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."