Maggies’s little sister was the first to disappear. Would Maggie be next?
Background: Ann M. Martin got her start as an editor and house writer for Scholastic (one of her first published titles was for Scholastic’s Wildfire YA romance imprint); in 1986 the first Baby Sitter’s Club title would be published and the rest, as they say, is history.
While the BSC books made the occasional half-hearted stab at social relevance (Divorce! Learning disabilities! Diabetes!), I don’t think they could in any way be described as “morally ambiguous” or “somewhat disturbing, actually”.
Published the same year as the first BSC title, Missing Since Monday finds Martin writing in the Lois Duncan/Caroline Cooney mode, and while (yes!) is basically still about babysitting, also deals with kidnapping, wildly dysfunctional parents, and sexual harassment.
The Plot: 17 year old Maggie and her 18 year old brother, Mike, are left in charge of their 4 year old half-sister, Courtenay, when their father and step-mother head to the Caribbean for their long-delayed honeymoon.
Mike and Maggie have an okay relationship with their step-mother, Leigh, despite the fact that she is high-strung and overprotective of her daughter. Mike and Maggie’s mother is a “free spirit” who hasn’t been around since their parents’ divorce 8 years earlier; the siblings occasionally receive postcards from the latest ashram or pottery commune at which she has taken up residence.
Mike and Maggie pass the weekend uneventfully, until an innocuous pizza party is crashed by their friends’ creepy older brother, Brad:
Brad was too old to be hanging around with us. He was twenty-one and should have been in college, where twenty-one year olds belong.
He gave everyone the creeps.
He would ask me weird questions, he’d never smile, he’d always sit too close to me, and he’d always have his hand on my arm or leg or someplace when he talked to me.
The one thing he’s got going for him is that he’s incredibly handsome. Personally, I think it’s a shame to waste such good looks on such a weird person.
“Weird” is putting it mildly. Brad is gross. He is constantly blackmailing his siblings into doing his bidding, and even Maggie’s huge quarterback boyfriend, David, feels powerless to step in and stop the harassment.
Maggie is especially disturbed when Brad takes an unwholesome interest in Courtenay at the pizza party, and seems to constantly trying to get her away from the crowd and alone with him. Ugh, are we really going there, Ann M. Martin?
Maggie finally makes some excuses about Courtenay having to go to bed early, but she hears Brad lurking as she gets her sister ready for bed. Again: ugh.
Monday morning, Maggie and Mike see Courtenay off on the pre-school bus as usual, and they go about their normal day, making plans for Maggie to meet the bus in the afternoon. Initially, the only blot on the week is the fact that Maggie has been the recipient of some heavy-breathing, are-you-in-the-house-alone type phone calls that she has been too embarrassed to tell her parents or brother about.
However, when Courtenay’s afternoon bus is first 5, and then 10 minutes late, Maggie immediately has the feeling that something is wrong. She calls Courtenay’s neighborhood friends, and then the school secretary, and soon learns that nobody has seen her sister since she got off the bus that morning.
The bulk of the book deals with the police investigation into Courtenay’s disappearance, and Mike and Maggie organizing the community-, and eventually nation-wide, search. Leigh is especially devastated, of course, and blames Maggie for her daughter’s disappearance. Along the way there are some twisty revelations regarding Leigh’s first husband, who has a short fuse and was especially upset when he found out that he couldn’t have biological children; and Mike and Maggie’s mother, Jessica, whom they learn has a court order barring her from seeing them, because during the divorce proceedings she was found to be abusive and neglectful.
Maggie continues to receive the phone calls, which she is too embarrassed to admit to the police, especially after an investigating officer leeringly questions if she is sure that Courtenay is her father’s child.
Three weeks (!!!) after their sister’s disappearance, Maggie receives a phone call from her mother, requesting to secretly meet with her and Mike. Despite the fact that the police consider Jessica to be a possible suspect, the siblings can’t believe that she has anything to do with Courtenay’s disappearance. Oddly, they also have no memory of the abuse and neglect their father claims occurred:
“When I was little and you were at school and Dad at work, did you know that Mom would sit on the floor in my room and play dolls with me? Not many mothers would do that… Mike?
“Do you remember any of that stuff Dad told Lambert about?”
Mike hesitated. “I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think so, either.”
The question of whether Jessica actually abused Maggie and Mike or if their father railroaded her in a bitter custody battle is never resolved! It kind gets glossed over when they meet their mother at a diner in a seedy part of Ridgewood, New Jersey, and Mom isn’t just a flaky hippie, she’s a sad burn-out.
While the reunion between mother and children is a happy one, even drawing a sentimental tear from the hardboiled waitress, things get weird when Jessica announces she has “a present” for them.
At this point the undercover FBI agents spring into action, arresting Jessica and assuring the startled siblings that Courtenay is safe after her month-long ordeal. Good thing Maggie’s Dad was listening in on the extension!
The book wraps up with a combination Stranger Danger PSA and (somewhat) realistic note that everyone has to go to counseling. Jessica is committed to the state mental hospital.
What about those obscene phone calls? It was Brad, duh. He is arrested and is given probation, plus he also has to see “a shrink”. The whole thing is explained away in that he just liked Maggie:
“But why? Why was he harassing me?”
“He said he wanted you to be his girlfriend. He said he always liked you, and that when you started going out with David, he felt he had to do something to get your attention.”
GAWD, MAGGIE! Why are you so uptight, he just wanted to keep you locked in his basement, Silence of the Lambs-style! WHY DO YOU REJECT HIS LOVE????
Sign It Was Written In 1986 Department: “We’d gotten our Trivial Pursuit game and selected two funny movies to play on the VCR later. For the time being, our television was turned to MTV. We were all set.”
The Best Thing About This Book: I bet somewhere Brianna is pretty pissed off about her Mom giving away her signed first edition: