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A row of Trixie Belden mysteries occupied a bookshelf in the bedroom I shared with my sister when we were kids. There were some Nancy Drews and a couple of Ginny Gordons, inherited from our mom, but I preferred Trixie, hands down. She was a thirteen year-old, curly-haired tomboy who hated math, argued with her brothers and shirked her chores, not a perfect goody-goody like Nancy Drew. Even though Trixie was known to bemoan her many perceived flaws, she and her best friend Honey Wheeler rose to every challenge and solved cases in thirty-nine books penned between 1948 and 1986. My sister, Kim, and I avidly collected the Trixie paperbacks in the 1970s. (If you ask her, Kim can still tell you the title of any volume number in the series.)
I’m pretty nostalgic about Trixie because, heck, she was a big part of my childhood. I still own the entire series, including first editions of the first three volumes. When I started making notes for this post, I got sucked into The Gatehouse Mystery (#3) and read a hundred pages before I could extract myself.
Rather than do a New Year’s resolution post, I thought I’d ring in 2014 with a list of things I learned, or wish I’d learned, from Trixie Belden, along with some thoughts from Kim and her daughter, Alex, who kindly collaborated on this post via text.
1) I wish I had Trixie’s confidence in her instincts, and that I were a better judge of character. Trixie’s instincts about people usually proved sound, even when her friends and family doubted her. But in the real world, people are not all good or all bad, and even when you think you’ve sized someone up fairly, sometimes you discover you’ve measured them with the wrong yardstick.
2) Alex says the books taught her not to underestimate strangers. In The Black Jacket Mystery (8) Dan Mangan, nephew of Regan, the Wheelers’ groom, came to live with his uncle to escape pressure to join a gang in New York City, and though he proved himself a true and trustworthy friend, he did not win immediate acceptance into the group of young people.
3) Kim says reading the books made her want to learn Spanish. In the Mystery in Arizona (5), the kids solved a mystery during their Christmas vacation at a Tucson dude ranch. What they learned about Mexican customs and culture helped solve the mystery. In the Mystery of the Blinking Eye (12) Trixie’s excitement at translating a Mexican woman’s prophesy and solving the related mystery were enough to make us think that knowing Spanish might come in handy. Just in case we ever found ourselves in a similar situation, of course.
4) Trixie single-mindedly pursued her goals, even though being a detective was not a common career choice for girls in the late 1940s. Despite her perfect record solving cases, she still had to fight to be taken seriously in every installment of the series. Jim, her love interest, and, in her words, “the most wonderful boy in the world” teased Trixie and Honey, saying they could name their detective firm Moll Dicks, Incorporated or Schoolgirl Shamuses. No one made fun of Jim for wanting to start a boarding school for orphans with his half million dollar inheritance. No one made fun of Brian for wanting to be a doctor, or Mart for his love of farming, or even of Diana for trying to decide between being an artist or a stewardess, but even Trixie’s mother obstructed her daughter’s investigations. How many times did Moms interrupt Trixie’s search for clues and remind her it was her turn to babysit her little brother, Bobby? Or weed the garden? Or gather the eggs? Or dust the living room?
5) The characters traveled all over the United States and abroad, and what I learned from their experiences supplemented what I was learning in school. I answered a question in Spanish once that made the guy in front of me turn around and ask, “How in the heck did you know that?” I just shrugged, rather than tell him I’d read it in a Trixie Belden book.
6) Fans get quite attached to a beloved cast of characters like Trixie, Honey, Diana, Jim, Brian, Mart, and Dan. If anyone were still writing Trixie Beldens, I’d still be reading them. In fact, I had to quit visiting fan fiction sites because I’d get sucked in for hours at a time, only to emerge, bleary-eyed, wondering what day it was.
7) Though the world has changed a lot in the last 65 years, kids still appreciate good stories. When my daughter, Keri, was five years old, we needed a new book to read. I didn’t have my entire collection of Trixie Beldens on hand at the time, but I scrounged around until I found one—The Sasquatch Mystery (25). Maybe you’ll question the wisdom of reading a story about a sasquatch sighting to an impressionable five-year-old, but let me tell you what happened. I read the first chapter, and it was the longest first chapter of any book we’d ever read together, but she never interrupted, never fidgeted. When I reached the end of the chapter, I looked at her. Her eyes were huge. She put both hands up to her cheeks, held the pose for a second, then breathlessly said one word: “More!” I read three more chapters before she would let me stop for the night.
8) When kids read a story set in another time, they make comparisons to their own lives. After we finished The Sasquatch Mystery, Keri and I started at the beginning of the series. In The Gatehouse Mystery (3), Trixie is about to confront a jewel thief who’s creeping around in the upstairs of Honey’s empty mansion. Trixie has slipped out of the movies and taken a cab home to catch the thief red-handed, but once she’s there, she knows she’s out of her league. The phones are out of order. It’s dark, and a thunderstorm is brewing. The tension overwhelmed Keri, and she cried out, “Can’t she call the police on her cell phone?” When I explained that cell phones didn’t exist in 1949, she shuddered and clenched her hands in her lap, steeling herself for the exciting moments to come, and hanging on every word.
The most important thing I learned from Trixie Belden is that an exciting, engaging story can evoke a powerful reaction from the reader. I hope my first novel, Counteract, slated for release in fall 2014, will give my readers a moment when they put their hands to their faces, eyes wide, and say…more!