Book Review: Little Town at the Crossroads

Book Review: Little Town at the Crossroads

Author: Maria D. Wilkes

Author’s web site:

Date: 1997

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 0-06-440651-2

Length: 343 pages

Quote: “Before Laura Ingalls Wilder ever penned the Little House books, she wrote to her aunt Martha Quiner Carpenter, asking her to ‘tell the story of those days’ when she and Laura’s mother, Caroline, were growing up in Brookfield, Wisconsin.”

And this is the book Maria D. Wilkes made out of the story Aunt Martha told. Laura Ingalls’ mother and sister make friends with a German immigrant girl who spells English words correctly but pronounces the letters “Ah-bay-tsay-day-ay,” and so on, so she can’t be given credit in spelling bees. Laura’s Uncle Henry brings in passenger pigeons to cook into pigeon pies. Woodchucks attack the garden just in time to win the children the right to keep a dog, even though their widowed mother hasn’t felt able to afford to feed a dog. There’s a Maple Syrup Festival and an Independence Day parade.

Apart from being illustrated by Dan Andreasen rather than Garth Williams, this book is much like the original Little House books, with memories of how people used to do everyday work told as vividly as memories of special events. Elementary school readers should be able to enjoy it; if they’re interested in old crafts and old songs, they may enjoy rereading it every year.

Although there are those who think the original “Little House” series (Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, The First Four Years, and some would add On the Way Home, West from Home, and Young Pioneers) was sufficient unto itself, the descendants of Ma and Pa Ingalls preserved enough other family letters and souvenirs to have inspired storybooks about Laura’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother as little girls. A certain sense of authenticity has of course been sacrificed: these are reconstructions, not memoirs. Children, however, affirm on Amazon that the additions to the “Little House” collection others have made after Rose Wilder Lane’s lifetime are still good reads.

Maria D. Wilkes, who has outed herself as being known in real life as Maria DiVincenzo, is alive and maintains an historical research web site. Therefore Little Town at the Crossroads is a Fair Trade Book. If you buy it here, for $5 per book + $5 per package, I’ll send Wilkes or a charity of her choice $1 per book sold. That’s more than some Amazon sellers are asking, but if you order four books for a total of $25, you may be ahead financially to buy the books here–and if they’re all by Maria D. Wilkes, she or her charity will receive $4. Payments may be sent to either of the addresses in the lower left-hand corner of the screen.

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Book Review: Ginnie and the Mystery Doll

Title: Ginnie and the Mystery Doll

Author: Catherine Woolley

Date: 1960 (Morrow), 1965 (Scholastic)

Publisher: Morrow (hardcover), Scholastic (paperback)

ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon

Length: 156 pages

Illustrations: line drawings

Quote: “In your mother’s old diary she says something about a doll that her Uncle Frank brought her from Paris. Is that the doll in the parlor?”

From the years when the commercial media were hard-selling “femininity” comes what must be the ultimate girly-girl mystery novel. Two middle-school girls spending the summer on Cape Cod help a nice old lady who needs extra money find the family treasure in her heirloom doll collection. There are moments of suspense—fear that the treasure has been lost. There is no sex (a few male relatives get speaking parts, but the girls solve the mystery without any “help” from boys), no violence, no danger of anyone’s being hurt. The only danger is that the girls will be embarrassed by failing to solve the mystery, and you know that won’t happen.

(Per the recent discussion of G.K. Chesterton’s almost-all-male fictional world…I wouldn’t put Catherine Woolley’s novels in the same class with Chesterton’s, either.)

Woolley wrote a whole series about Ginnie in the 1950s and 1960s. They were nice, wholesome stories about nice, wholesome little girls who never got into any trouble or danger. They helped nice, wholesome little girls relieve the boredom of long bus rides to consolidated schools, rained-out recess periods, and spending days in bed with the “childhood diseases” against which vaccines hadn’t been invented yet. They don’t seem to have been anyone’s favorite books. They weren’t endlessly reprinted, as the wholesome adventures of Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, the Melendy Family, Beany Malone, or the Boxcar Children were reprinted; Ginnie may never have become any child’s best imaginary friend, as the characters in the more popular series did. Nevertheless, the books met a need, and they can still meet that need for any child who still has it.

According to the mass media, the need that used to be met by trivial storybooks like the Ginnie stories is now being met by electronic gadgets. I’m not sure that this is true. Books are cheaper than the “plug-in drugs” we’re told that today’s children crave. Keeping and rereading old books is better for the environment than plugging a TV or computer into the wall. Recycling electronic devices is mostly done overseas, so few Americans have noticed yet, but the recycling process for old TVs, computers, batteries, etc., is even more toxic than producing and recycling paper. Books are easier on the nerves of parents, teachers, and classmates than noisy electronic gadgets. And, given the choice, some children actually prefer to use their imagination to read, reread, and rewrite stories rather than passively watching TV. Parents should not be too hasty to overlook light reading as entertainment for today’s children.

What do you do if a child hasn’t discovered the pleasure of books yet? First of all, if the child is under age ten, I recommend backing off. Some kids (usually boys) are slightly farsighted at this age; their eyes can focus on the page long enough that they learn how to read, but their eyes quickly grow tired of holding this close focus, so they minimize the amount of time they spend reading. This is natural and normal and has nothing to do with the child’s intelligence…if the child is allowed to outgrow it in peace. If mental blocks are set up, or glasses are forced on the child, then not having been an early reader may do permanent harm. Data about the possible damage done by exposure to blinking electronic boxes may still be questionable or inconclusive, but TV, computers, and video games definitely are not good for children’s eyes (or even adults’ eyes)—the question is how much harm they do.

If I knew that a child was able to enjoy reading, I might try a very soft sell of the idea of sharing a book an older relative used to enjoy. Instead of being afraid that the child would be reading about a time, place, or lifestyle different from her or his own, I’d encourage that. It builds the child’s imagination, helps the child understand the differences among people in the real world, gives the child a sense of history, and may even help the child understand the difference between desirable and undesirable “social change.”

However, I wouldn’t expect boys to like Ginnie and the Mystery Doll, and if a girl named this book as a favorite I might try to open a conversation about what she likes about it (the calmness, the serenity, the absence of boys) and whether overindulgence in a taste for calmness and serenity might be what causes the unfortunate old lady to become dependent on visiting children for financial help.

Maybe it’s because of its soft, serene, feminine atmosphere, too, that this book is becoming a bit of a collector’s item. Although Catherine Woolley (who also wrote as Jane Thayer) lived to the age of 100, she no longer needs a dollar…but in order to sell Ginnie and the Mystery Doll online I’d have to charge, currently, $10 per book + $5 per package. Other sellers may offer a better deal so, unless you want to tuck this one into a package with a Fair Trade Book, feel free to take advantage of their offer.

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Book Review: Mandie and the Invisible Troublemaker

Title: Mandie and the Invisible Troublemaker

Author: Lois Gladys Leppard

Date: 1994

Publisher: Bethany House

ISBN: 1-55661-410-8

Length: 173 pages

Quote: “I have a great idea, Uncle John. Why don’t you just buy my school.”

Although the Mandie Books were published by a Christian publisher, and although Mandie is being brought up a Christian who recites a Bible verse for courage and prays for President McKinley, Volume 24 is not exactly what parents think of as a Sunday School book. Mandie goes to a small, pathetic “private school” run by two old women, sisters; the sister responsible for their finances is stressed and irritable, and refuses to listen to Mandie’s truthful explanations of how the messes into which Mandie stumbles came to happen. Mandie happens to overhear the sisters talking and realize that although they can’t afford to expel Mandie, the sisters think it best to make Mandie think they’re going to expel her. She calls their bluff, threatens to leave the school, and decides it’s all right for her to break school rules on purpose since she’s being blamed for someone else’s misdeeds anyway.

At the same time, Mandie is doing what is, for a thirteen-year-old, a noble thing. Most of the girls at her school don’t interest her, although she claims to think of them as friends. Three of them she particularly dislikes. She’s sure that one of her three school enemies is taking papers to her room and tucking open jars of molasses into her bag, just to cause trouble for her. She enlists her school friend Celia to help her find out for sure before she accuses one of them. The mystery isn’t made very easy to guess, and Mandie’s self-control pays off when she finally sees the invisible troublemaker.

Still, her disrespect for the teacher is rebuked but not really repented of—and her heroic refusal to make accusations that might be mistaken is not rewarded by others, either. This is another Mandie Book that definitely reads more like a memory shared by someone who really was in school in 1901 than like a typical moralizing Sunday School story.

Though Lois Gladys Leppard no longer needs a dollar, and I still have to charge the minimum of $5 per book + $5 per package, almost any Fair Trade book would fit comfortably into the package along with this pocket-sized book. Or you could complete your collection with twelve different Mandie Books, which would (probably) cost $65. Payments may be sent to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the page.

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