Sunday, May 8, 2016

Lucinda's Magnificent Secret

Lucinda's Magnificent Secret
by H. Ellison Fethke
Recommended Ages: 10+

City-girl Miranda's plans for the summer center on hanging out with her girlfriends, splashing in the neighborhood pool, and the like. So she isn't exactly thrilled when her parents pack her off to a dirty old farm to spend three weeks with her Great Aunt Lindy. Stepping off the plane, she is surprised to be met not by a blue-haired old lady, but by a stylish, petite blonde who drives a silver sports car. Instead of a boring time on a dirty old farm, she enjoys a chance to explore a big, comfortable farmhouse that dates back at least to the U.S. Civil War. And besides making friends with children her age, she also discovers secret rooms and finds a never-before-spotted clue to the fate of a jeweled locket that once belonged to her grandmother's great aunt Lucinda.

The hidey-holes in the house are easily explained: during the Civil War, the area was overrun by bands of irregular troops called bushwhackers, who would often kill all the men on a farm and steal everything of value. So the Taylor family created hidden rooms behind the front and back stairs, with peep-holes looking out on the approaches to the house, so they could hide themselves and their most valued possessions if the bushwhackers came near. A sad mystery clung to the locket Lucinda was seen wearing in some old family photos: When the girl died before it could be retrieved from its hiding place, the locket was never seen again.

One clue leads to another, and Miranda eagerly pursues them, learning more and more about the history of the family farm and the contents of its buildings. The attic of an old carriage house furnishes Miranda with trunkloads of old clothes for a game of dress-up with her new country friends. The overseer's cottage turns up little more than the nest of a field mouse. Just as Miranda fears she will run out of time before finding the locket, a tip from a nearly 100-year-old man leads her to identify which of the farms many rectangular buildings was meant by the "roundhouse" mentioned in Lucinda's final clue.

I became interested in reading this book after I interviewed its author, Hazel Fethke, for a newspaper article about her daughter's death from complications of Lyme disease. Her eyes lit up with excitement when she talked about her writing, and I couldn't help being intrigued by a book taking place one county over from where I live. Mrs. Fethke told me the story was set in the adjacent county to the north of her family farm in rural Florence, Mo. The book's historical background of bushwhackers blazing a trail of terror across central Missouri is genuine. In fact, the town of Florence, then a thriving center of slave-owning southern sympathizers, was burned by Union forces during the war.

In today's political climate, it is a daring move to look back with any sympathy on the slave-owning side of that conflict; but it is important to remember that people's family history is what it is. Whatever good or bad was in them, whatever side of the conflict they were on, the Civil War was a devastating epoch in this region's history and in the lives of families who have, in some cases, passed down their story through the generations to this day. Readers who do not think they can ignore the political implications of a present-day girl making exciting discoveries about her slave-owning ancestors, may want to give this book a pass. Readers who can understand a child's excitement on making a personal connection with history - or, more to the point, with another girl who lived 150 years ago - and discovering the similarities and differences between their young lives - this book is a gift to them.

Just because I have met Mrs. Fethke in person and like her as a person, doesn't get her off a bit of friendly criticism. I think this is a nice book that may be of local interest, especially to kids with an interest in Missouri history. It is an easy-going, gentle, what-I-did-on-summer-vacation kind of book, somewhat in the tradition of Swallows and Amazons and the whole great tradition of "school holidays" books for children. It does not have high drama, fast-paced action, or expensive production values. It could, excuse me for mentioning it, be improved by the blue pencil of a good editor; the amount of easily-corrected punctuation and hyphenation errors that slipped by are a dead giveaway that this is a self-published book. And I'm not 100-percent convinced the dialect spoken by characters such as Big Abe and Old Joe accurately represents the local country-talk I have heard in the area; but I'll be the first to admit, Hazel Fethke has lived here longer than I have.

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