Background: From the 1950s through the 1970s Whitman published a huge number of these squat, dust jacketless hardcovers, separately targeting boys and girls. Some of these were based on TV shows, some were based on celebrities having imaginary adventures and solving crimes (Annette Funicello! Patty Duke!), and some were original series about plucky eponymous girl-heroines solving mysteries, having adventures and learning valuable lessons: your Trixie Beldens, Ginny Gordons and Donna Parkers.
While Julie Campbell’s Trixie Belden series is probably the only one of these that can be considered a certified classic, the others are, at least by reputation, satisfyingly solid efforts. Starting this week we’ll be looking at some of these lesser-known Whitman series for girls.
…And, one title in, I am already rethinking the wisdom of this theme, because this one was terrible.
The Plot: Thirteen year old Robin Kane lives in the northern California town of Pacific Point with her parents and siblings, and spends her time palling around with her best friend Melinda “Mindy” Hunter, the daughter of famous movie director Mr. Maxwell Hunter. We learn this through dialogue so laboriously expository that even Robin’s brother comments aloud to that effect:
“My best friend, Melinda Hunter, if you want to know, daughter of Mr. Maxwell Hunter, the big movie picture and television producer.”
“Heck, we all know what Mindy’s father does,” Kevin said.
The Kane pater familias supports the family through his work as a cartoonist on a Family Circus-type comic strip following the adventures of three siblings named Danny, Muggins and Fatso. I hope the Kanes are putting away some money to pay for therapy later in life, as Mr. Kane has informed Robin that she is the basis for Fatso.
Mrs. Kane makes gnomes out of driftwood.
The big news that Robin is pictured gamboling through the house about is that Mr. Maxwell Hunter is filming his latest epic, The Changeling, in Pacific Point and both the Kanes and his own children will be employed as unpaid non-union extras!
Robin, Kevin and youngest sister Amy “Sugar” Kane (ugh, I just got that) are just so excited to meet their idol, teenaged Irish actress Moira Rafferty. Better yet, Moira will be joining them for dinner, even though Robin is worried that she will think they are a bunch of lousy beatniks for serving hamburgers. However, Mrs. Kane reminds them that
“Everybody in the whole world, even in darkest Africa, eats hamburgers.”
The next day, Robin, Mindy and the 800 other people who are dropped into the story and then never developed into actual characters, are getting ready for their walk-ons when they spot glamorous teen method actress Moira on he set:
“Holy cow!” Kevin cried. “That’s Moira Rafferty? You say she’s just like one of us- with that face? She looks like a Zombie from Zombieville. Jumpin’ cats!”
Sigh. Now who sounds like a cartoon beatnik, Kevin?
Moira, of course, turns out to be just so nice and all quaint and Irish and stuff! She has like 27 siblings back in Ireland and is always saying quaint Irish things about her “mother and daddo”, like how back in County Kerry she still has to help her sisters with the dishes even though she is a huge movie star, lest “they feel the touch of a willow switch on our legs.”
Oh, Ireland! So picturesque with its famines and child abuse! The Kanes help Moira feel at ease by constantly talking about leprechauns.
At least the Irish do better than the Mexican characters who get introduced next, who are drawn with all of the cultural sensitivity of the Frito Bandito, as we FINALLY start having a mystery to solve.
Mr. Maxwell Hunter was planning on filming scenes at his own ranch with his own horses, presumably for tax purposes, when his ranch hand, Jose, arrives with the news that Robin’s favorite horse, Nugget, has gone missing. Jose comes to the immediate, reasonable conclusion that Black Magic (excuse me “magia negre!”) must be responsible.
The only clue is a blue chalk graffito of a pelican on the paddock wall. Robin wants to ride wildly out onto the prairie (Desert? Wilderness? I am unclear as to the exact biome that Pacific Point is a part of) in search of her horse, so they get Jose’s wife, Mamacita, to make them some sandwiches out of frijoles and tacos to stuff into their saddlebags. We learn that “Mamacita kept house indifferently and lazily” for the Hunters. Because, you know, Mexican.
Robin and Mindy get caught in a thunderstorm on the mesa and have to take shelter in a cave, where they overhear a conversation between the notorious El Gato and his gang of cattle-rustlers. Along with the gang is the mysterious hobo that stumbled into Mr. Maxwell Hunter’s film shoot earlier that day. Robin is convinced both that the hobo, Matt, is a nice guy being held against his will (because why would a white guy be hanging around with cattle rustlers?) and that El Gato is the reason for Nugget’s disappearance. It’s just a feeling she has. That’s why she wants to be a Secret Agent!
Instead of going to the sheriff and letting him know that there is an old-timey gang of stereotypes rustling cattle, Robin and Mindy go water skiing. Then they go surfing. Then Robin suddenly remembers her clue and gets the sheriff to arrest some poor preppy because he has a blue pelican painted on his sailboat.
The Sheriff is pretty mad about that, but to be fair, he doesn’t seem all that great at sheriff-ing, either; when Robin and Mindy suddenly remember (oh, yeah!) El Gato said that he was going to move his rustled cows by boat to Tijuana, he insists that he doesn’t have to question those swarthy Sicilians down at the docks because he knows that they only traffic in those weird Aye-talian vegetables, like artichokes. No he will not ask him! God! Stop pestering him, Robin Kane!
Again, Robin takes things into her own hands, and down at the docks she sees a barge full of stolen cattle. She knows better to trust swarthy foreigners!
El Gato is caught. But there is still no sign of Nugget the horse, which Robin is very upset about. Finally the whole gang sets back out to the mesa where Robin and Mindy first spotted El Gato. Robin wanders off and has an encounter with a crazy old prospector who tries to shoot her. Which frankly, the rest of the gang isn’t all that disturbed by.
Robin, following all of the due process required by a 13 year old Special Agent, gets her brother to lasso and tie up the prospector so she can search his shack for signs of Nugget and/or Hobo Matt. They do find Hobo Matt’s young son playing outside, and decide to take him back to the Hunters, because they might as well add kidnapping to the list of laws that don’t apply to them.
They find Hobo Matt on the way back to the ranch, who has been beaten up and left for dead by El Gato. It turns out that he only meant to borrow the horse. He tells them that the prospector, Hardtack Jack, is his friend and the only person who would take him in after he got back from ‘Nam and found out that his wife had died, leaving him with a small child to take care of. He tells them to go untie Hardtack Jack, but the kids think that maybe he should learn a lesson about conforming to society’s expectations leave him hogtied.
Hobo Matt had come to Pacific Point to try to get a job as a ranch hand, but Mr. Maxwell Hunter hadn’t hired him because, eww, hobos. That’s how he got mixed up with El Gato. But now Mr. Maxwell Hunter is guilted into hiring him, and besides
“Mamacita will like to have another little muchacho to mother”.
Jeez, gringos, why don’t you keep track of your own kids for once.
Mr. Maxwell Hunter is so pleased with Robin’s loose-cannon, breaking all the rules, turn in your badge and gun, McCloud! style of law enforcement that he signs over Nugget to her as a reward.
What is the Mystery of The Blue Pelican? It is a tattoo that Hobo Matt has.
Well, that clears everything right up.
Sign It Was Written in 1966 Department: Tacos is always italicized so we know it is a foreign word.
Spontaneous Declaration Department: “I feel just the size I am, five feet!”
Evidence of a Cease-and-Desist From Brian Wilson Department: Pacific Point teenagers love that famous band, The Surf Boys.