Thursday, December 25, 2014

Book Review: Mandie and the Trunk's Secret

Merry Christmas, Gentle Readers. (I'm not actually online on Christmas Day! I actually posted this during the week before Christmas, using the "schedule" feature to offer something for everyone to read while the computer centers are closed...)

Book Review: Mandie and the Trunk’s Secret
Author: Lois Gladys Leppard
Date: 1985
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 0-87123-839-X
Length: 116 pages
Quote: “‘You may open anything in the attic,’ Miss Hope said.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, Lois Gladys Leppard wrote more than two dozen “Mandie Books.” The plots of these books were loosely based on Leppard’s mother’s memories of her own early life.
Although Mandie is realistically characterized as a little girl whose spiritual life is mostly confined to reminding herself of a Bible verse in scary situations, her Christian identity caused some bookstores to want to confine her adventures to the Christian publishing ghetto. However, due to the books’ regional appeal, Mandie broke out of the ghetto. Mandie Books are distributed by the Smoky Mountain tourism industry, and they’ve sold well.
Mandie is the daughter of a rich Anglo-American who shocked her family by marrying a biracial husband. (At this time the Cherokee were still perceived as an enemy nation, defeated but still distrusted by other Americans.) Mandie’s father chose to “pass for White” and marry another Anglo-American; Mandie accepted her stepmother as her real mother, and was quite surprised, when her father and stepmother also died, to meet her living relatives. She had not expected that she would have either a filthy-rich grandmother, or a lot of Cherokee relatives, not all of whom even speak English.
Throughout the series, Mandie will show herself to be more brave and less bigoted than many of her generation, always willing to tell people that despite her blonde hair she is “one-fourth Cherokee.” Historically, the majority of people like her, including the author known as Forrest Carter, enjoyed the privileges of being “legally White” and said nothing about their other ancestors. Mandie’s attitude is definitely unusual, but nice; I’ll let it pass.
In the earlier volumes of the series, Mandie goes to school near Asheville. In this volume, when Mandie and her friend Celia are given permission to explore the attic of the old house their teachers are converting into a school building, their interest in the old letters they find leads them to explore the nearby hill country. The children learn a lesson about respecting other people’s boundaries...but my feeling is that, if a non-Christian publisher had bought the series, Mandie’s religious identity could have been edited out without affecting the story.
I’m glad that Bethany House didn’t force Leppard to cave in to Christian-phobics. In none of the books that I’ve read does Mandie have what adults would call a religious experience; she has ordinary adventures—like talking to people, some of whom are friendly, and some of whom tell her she asks too many questions. Still, my impression is that her religious identity is as important to her as her ethnic and regional identities. If Mandie had been a child of the 1990s rather than the 1890s, she might have been encouraged not to try to think about religious matters yet; since she is a child of the 1890s, and of the Southern Appalachian mountains, she would have been very unusual if she had not been encouraged to try to define herself as a Christian, attend church, read the Bible, say prayers, and recite Bible verses. Those were things Southern mountain girls did. Mandie’s Bible verses are as integral to her historical context as her buttoned shoes, or the tour of Europe she’ll take before anyone thinks about sending her to college.

So, if depriving Mandie of her favorite Bible verse would have made her less credible, where does that leave the improbability of one child solving 28 mysteries? (Even if most of them are the “mystery of who wrote these old letters” variety, rather than the police-detective mysteries solved by Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden.) This is a fair question. Taken individually, however, the Mandie stories are plausible, suspenseful without being melodramatic or requiring Mandie to be much braver or smarter than all the adults, and, if not really “Sunday School books,” never opposed to good moral values.

Lois Gladys Leppard no longer needs a dollar, but I can still sell this book for $5 + $5 shipping. If you can get a better deal elsewhere, please do; scroll down to look for Fair Trade Books, for which one-tenth of the price you pay goes to living authors.