Background: From the 1950s through the 1970s Whitman published a huge number of these squat, dust jacketless hard covers, 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. As we did last fall, this month will again be devoted to some of these lesser-known Whitman series for girls.
The Plot: When last we left girl-sleuth Meg Duncan, she and her BFF Kerry Carmody were successful both solving and covering up the theft of their eccentric neighbor Mrs. Parlow’s missing heirloom diamonds.
This time around, Meg’s charming and witty bachelor uncle Hal, the director of a small museum in Washington D.C., is visiting the Duncans, delighting Meg and Kerry with rides in his vintage Duesenberg and the legend of a treasure buried on the nearby Ashley plantation.
Uncle Hal agrees to take Meg and Kerry to call upon the elderly Ashley sisters, Miss Clara and Miss Jenny, who have fallen (genteelly, of course) onto hard times and are now raising chickens on the grounds of the plantation. The Ashleys are distant cousins to the Duncans, and Meg and Kerry are delighted by the sisters’ stories about their ancestors and their enormous doll collection, as well as their discovery of the “Witch’s Stairway”, a secret path from the house down to the river, used in the days when laundry was done outdoors. The hidden stairway gives people the illusion of disappearing into thin air… like a witch? Is that something witches do? Sure.
Naturally, Meg wants to find the lost treasure, which is the family silver that had been hidden when the Ashley Ancestors had to flee during the Civil War, to ensure the Ashleys financial security in their old age.
Meg and Kerry also encounter a red-headed boy named Glenn Morgan poking around, and the sisters explain that he’s an orphan who has come from Ohio and was hoping to be hired on as a farm hand, but the sisters can’t afford to pay him.
After Miss Jenny breaks her arm, Meg and Kerry stay with Miss Clara to help with the chickens and catch Glenn breaking into the house in the middle of the night; eventually he fesses up that he’s the great-grandson of Melinda Ashley, who hid the family silver in the first place. After escaping the orphanage, he followed the riddles in Melinda’s diary to Virginia, and was just looking for clues in the library! (Jeez, Whitman loves red-headed orphan boys! Clearly he is not up to no good!)
Unfortunately, Melinda expressed herself solely through poems and riddles, so the diary is not of any immediate help in locating the hidden silver. However, Meg concludes that the diary tells them to look for another clue in a writing desk that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, which Uncle Hal is trying to persuade the sisters to sell to his museum. The sisters are evasive when questioned about it; eventually they ‘fess up that as children they squabbled so much over who got to keep the desk in their room, that their parents ordered a an exact copy made so they could each have a Thomas Jefferson desk; now they have forgotten which is which.
HOWEVER, when Uncle Hal examines the desks, he finds that they are both copies. He takes the girls with him to Washington to confront the crooked cabinet maker that made the copies, and charms/threatens his daughter into returning both the desk and the clue. Back in Virginia, Meg, Kerry and Glenn get digging in the old chimney that they are directed to, but come up empty handed.
Finally, Meg suggests an alternative interpretation of Melinda’s poem, and they go looking for a hidden root-cellar behind the Witch’s Stairway. Success! Unfortunately, the ancient cellar is structurally unsound and they trigger a fairly terrifying cave-in. They end up spending all night trapped in the cellar, until Miss Jenny’s pet dog digs his way in and Meg is able to send a message with him to their rescuers.
The trio is dug out of the cellar, Uncle Hal announces that the silver can be sold to museums to enable the sisters to retire from chicken farming, and they will adopt Glenn. Because what else do you do with a red-headed runaway orphan boy?
The books in the Meg series run kind of thin on both plot and characterization; on the plus side they move right along, with Meg and Kerry taking the initiative to chase down anything that might be a clue. The simplicity of the books also give them a timeless quality: originally published in the late 1960s, they still have no details to date them…
Sign It Was Written In 1967 Department: …except possibly Meg and Kerry’s matching outfits, as pictured on the cover.
What are they dressed as? United Nations Tour Guides? Hot Dog On A Stick employees? Braniff Stewardesses?