was always one of my favorite of hers so I picked it. I’m not sure it’s the best representative of Duncan’s work as it’s less dark and has no element of the supernatural that you see in most of her other works (Which may have been why I liked it. Some of her books I still remember as being ultra-creepy.)
They Never Came Home is the story of two boys, Larry and Dan who go missing on a weekend camping trip. The families all believe they are dead when one of their canteens is found by a river. Joan, the sister of Larry and girlfriend of Dan, is left to mourn and deal with her devastated family. It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the boys are actually alive in LA, Dan is suffering from amnesia and believes his name is Dave and that Larry is his brother Lance. How they got there and why is something of a mystery that Dave/Dan starts to piece together as bits of his memory come back. In alternating chapters Joan is also discovering things about her brother that provide the reader with clues as to what happened to the boys.
This one has the amnesia theme which seems to have always interested me based on my reading choices of the past year or so and my love for movies like Memento. I think as a teen I liked it because Joan is the not all that beautiful girl who gets the most popular boy in school as a boyfriend just because she has a great personality.
The big surprise to me in reading this one was how conservative it was. I admit to being a Duncan fan with a bit of embarrassment, they certainly aren’t great literature and in my memory they are somehow slightly naughty books to have read. This book however completely affirmed what we would call today “traditional values”. The shocking revelation about Larry is that he was involved in selling marijuana. I can’t imagine a book today using this as proof of his evil character, even if it isn’t exactly smiled upon today. Further evidence against Larry is that he is too pretty, likes nice clothes too much and doesn’t like to do manly things like go camping. His Mom is clearly at fault since she babies him too much and has “made him soft”. I don’t think he’s supposed to be gay since he is also portrayed as being something of a ladies’ man but it’s interesting that these attributes are used to show his depravity.
The next chapter in Shelf Discovery was “Read ‘Em and Weep” about tearjerker teen books. I ended up reading two books by Katherine Paterson, both Newberry winners. The first, Jacob Have I Loved, was not a favorite of mine as a teen. I’m not sure I’d even read the whole thing prior to this reading. Elements of it were familiar but a large part of the plot was completely unfamiliar to me. I’m guessing but I think that Sara Louise’s jealously of her beautiful and talented sister Caroline may have been too uncomfortable to read about during those awkward teen years. I’m an only child so sibling rivarly wasn’t a problem for me, but I often compared myself to others and came up feeling like I was lacking. Sara Louise is also not a particularly sympathetic character. Her blind jealousy makes her so prickly and difficult that she ends up alienating many of the people who want to love her. I think at that age I tended to enjoy books more with heroines that I admired or related to. Or maybe it was none of those and was just the right book but wrong time. Regardless, I enjoyed this one very much this time around. An added bonus for me was that the setting is familiar to me. I’ve never been to the two islands in the Chesapeake Bay that Paterson based Rass on but I’ve been to the Bay and the Eastern Shore of Virginia. This book made me even more interested in visiting the real islands.
Is there anyone that doesn’t know this classic Paterson novel? I remember liking it as a child, although it certainly made me sad. I think even at that age I appreciated the story even if it wasn’t a feel-good book. If anything, I liked it better as an adult. It’s not just the ending that is sad (I found myself again crying over the last few chapters) but the book doesn’t ignore the everyday sadnesses in Jess and Leslie’s lives. The bullies, the poverty of the Aarons family, the ways that Jess has to act older than his age.
The setting of this book was also interesting to me, as it takes place in rural Virginia. Lark Creek is not a real place but is based on Paterson’s experience teaching in a rural Virginia town. The interesting thing is that it can’t be that far from Washington DC based on the end of book trip that Jess goes on to the National Gallery with his music teacher. I’m guessing maybe an hour away, which would be in Loudon County perhaps. I would imagine that in the 1970s there were very rural poor areas of Loudon like the town depicted here but it would be much harder if impossible to find them an hour away from DC today. I’d bet it’s impossible to find somewhere where a girl who brings yogurt to school for lunch is made fun of today.
If you haven’t read any of these I’d highly recommend the two Paterson books to anyone of any age. I’d recommend The Westing Game for anyone who enjoys mysteries.