Monday, July 05, 2010

BOOK REPORT: Schoolhouse Mystery

It's too bad that The Boxcar Children aren't currently undergoing a nostalgic revival like Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters' Club, because in a way it's the most hilarious series of all. Gertrude Chandler Warner's writing is best described as quietly psychotic. She writes like an 80-year-old baby who is confused in both elderly and infant ways. I'm reading Schoolhouse Mystery right now, and it's treasurous. First of all, I'm obsessed with the cover art:

What is going on there, perspective-wise? The little soccer-boy is actually a giant! Also, he has a thalidomide hand! The Dockers criminal is presenting a luscious Dockers ass to him! Why? Because he wants him to bounce a valuable quarter off it. The Dockers criminal, it turns out, is an evil coin-dealer, and he's wreaking havoc on an island where no one can read and everyone owns rare coins.
As the Alden family talked with the storekeeper, a red-haired boy and girl came in together. They looked alike and were certainly twins.
The island children did not look at the Aldens. In fact, they looked the other way. But Benny thought, "They must have looked us over before they came in."
"We want some more flour," said the boy. "And Ma wants some more tea." His voice was as rough as his looks. His sister looked rough, too. Her hair hung in wisps around her face.
The girl counted out the money carefully, but she did it slowly. It seemed hard for her, so at last Mr. Fenton helped her. When they had gone, Mr. Fenton said, "To tell you the truth, Mr. Alden, I'm sorry for the children who are brought up here. Living is hard on this island, and the people have no education. The children never have a chance to learn any other way to live. They don't even have TV. They don't see magazines, and they never go off this island."
"Oh, dear," said Jessie, "I shouldn't think they would know anything about the world."
"They don't," said Mr. Fenton. "As soon as they're old enough, they work in the sardine factory. Those two are the Moss twins. They work in the factory whenever it is open."
"Then they earn some money," said Benny.
Mr. Fenton smiled. "I can see you don't know what the island people are like. The children don't ever see that money. The fathers take it and keep it. They don't spend much. All these people save all the money they can, but they never put it in the bank. They put it in an old stocking."
The children can't read because sardine islands don't have schools, so the Boxcar Children decide to become their Teachers. They are without question the most qualified children in the world to Teach.
The sharp voice said, "What are you going to teach, boys?"
"Well, I don't know," said Benny. "Maybe I could teach them about the moon." 
Good plan, Benny! But the idiot children have other ideas.
"Well," said Benny, laughing, "have you a cat?"
Yes, Eddie had a cat. So Benny printed, "I have a cat." Eddie read it very well. "I know cat is the last word. My cat's name is Fish."
"Fish!" said Benny. "Why?"
"Because he always comes when we call, 'Fish, Fish.'"
Benny printed the whole story. They all read it together.
     I have a cat.
     His name is Fish.
     I call "Fish, Fish."
     Fish comes.
"Oh, I like to read about myself!" said Eddie.
One day, Eddie daydreams, I will be president of the Sardine Factory, and my cufflinks will be solid-gold sardines, and I will lick precious sardine-eggs off my moaning wife at night. His reverie is interrupted; it is time for recess.
"Recess!" said Jimmy. "It can't be time for recess."
But it was. Time had gone fast for all the children. 
Time had gone fast for all the children. Why is this sentence so creepy? Time had gone fast for all the children, who had suffered an Acceleration while they slept and woken as 80-year-old babies, simultaneously chubby and withered, their little heads smelling not of newness but of Approaching Death.

The 80-year-old babies are learning so much, including how to narc. They inform the Boxcar Children that a person named the Money Man comes to their houses and gives them money for old coins! Sometimes he gives them ten dollars for a quarter! They love this arrangement because of their tragic illiteracy. "That's wrong," breathes Benny, who can count much higher than ten despite his condition.

"We must stop this Money Man, but we don't even know what he looks like!" The 80-year-old babies narc some more. Benny is a genius at many tasks, including spying, and it isn't long before he spots the Money Man driving around town in a red car.
"I told you that car could go fast," said Benny. "And wait! That man had blond hair, all right, and he smiled and showed all his teeth. There can't be two men like him!"
So true, Benny. In 1965, that was the rarest combination of human traits in America--just after Soccer-Child Giantism and Fingerbuds. Now there are only twenty pages left, so the situation must be getting serious for the Boxcar Children. The Money Man must be punished, but he's hiding! Luckily, an Englishman is ready to assist them in their detective work.
"Right," said Mr. Wilder-Smith. "I have important letters. Maybe you can help. But I must toddle along. Cheerio! Top-hole to meet you."
Nooo, top-hole to meet YOU, Mr. Wilder-Smith. Meeting you was the finest hole of all. I'm not a very attentive reader, so I don't know who you are or what you're doing on Sardine Factory Island, but I'll remember you forever. Ten pages left now, which means time for a TWIST to be revealed. The illiterate redheads, remember them? are diamonds in the rough, of Art!
Mr. Alden said, "We really came to show you two watercolors. We'd like to know what you think of them." He passed them to Miss Gray.
"The harbor," said Miss Gray. "Very good. Were they done by one artist or two?"
"Two," said Violet with bright eyes. "The twins, Hal and Marie Moss."
"Hal and Marie!" said Miss Gray. "They never had a lesson!"
Jessie said, "They have seen only three paintings in their lives."
If only one of those had been the cover painting, all this genius could have been averted! Okay, five pages left, and the ending is so close I can almost taste it. It seems the Money Man hasn't broken any actual laws, since he's just tricking people and then underpaying them for their valuable coins, but then the Boxcar Children catch him stealing rare old books from the town library, the town library that no one ever visited because no one could read, but now they can, thanks to the Boxcar Children! The Money Man is ARRESTED and everyone claps for Benny. "Bloody good show, Master Quid-Boy!" praises Mr. Wilder-Smith, tapping a riding crop 'gainst his thigh. "This Cunt must go to gaol."


Whimsy said...

You are insane, he says with all the love and admiration he can muster.

Tricia said...

*curtseys with all the dignity of a Queen*

ron hardy said...

I have to agree with Whimsy. This is unreasonable. I can't even find the beginning point for where this goes all wrong. Frankly I can't believe the Sardine people don't have their own language like the folks on Sapelo Island. Maybe puckering, clicking sounds. Fishee talk

Kaitlyn said...

How do you not have your own TV show?

Tricia said...

I would have the best TV show

Tricia said...

Ron, there was a definite This Town Is Not Like Other Towns horror vibe; after a while I actively read the book as a lost Shirley Jackson novel.

Admiral Farragut said...

What happened to the boxcar?

Tricia said...

Their rich grandfather moved it to his backyard, so they could still play homeless whenever they wanted! He knows what children like.

ron hardy said...

Tricia, I went back and read the sections you transcribed from the book and yeah I think you are right. There is some strange underlying urgency or tone that Gertrude has inadvertently created. Kind of an M. Night creepy feeling, like everybody is mowing their grass before they all go out and stone somebody to death. Definitely Shirley Jackson.

Tricia said...

Yes, exactly. I think she wrote the books to be very simple for children, with the unexpected side effect of making them totally terrifying for adults.