Friday, February 3, 2012

It's a Mystery!

by Sheila Connolly

My daughter has a friend who loves to prowl yard sales and junk shops for treasures, and then runs out of room and has to pass his finds on to his friends. One of my daughter's earlier "gifts" was a mink pillbox hat (anybody out there need one?). A more recent one was a children's book, The Kitten's Secret, by Margaret Gossett, illustrated by Mary Barton, and dated 1950.

It was a Wonder Book, from those halcyon days when mothers stayed home and kept house, and children were polite and well-mannered and played well together. Uh-huh. I was there, and that's not quite how I remember it, but we're talking about fiction here.

It's a charming little book, in which Pat and Molly (brother and sister) are given a kitten by the grocery man (the what?). It's an orange tabby with white markings, and they name her Butter because she came from the grocery store. I have two cats who look just like Butter (nice that some things don't go out of style).

I started reading the book aloud to my daughter (age 26), with sarcastic intentions, but about halfway through I realized that the book was actually a mystery. All the structure was there, ready to be imprinted upon inquiring young minds in the 1950s.

The plot centers on where the new kitten has decided to sleep. Pat and Molly are the primary sleuths, equal partners in the enterprise. The cat seems to sleep a lot, but then, so do the children (nap-time, you know). Butter is very good at concealing her favorite place, even though the children (for heaven's sake, Molly is running around the house in a dress! That no doubt required ironing!) are assiduous in analyzing the problem and seeking to solve it.

Thus begins the mystery. The youngsters tail the cat (there may be a pun in there, but ignore it). They observe carefully where the cat chooses to nap during the day—in a bowl, in a basket of muddy potatoes under the sink, on a mop—the list goes on. One might almost think the cat is deliberately misleading her pursuers (hmm, a pair of eager pre-school kids chasing you…wouldn't you hide, if you were a kitten?).

Ah, but the kitten leaves clues! Muddy pawprints on the window, a doll's hat on the floor, a lone sock (aha! We have solved yet another classic mystery: the cat took them all!), a single brown bean. And the author quite rightly makes each of these a true clue: some deduction is required to fit them all together and solve the mystery.

Mother (who the illustrator chooses not to show until near the end of the story) serves as a sort of voice from the gods, or maybe a Mycroft Holmes or a Yoda, gently nudging the youthful sleuths in the right direction. She may not know the answer, or she may be withholding it in order to impart some life lesson, letting the children figure things out for themselves. Her advice/mantra? Look for the little yellow hairs.

It's all here: the set-up, the puzzle, the collection of the clues (that takes up the majority of the text), and finally, the grand denouement, when the children make the critical deduction based on all the evidence collected —and find the kitten! Even Mother has an "aha!" moment there.

Perversely, after that the kitten abandons that secret hiding place (which obviously is secret no more), having played her pivotal role in the socio-psychological development of Molly and Pat, and sleeps where she is supposed to. And I hope Pat and Molly stop chasing her around the house and waking her up all the time!

Spoiler alert: the kitten was the mending basket! Which was about the size of a bushel basket, and full (before the kitten). Obviously Mother is falling down on her job.

I apologize that I was unable to find any additional information on the author, Margaret Gossett, other than a couple of other children's books she wrote in the same era. I'd love to know if she wrote any adult fiction.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, if I'd read your post twenty years ago, I wouldn't have blinked over all you said about how things have changed. But my daughter-in-law (a very smart computer programmer) has chosen to stay home with the kids (till next year or so, when the younger turns six), and my granddaughters ARE very well behaved and play wonderfully well together. And they do wear dresses, often what I'd have called party dresses or dress-up dresses, around the house--with tights or leggings underneath so their freedom of movement isn't hampered. What REALLY hasn't changed is that kids never do things the way their parents did!

Sandra Parshall said...

Some charming picture books (not mysteries) are still being published for young children. I love the Laurie Joffe Numeroff and Felicia bond picture books (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, etc.) and will stand in the library or bookstore shamelessly reading and laughing at them. Dr. Seuss introduced a darker tone into children's books, but some are still innocent and playful.

Anita Page said...

I'm always intrigued by children's book illustrations from the forties and fifties. The world looks like such an innocent, appealing place, even while we know about the sexism and racism and McCarthyism, etc.

Julia Buckley said...

I love old children's books! And Sheila, even more charming than the story of Butter is the way you narrated this post. :)

Maureen Hayes said...

OMG, I actually had that children's book back in the late 60's or early 70's! I thought it was great when I was little! Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

BTW, I love to garage sale and go to estate sales, etc... Old books are a nice way to look back. I agree with the other commenters, especially Elizabeththat their are still well mannered kids (though they are becoming rarer) and if you spend time together as a family it bears fruit.