Dig Here!November 28, 2014
Dig Here! is a bunch of familiar elements — teenage girl best friends, missing treasure, a cranky aunt, and abandoned house, etc. — assembled in a way that didn’t feel familiar. I found myself wondering a lot whether this was the book Gladys Allen set out to write.
The main character, Sandy, is the daughter of missionaries. She’s sent to boarding school during the school year and to various relatives during the summers. When Dig Here! opens, she’s facing the prospect of spending the summer with Aunt Cal, who she’s never met, and who is related to her only by marriage. Aunt Cal says it’s okay for Sandy to bring a friend with her, so she invites her best friend, Eve, and it’s a good thing for her that she does. Eve is a much more forceful personality than Sandy is, and she’s also more adventurous, more sensible, and probably smarter. She’s even better at dealing with Aunt Cal, in part because she’s better at cooking and housework and, I don’t know, getting up on time than Sandy is.
This is one of the things that makes me unsure Allen knows what book she’s writing. Someone — maybe one of Sandy’s parents, in a letter? — talks about how sunny and sweet Sandy is, but all we actually see evidence of is Eve being better at everything. Towards the end you get a little more of a sense of Sandy as a person in her own right, but not much.
It’s an Augusta Huiell Seaman kind of setup. On their arrival at Aunt Cal’s the girls find that Sandy accidentally exchanged suitcases with a fellow bus passenger — a hair tonic salesman, judging by his luggage. A trip to exchange the suitcase for Sandy’s leads them to an old house, and hair tonic guy behaving suspiciously. Then the house turns out to be the one that Aunt Cal should have inherited from her uncle — and would have, if her shiftless cousin hadn’t hidden his will. There also may or may not be an emerald buried somewhere around the property. I’m not sure Eve and Sandy know which of these mysteries they’re investigating, but they investigate with a will, and with the help of cute farmboy Michael, and, eventually, the various hindrances provided by their school friend Hattie May and her brother Hamish. Hamish fancies himself as a detective.
I think what makes Dig Here! feel unusual is that books like these tend to have a very narrow focus. The kids solving the mystery are usually a small, tight-knit group. The crotchety relative exists to have their heart melted by the main character. You get your protagonist, his or her friends, whatever adults they live with, and maybe a villain. But in Dig Here!, everything’s part of a larger picture you don’t see. There are characters you never meet, like Sandy’s parents and Aunt Cal’s cousin. And the characters you do meet have stuff going on that the kids don’t know about. There are subplots that Sandy and Eve don’t find out about until the end, and then only as an afterthought. Aunt Cal is investigating on her own account, and doesn’t tell Sandy anything about it. And she doesn’t need to confide in Sandy — she’s not socially isolated, she’s got friends, and they probably know more about the mystery than Sandy does, too. It gives the book a different feel than you’d get from Seaman, or from any mystery where the kids hide what’s happening from the clueless grownups. And I enjoyed that.
The downside of the kids not having most of the story is that their side of the mystery isn’t that interesting, and the characters I enjoyed most were the ones Allen spent the least time on, but it was fun.I don’t think I need to seek out more books by Gladys Allen, but if I ended up reading another one, I wouldn’t be upset.