Judy Bolton Mysteries: Part 2

Pam’s Pictorama Post: While bunker-style living here in Manhattan during our modern plague has not resulted in an increase in reading time (quite the opposite as days seem to somehow blur into seven-day-a-week, 14 hour day work-a-thons), I do make time every night for a bit of Judy Bolton before bed. With the last few volumes looming on the horizon I know I will miss her and the dollop of her 1940’s daily life when I eventually finish the last volume. However, today I offer this next Judy installment as suggested reading for those of you hunting a little escapism from your current reality.

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I have always believed that in stressful times that one should be extremely thoughtful about what one is reading. (Kim is currently deep in Max Brand – I thought he’d already read all of him – and of course Little Orphan Annie on weekends, but none of this is different, just business as usual for him.) These days I read only what I feel is necessary of the newspaper in the morning and quickly move on.

In the evening, I need something to lead me into a relaxed enough state to sleep. Therefore, I try to put down the phone (Wynton Marsalis, please take note) and pick up my Judy Bolton novel to read a chapter or so. I am finishing up volume 20 currently, The Warning on the Window, and am fascinated by the fact that my copy, with a 1949 copyright, sporting a dust jacket and purchased on ebay, had never been read! I found several pages that had never been split. Imagine this book being passed from hand to hand over seventy years and never read. Extraordinary!

 

As I mentioned in my first post about Judy (which can be found here) about halfway through the series Judy marries one of her two suitors throughout the earlier volumes. While Judy’s role is not diminished to one of housewife, some of the aspects of 1940’s pre-feminism jabs at me in these latter volumes. Judy’s husband leaves his nascent law practice to join the FBI after one of their adventures and somehow the series that was about her with him occasionally helping becomes about her helping him. Although hers always does end up being the star role the author now feels the need to work at storylines that allow for this. (Meanwhile, reality has never been a strong suit of these books, but the evidence of this sticks in my crawl a bit.)

Meanwhile, Judy and Peter have acquired a child along the way, Roberta, whose father is mysteriously “at sea” and from what I can tell they have never heard a peep from him. As a result they now have a ready made family and Roberta’s mystery solving abilities, given her age, somewhat make up for Judy’s post-marital status.

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As part of this shift in storyline, I was a bit worried about Judy’s black cat, Blackberry, who seemed to be meeting his demise in The Living Portrait. A puppy, Tuffy, was introduced in this volume as Roberta’s pet and I was quite peevish when it seemed that Blackberry would be sacrificed for him. I hope I am not giving away too much plot when I assure readers that he makes a strong eventual comeback and remains part of the family. (In fact up next, The Black Cat’s Clue.)

The thing that interests me most about the second half of the series is that Margaret Sutton’s writing style seems to morph in tandem with Judy’s role as wife. Almost immediately the books become a bit more complex. The mysteries go from being excuses for a storyline with unreal plots to more logical storylines. They are still stuffed with really bad criminals and if anything Judy appears to be in actual danger in some of these stories. In particular The Secret of the Musical Tree managed to have me a bit worried about her at one point. (Even if harrowing at times, all is of course viewed from the safety of knowing that Judy appears in another volume, waiting patiently for me next to the bed.) Judy as an adult clearly meant that Sutton could step out a little in a different direction.

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Undated photo of Margaret Sutton

 

To both Judy and Sutton’s credit, Judy spends little if any time worrying about her appearance (Judy’s attire is only ever noted if it is a plot point) and only glancingly makes mention about things like cleaning the house or cooking a meal. Judy’s mother tends to worry about Judy’s mystery solving ways and one gets the sense that this is the evolution of young women of the times moving yet another notch out of the home and into the working world.

Still, plot devices are needed in order to get Judy away from her husband and let her do her stuff, which by today’s standards is unnecessary and even insulting. Peter can therefore expect to be conked on the head unconscious, or to find that somehow Judy is off in another town, unable to phone, and turns out to be knee deep in trouble. Despite being dated in this way, these books are a more or less perfect antidote for the stresses of the spring of 2020 for me. Just intriguing enough to lead me peacefully down the garden path, again and again each night. I highly recommend them if you like me need a bit of evening escapism.

 

 

Letters from a Cat

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today feline dedicated post was a birthday gift from my good friend Eileen Travell. She acquired this precious, slim volume at a store I long to experience one day and that I wrote about in an earlier post, 3 Little Kittens, which can be found here, and describes that gift purchased there as well, The Salem, New York shop is 1786 Wilson Homestead (1117 Chamberlin Mill Road, Salem, NY; their website which can be found here). It has set me to dreaming about a future summer day digging through their wares. My copy is stamped School Library, Saranac Lake, N.Y. on both front and back fly leafs.

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While this book is clearly meant for children, complete with very large and easily read text, I am not sure I would say race out and grab this book to read to your small child. Suffice it to say life was cheaper and harder in 1879 and that is evidenced in this book. The overall premise of the book is that while a little girl is away visiting her aunt she receives a series of letters penned by her puss in her absence. (Yes, the remarkable nature of a cat writing letters, however sloppily printed, is covered in the story, although never fully explained. The methods of post are detailed however.)

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Sadly kit has a hard time of it in the absence of her mistress with everything from a spring cleaning of the house, which terrifies her, to an accident with a barrel of soft soap, which I assume is either lye or the lye and fat makings for soap, which almost does her in. All about the plot is is given away in the first part of the book which is penned in the voice of the young mistress now grown.

However, when the little mistress describes how much she loves her kitty and what a glorious cat she is you know that H.H. was herself a cat lover and an understander of the feline nature. (Kim speculated that the timing is right for this book to have inspired Archy and Mehitabel, first created by Don Marquis in 1916 and collected first in 1927. As many of you know, it is best known for being illustrated by George Herriman of Krazy Kat fame.)

Letters from a Cat Published by Her Mistress for the Benefit of all Cats and the Amusement of Little Children has an original copyright of 1879. My edition is from 1930. It has seventeen illustrations by Addie Ledyard. The author H.H. turns out to be Helen Hunt Jackson (b. 1830 and d. 1885, née Helen Maria Fiske) a famous poet and writer of her day.

Jackson was the daughter of a minister, author, and professor of Latin, Greek, and philosophy at Amherst College. Her mother having died when Helen was 14, she and her sister were fully orphaned three years later. However, the father had provided for Helen’s education and she attended a boarding school where she was the classmate of Emily Dickinson with whom she corresponded throughout her life. Helen Hunt Jackson was very much a part of the interesting and broad group of writers and thinkers in the greater Amherst area of the day.

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Jackson begins writing after the loss of husband and sons over a handful of years and before she was much more than 30 years old. (Hunt was the surname of this husband, she eventually remarries while taking the cure for TB in Colorado years later and takes the name Jackson.) Her earliest works are published under the H.H. nom de plume. She became interested in issues surrounding the poor treatment of Native Americans after hearing a lecture in Boston by Chief Standing Bear in 1879 (interestingly, the year Letters from a Cat was published).

Her best known work, Ramona, published in 1884, is a story of a young woman of mixed Scots and Native American heritage, was hugely popular and spawned five films and even was thought to expand the tourism industry of Southern California at the time. While it may have been the romance of the story that made it so popular, Jackson wrote it as a way of showing the plight of the native people. She kept up a very real and fierce lifelong battle with Washington over the treatment of the Indians and fighting for the return of their land and rights.

Of the illustrator, Addie Ledyard, there is really no information except for the trail of books she illustrated which are still available. At a glance I would say cats were a specialty, although she seems to have illustrated at least one volume of Louisa May Alcott stories. Following my nose on her illustrations may lead to some other interesting discoveries.

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This illustration shows Ceasar, the handsome, huge black cat who arrives in town and is an  important plot point.

 

I am reminded of an obscure, antique volume I had years ago and gave to my mother, written by another poet who also wrote from the perspective of her cat. If I can remember it and find it I will share it in a subsequent post. I always think of it when I see a cat watching out a window as her cat called that reading the newspaper daily.

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Letters from a Cat is available on Project Gutenberg (with illustrations) and Google Books, as well as in reproduction and various earlier reprints over time. With renewed thanks to Eileen, I suggest all you cat collectors get on this one.

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Earlier volume of the book.

 

 

 

Judy Bolton, Girl Detective: Part One

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Pictorama readers know that I have a very real soft spot for juvenile novel series and I detour today to begin a fairly long missive about girl detective, Judy Bolton. I have been reading these on and off for the last year or so. While I may tend toward the completist even in my following of favored authors (see my thoughts on Edna Ferber here and my numerous posts on Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s adult novels, which start here and here), I am a persnickety reader of series books, acquiring them and reading them in order. A missing title in one of these is a real fly in the ointment from my perspective. Just a warning before you really settle in, spoiler alert as I will probably end up giving away some of the series plot line.

I did a long stretch of reading and reviewing as I worked my into and through a number of other series. I never read any of them as a child. My sister Loren was the Nancy Drew reader in the family and I can remember admiring how nice they all looked lined up in a bookcase in her bedroom. Somehow they just really belonged to her though and I never read them, although I guess I could have with some wrangling. (The same is true for the Black Beauty books and the Tolkien novels. These were things I associated with her and territory I never entered.)

Among my favorite series discoveries are Honey Bunch (my review can be found here), Grace Harlowe, the Automobile Girls and especially The Moving Picture Girls novels. (A post devoted to those can be read here). I had put my series reading on the back burner and was focusing more on authors when Kim got a tip that I might like the Judy Bolton series and purchased one for me appropriately called The Mystery of the Half Cat.

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I took to Judy Bolton like a duck to water and I have been weaving them into my reading since. As I write today, I am halfway through the 40 volumes in the series, although it should be noted that only 38 were written by the original author, Margaret Sutton. (Margaret Sutton, aka Rachel Beebe.) The books were largely published by Grosset & Dunlap. Unlike the Stratemeyer syndicate books, Margaret Sutton was a real person and wrote all of the novels in the series herself and this is evident in the writing. While these are still all based on formula (mystery introduced in the first quarter of the book, develops in the second, is positively puzzling obfuscation in the third and resolves in the last) Judy develops as a character over these many volumes. Wikipedia offers the interesting comment that it may have been pressure from Stratemeyer that killed the series rather than flagging sales in the interest of Nancy Drew, but nowhere can I find an explanation of how this played out amongst their commingled ownership and whatnot.

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Judy Bolton as a character is interesting and a bit complex. She appears to age more slowly than the years it takes for these volumes to unfurl, the first twenty books span from 1932-1949 and Judy seems to start at her senior year in high school and then hovers in the year or so just after, time advancing slowly while she works in the newly opened law office of her sweetheart and eventual fiance, Peter Dobbs. (They marry in the 17th volume, The Rainbow Riddle. Marriage does not appear to diminish Judy any.) Her parents would have liked her to consider college, but she has decided that working with Peter and unpaid sleuthing is her destiny. She is an odd mix of a more modern woman and one of her late thirties, early forties decades.

What I like best, in some ways, about Judy Bolton is that she is actually quite unlikeable at times. She is stubborn and sometimes myopic and self-indulgent. Other characters routinely call her out on it, as they should. There is something very human and endearing about her gaffs however and she generally recognizes her mistakes, as most of us do, and makes them right.

Early on Peter gives Judy a black kitten she names Blackberry (he of the half cat above) and he routinely finds his way into most, but not all volumes. This of course endears the series to my black cat loving heart! Her brother Horace acquires a white cat who seems to disappear in later volumes, but he also acquires a rather rude bird who remains prominent. Horace shows up in most of the volumes, playing a bigger role in the early volumes.

Judy’s affections swing between Peter and the wealthiest boy in town, Arthur Farringdon-Pett. Most remarkably, Arthur owns an airplane – how could a girl resist that I guess. Judy and Arthur go so far as to get engaged in later volumes, until Judy realizes her heart really belongs to Peter.

It interests me more than a little that people actually die in this series. Criminals die, people die in car accidents, her grandparents eventually die over time. Meanwhile, a lot of children are being raised by somewhat random people or given to orphanages, and therefore there are several mysteries which resolve in people being related to otherwise unlikely people – long lost heretofore unknown siblings, cousins. Perhaps for someone writing in the post-Depression era this was somewhat less unlikely than it seems today. People found themselves impoverished and left babies for adoption or even just with other people.

The series opens with Judy forced to leave her hometown of Roulsville in favor of higher ground in nearby Farringdon, an imaginary exurb from which recognizable places in Connecticut and Manhattan can be reached within a day’s trip. There are farms, Judy’s grandparents have one in Dry Brook Hollow – a seemingly poorly named area as that is where the flood occurs in book one. It is theoretically based on the Pennsylvania area where Sutton grew up and returned to for the inspiration for her novels.

The stories build on each other and landmark events are retold which advertise earlier books, but also adds to the sense of the created, shared universe. Certain key events, like the flood in the first volume, are mentioned in virtually every volume – sometimes in more or sometimes less detail. Other stories waft in and out of the tale of the moment, depending on the relatedness of the current cast of characters and location. It is said that each book was started from a kernel of a real incident, such as the flood, which inspired Sutton.

Judy’s father is a doctor, but somehow they only hover at the line of middle class. Early on Judy expresses discomfort with the wealthier girls in school – understandably because they treat her poorly at first – but also equal insecurity about how to act around a neighbor who is poor and attends the local secretarial high school, leaving eventually to work in a factory. (I have to just take it on faith that secretarial high school was a thing – like technical schools of other kinds which have morphed more into college years than high school now.) Their town, Farringdon, has a strict dividing line between the “good” area of town and the “poor” area, although one thing that seems to be entirely absent are people of any ethnic group at all, no one is black, Jewish, or hispanic. I believe Gypsies are mentioned, but not in a good way. There are hoboes and all sorts of men who are only marginally employed. They are almost always threatening and have ties to the local underworld.

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Evil Gypsy fortune teller in this volume.

 

Oddly, these books are not available on Project Gutenberg or other online sources and therefore it has been necessary to purchase the books which I have generally found used on ebay, paying on average about $10 each with shipping. (The series has been reprinted in paperback, which might explain the extension of the copyright, but those tend to be more expensive than just purchasing the old volumes.) For the most part purchasing the old books has been fine; I think only one has fallen to pieces in my hands while reading it and only one other went astray for a period before showing up on 86th Street. A few have even sported dust jackets. (The books are nominally illustrated by Pelacie Doane and I will only offer that they are appropriately period drawings and covers.)

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I can’t say I find the (limited) illustrations inspiring and sadly could find none featuring Blackberry.

 

 

I’m not sure what happens when I am done with these volumes – we hardly have shelf space to devote to 40 volumes although part of me loves the idea of the long line of matching volumes. I guess I will either resell them or give them away. Kim has expressed interest in reading a few so I will keep them around for awhile. Research online tells me that the later ones may get difficult to find and since I am generally a completest in most things I will be bereft if I can not read them all.

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Sutton in one of her author photos.

October is the month when the annual Judy Bolton Weekend is held in Cloudersport, Pennsylvania. This four day fiesta celebrates all things Judy and Sutton. I am already working on enlisting Kim in that adventure later this year – although it is admittedly far and the travel route without a car is a bit unclear from New York City. In addition, there is a fan club run out of Mt. Carmel, PA which is devoted to Judy, Nancy, Trixie Belden and the like. All this to say, having already gone on for quite a spell, there is still indeed more likely to come.