Monday, July 20, 2009

Mystery of the Green Cat

I'm going to be visiting San Francisco with my girls next month, and as I thought about the sightseeing that would be most interesting for kids their ages, I found myself thinking about a mystery I'd read when I was ten or eleven that was set in San Francisco, and how it had such an evocative setting that things seemed familiar to me when I finally got to visit it in person, many years later. I remembered that the author was Phyllis A. Whitney - I loved her juvenile mysteries, and when I began my foray up into the adult section of the library, I was delighted to discover she'd written dozens of books for adults as well.

A quick Google search gave the the title, but my library no longer has it in the collection. So I requested it through interlibrary loan (and many thanks to Longwood College's Dabney Lancaster Library for loaning me theirs so I could read this to my children!). I had vague memories of the book, so I wasn't sure how it would hold up to their modern scrutiny, but they were interested the entire time, always asking for more whenever we drew to the end of a chapter.

The story is about the family that forms when a widow and widower decide to remarry. The man has thirteen-year-old twin boys, and the woman has two girls, one eight and one twelve. The boys' mother died only two years ago, and they are feeling resentful of this new mother and sisters, particularly as they had to move to a new house in a new San Francisco neighborhood.
Twelve-year-old Jill would like to be friends with her new brothers, but right away she sees that there are issues, and while Andy seems nice, his brother Adrian is moody and outright rude to her mother.

The complications of blending two families into one are only one part of the book, however. The mystery element is introduced as the children become friends with an odd woman who lives in an old San Francisco mansion just the hill from their house. Miss Lydia is in elderly invalid, kept a virtual prisoner by her overbearing sister Mathilda. But Jill and Andy strike up a friendship with her, aided and abetted by Hana, the daughter of a Japanese couple who work at the house. Miss Lydia is usually clearheaded and cheerful, but certain subjects send her mind back to traumatic events of her past, particularly to a difficult time when she lived in Japan and survived a major earthquake there. She begs them to find her little green cat - but what on earth could she be talking about?

There is no doubt that the book has a dated quality to it (particularly the frequent use of words "gay" and "queer" - I occasionally found myself changing them to "cheerful" and "odd" as I read aloud because it sounded so strange to my modern ears). But the subject matter is topical, still, with families so often coming together these days through divorce. And it was a great introduction to San Francisco, which was a colorful backdrop for the action of the book, complete with sightseeing trips for Jill, who had never been to San Francisco before. The family dynamics were portrayed with empathy and honesty, and the characters were believable. Jill's little sister Carol, at eight years old, seemed much, much younger than my eight-year-old and was sidelined from much of the action in the story. And Hana, the young Japanese girl, was portrayed an a fairly stereotypical way. Still, I remember when I read the book as a child, I thought it was very interesting to have a character who was Japanese, since most of the characters in books I read were white and either American or British.

I enjoyed this revisit with an old favorite, and I was pleased to see that my girls did, too. I only own one of Whitney's juvenile mysteries, The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost, which was my absolute favorite. I snatched it up when I saw it in a used book store a few years ago, and I look forward to sharing it with my girls one day soon.

Mystery of the Green Cat by Phyllis A. Whitney (The Westminster Press, 1962)

Also reviewed at:
GregLsBlog: "It's one of the first books I remember reading where the kids weren't 'perfect' (particularly for a mystery novel) and something about that resonated."
Kinnie's Korner: "If you enjoy mysteries and exciting books then you will love this book."

4 comments:

  1. I used to read her mysteries too! I remember really liking one called something "Mesa", it might have been "The Mystery of the Haunted Mesa".

    It's a shame about those two words. I find myself changing them all the time as well when I read aloud and you find them in pretty much any book written in the 60s or earlier.

    I have this "thing", call it a pet peeve maybe, about modern usage of words which makes their original meaning unacceptable because their new meanings have s*xual or racial connotations.

    Ejaculate is another found in older books. "Oh, that sounds like a smashing idea!" he ejaculated. This just causes modern teens (and grown men) to giggle uncontrollably when heard read out loud, unfortunatley. I know from experience. {sigh}

    Niggardly is another one. Perfectly innocent word meaning miserly which really gets frowned upon these days because of the obvious association with the racial slur. BUT it has no connection with it whatsoever, that word comes from the latin word niger meaning black.

    Sorry, you hit a nerve with me! Let's just say I'm a big fan of the original English language!!

    So, um, yeah, Phyllis A. Whitney. Loved her kid's mysteries.

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  2. I think I read that Haunted Mesa one, too, but I can't remember much about it. And one about a blind girl, that I also liked. That is funny about your annoyance at word usage changes! I think it's fascinating to see how language changes over time, and there are things that annoy me, too - mostly when words are used wrong - like fortuitous, which simply means by chance - not good or bad luck, just chance - and you know that soon it will be in the dictionary with a secondary meaning of serendipitous. Grrr. Isn't seredipitous good enough? I think I changed the words as I read because I worry that if the girls use them in their originally intended way it might be construed as offensive, which would totally confuse them! I had to laugh at your experience with "ejaculate." I can see a lot of giggling happening with that one! :-)

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  3. Wow, does this ever bring back memories! I owned this... I read it a long time ago! haha. I don't remember what I thought about it, but I do remember the cover. :)

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  4. Kailana - Isn't it funny how the sight of a book cover can bring memories rushing back?

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