Title: The Dollhouse Murders
Author: Betty Ren Wright
Tagline: The dolls didn’t forget . . .
Description: It was just an old dollhouse. Hidden away in the attic – collecting dust. Amy didn’t know that the dollhouse held a secret. A deadly secret that hadn’t been talked about in years. And now, the dolls have decided that Amy should be the one to know the truth. The truth about the night of the murder . . .
While I’m sure I’ve read other Betty Ren Wright books (the cover of Christina’s Ghost in particular looks far too familiar for me not to have checked it out of the school library around 3rd grade or so!), I had never read this one before. I got it a while back at the used book store down the street when they were having a warehouse sale – they opened up their back room and sold people however many books you could cram into a plastic bag for $5. This was one of the books I picked up, based on the cover and the fact that, well, it’s a creepy dollhouse, right? That’s gotta be good!
Spoiler alert: It was good!
We open with our protagonist, twelve-year-old Amy Treloar, at the mall with her friend Ellen Kramer, looking for her little sister, eleven-year-old Louann. We’re told almost immediately that Louann is two inches taller and twenty pounds heavier than Amy, and also that she goes to the Stadler School for Exceptional Children. So, either she’s training to be one of the X-Men, or she’s some flavor of developmentally disabled. I’ll withhold judgment for now on how well this will be handled.
Ellen is new to town, and a new friend of Amy’s. In fact, this is the first time they’ve hung out together outside of school, and from Amy’s perspective it’s not going very well because of having to watch Louann. Amy has just suggested they leave the mall and look for Louann outside at the crosswalk, when she hears Louann’s voice talking and laughing. Amy and Ellen go around the corner and find a puppet show set up and Louann standing in the middle of the audience talking to the puppet. Amy thinks that some of the mothers look annoyed with her, and then they laugh and sigh in exasperation when Amy pulls Louann away, telling her this show is for little kids. Okay, listen. First of all, are these moms actually annoyed and exasperated with Louann, or is that just Amy’s perception? Because if it’s the former, those moms can go to hell. Louann is only eleven, and she’s pretty obviously mentally younger than that even, so fuck off, moms. Let her enjoy the damn puppet show.
They meet back up with Ellen (who made herself scarce during the puppet show near-debacle), and head down the mall toward a clothing shop. Louann wants to go back to the puppet show, but Amy bribes her by telling her they’ll be walking past the flower shop on their way, because Louann loves flowers. She runs on ahead while Amy and Ellen talk and find out their birthdays are a week apart – Amy’s is June 15, the last day of school, and Ellen’s is the 22nd. Amy suggests a double birthday party, but before Ellen can respond, they spot the man from the florist shop yelling at Louann.
Turns out Louann forgot that she’s only allowed to pick flowers at home, and not off displays in the mall, and the florist guy is losing his shit yelling about it being a nine dollar item she just ruined. He yells that she shouldn’t be let out of the house without someone responsible watching her, and that he ought to make her parents pay for the flowers. This dude can eat my entire ass. Amy tries to defend her sister, saying that she just forgot she wasn’t supposed to pick other people’s flowers because she just likes tulips so much. Dude keeps going on about how she should learn to behave if she’s going to wander around in public places, and Amy’s embarrassment starts to fade in favor of anger.
There are people starting to gather to watch, and the crowd is clearly on Louann’s side, so Amy takes the ten dollars she got from her grandma out of her wallet and tells dude she’ll pay for the damn flowers but she’ll need her change back. Dude wants to take the money, but he suddenly realizes the court of public opinion is against him, so he waves them off.
Ellen suggests they cut their shopping trip short, and Amy is bummed because she’s sure Ellen doesn’t want to hang out with her if Louann is part of the package. But then as they’re walking across the parking lot, Ellen praises Amy’s handling of the flower man, so Amy again feels hope that they can be best friends. She tells Ellen that Louann makes her mad, too, but she can’t stand it when someone else insults her. In Amy’s inner monologue, she lets us know that lately the only time she feels anything but bubbling resentment for Louann is when someone else is mean to her or makes fun of her. This is a completely believable reaction from a twelve-year-old who’s expected to spend much of her free time looking after a mentally handicapped sister.
Amy and Ellen have plans to have a picnic the next day, but Ellen has to cancel because her aunt and uncle are coming into town and her mom wants her to be home to visit with them. Again, Amy is bummed because she thinks Ellen is cancelling because of Louann. While I understand this fear that people don’t want to hang out because of something you’ve done, Amy is much too quick to jump to this conclusion throughout the book. Just relax and trust that people actually do want to spend time with you!
Ellen takes off in one direction, and Amy and Louann aren’t even across the street yet when their mom drives by on her way home from work and stops to pick them up. Amy tells her what happened and Mom blames her for not keeping a close enough eye on Louann. Amy protests that she can’t watch her every second, and Mom tells her that Louann trusts her and needs her protection. This flips a switch in Amy, and girl goes off, yelling that she doesn’t want Louann to need her, she’s sick of losing all her friends over Louann, and she’s never taking her anywhere again!
Mom dials it to eleven, countering by calling Amy selfish and cruel, and saying she has everything – Amy interrupts this to roar that she doesn’t have anything and Mom wants her to drag Louann around behind her her whole life and she refuses to do it!
Wow, neither one of them is handling this very well, are they? Amy is not being selfish and cruel; she’s being twelve. Calm down, Mom. And Amy? Screaming at your parent isn’t a great way to get them to listen to your concerns. You guys need a therapist, or a mediator or something to help you figure out how to listen to each other.
As soon as they pull into the driveway, Mom tells Amy that Dad will hear about every word she said and he’ll be just as ashamed of her as Mom is. Can I hate Mom? Like, I know she’s dealing with shit too, but she’s really pissing me off. Anyway, Amy jumps out of the car and tears off down the street, trying to run off her anger, with Louann calling after her about going back to see the puppet show again tomorrow. (I’m creeped the hell out by puppets personally, so I’m not sure whose side to be on here, guys.)
Amy runs until it’s getting dark and she’s on the outskirts of town. That town being Claiborne. I’m assuming Illinois, because people talk about Chicago all the time in this book. She realizes she’s super close to where her Aunt Clare (her dad’s sister) is temporarily living in Amy’s great-grandparents’ house, getting the contents and the house ready to sell. Even though Amy doesn’t know Aunt Clare very well, Aunt Clare had invited her to come by anytime.
It’s an old house outside of town, in the country. All the lights are on, but no one answers when Amy knocks, so she goes inside calling for Aunt Clare after finding the front door unlocked. Aunt Clare was up in the attic, and Amy nearly scares her to death. Whoops. Clare’s not mad, though, and offers to get a Coke for Amy, but that’s when Amy spots something in the corner of the attic, covered by a sheet.
It’s the titular dollhouse!
It’s as tall as Amy, and is a perfect replica of the house they’re in. The front swings open, and it’s accurate down to the last detail. Aunt Clare is unenthused about the whole thing, and reveals that it was a present from her grandparents on her fifteenth birthday, and that she thought she was too old for such a babyish gift back then. Amy disagrees, because the dollhouse is beautiful and she loves miniatures. Aunt Clare points out that her own bedroom is the only room that’s not accurate – in real life she had Elvis Presley posters everywhere, and Grandma Treloar thought she should have a more flowery and ruffly room.
We get a slight exposition dump from Aunt Clare, telling us that she and Paul (Amy’s dad) moved in with their grandparents when she was fourteen and he was one, after their own parents died from some South American flu. Clare butted heads with Grandma from the very beginning, when Grandma bought a closet full of ruffly dresses for her to wear to school when everyone else was wearing pleated skirts and loafers. This book was written in 1983, so this would have been the 50s Aunt Clare is talking about. Those ruffled dresses sound horrible no matter the decade.
They go downstairs and sit at the table, drinking iced tea (turns out Aunt Clare didn’t have any Cokes after all) and giving us more exposition. The house has been sitting empty for four years, ever since Amy’s great-uncle James died. He’s the relative that moved in to take care of the place after Amy’s great-grandparents died. Aunt Clare finally came back to clear the house out after losing her job in Chicago.
Aunt Clare notices that something is on Amy’s mind, and Amy fills her in on how much she hates looking after Louann, even though it’s not Louann’s fault she’s brain damaged. I’m not sure that’s the correct term for her disability, but it’s the term used throughout this book, so I don’t specifically know what Louann’s issue actually is. Amy tells Aunt Clare that her mom tells her she’s lucky to be the normal one. That’s probably not great terminology, is it? Aunt Clare asks about what Amy’s dad says, and he generally ignores what’s happening in order to try to make peace, because family is important to him and he never had much of one – after Grandpa and Grandma Treloar died (in an accident, Aunt Clare tells us, mmhmm, okay), he was taken in by some cousins when he was five and Clare was eighteen. That’s when Clare went to Chicago to make it on her own. Amy replies that that’s what she’s going to do when she’s old enough, too.
Seeing which way the wind is blowing, Aunt Clare says it seems like Amy needs a break from her house, and invites her to stay with her for a couple weeks. Amy doesn’t think her mom will go for it, and Clare tells her she’ll talk to Amy’s dad first. Clare calls, and Dad doesn’t say yes, but he doesn’t say no, either. He needs to talk to Amy’s mom first, of course. Aunt Clare tells Amy to make sure not to mention that she wants to get away from Louann, and only let her parents think this is because Clare needs the company. I mean, okay, but they’ve gotta suspect, right?
The next day at breakfast, Mom and Dad are still discussing whether or not to let Amy stay with Aunt Clare. Amy wisely stays silent, and it’s finally decided that she can go as long as Mrs. Peck (whoever she is) agrees to watch Louann after school during the week. Louann says she hates Mrs. Peck and wants to go with Amy, even though she’s apparently stayed with Mrs. Peck before without incident.
Arrangements are made, and Dad tells Amy to go pack and he’ll take her over to Aunt Clare’s whenever she’s ready. Ellen calls and is available later in the day to “make brownies or something” if Amy’s not busy, i.e. taking care of Louann, so Amy invites her to come hang out at Clare’s. Without asking her or anything, but what’s another preteen girl when you’re already hosting one, right? (She also refers to Louann as her “retarded sister” in her inner monologue, oh boy, 1983 was not a progressive time.)
As Amy hangs up, she realizes Louann is behind her and overheard her telling Ellen that there was “something terrific” in the attic that she wanted to show her. Louann demands to know what it is, but Amy wants to keep the dollhouse to herself for the moment. Louann goes to her room and returns with a flower vase she made out of an olive jar – it’s her greatest treasure, and she wants Amy to take it with her to keep at Aunt Clare’s. Then Louann goes back to her room to sulk, and Amy says goodbye to her mom, who is also sulking, thinking that Amy just wants to get away from her because of their fight the day before. It’s . . . more complicated than that, Mom.
Smash cut to Amy showing Ellen around Aunt Clare’s house, then leading her up to the attic to see the dollhouse. Ellen is every bit as enthralled by it as Amy was, and then they find a box next to the dollhouse with four dolls in it – Grandpa and Grandma Treloar, Aunt Clare, and a little boy that has to be Paul, Amy’s father. They put them all in the dining room, sitting on the chairs, and Aunt Clare comes upstairs and tells them that the girl doll should be in her room – as she recalls, she was usually sent to her room halfway through dinner for impertinence. Then she tries to lure them downstairs with fudge.
As they’re heading out of the attic, Amy gushes about the dolls and the dollhouse, but again, Aunt Clare is less than enthused. She really hates that dollhouse, y’all. She basically tells the girls to please stop talking about the dollhouse because it makes her unhappy. That’s sad, because Amy is so enthusiastic about it, and it sounds amazing.
Amy realizes they left the dollhouse open, and she runs back upstairs to close it so it doesn’t get dusty inside. She hears a rustling sound from the corner of the attic where the dollhouse is, and when she reaches it, she swings it shut quickly and runs down the stairs, telling herself that dolls can’t move by themselves. Because, you see, the Grandma doll was standing in the parlor, even though she and Ellen left all the dolls sitting around the dining room table!
Later, as the three of them are sitting out on the porch, they hear a noise from the side of the house, and end up going around and scaring two raccoons trying to get into the old metal trashcans by the house. I like raccoons. I understand how they can be an annoyance, but I still think they’re cute as fuck. Amy admits that she was afraid the noise was a burglar, and that her mom would have called the police rather than go investigate herself. Can you imagine the cops showing up and being like, Um, it was a raccoon, please stop wasting our time, mmkay?
After they drive Ellen home, talk turns to being independent, and Aunt Clare says that Louann can learn to be independent, too. Amy is shocked, because Louann will be like a little kid for the rest of her life. Well, yeah, if you all keep coddling her and not testing what her limits are, sure. Aunt Clare says basically what I just did, only nicer, then changes the subject to Amy’s birthday. When she finds out that Ellen’s birthday is a week after Amy’s, she suggests a double birthday pizza party at the house, with homemade pizza, because she’s an awesome pizza chef. I mean, she’s lived in Chicago all this time; she better be! (Although personally I prefer New York style.)
At dinner Tuesday night, we’re told that Amy and Ellen invited four girls to their party (they invited more, but those are the only ones who can make it), and Amy’s mom is going to bake a cake – after Louann goes to bed so she won’t know about it, because she would be terribly upset if she knew she wasn’t invited to Amy’s party. Um, nice guilt trip, Mom.
Just making conversation, Amy asks Clare if she ever wanted to get married and have a family, and Aunt Clare’s whole demeanor changes, just like when Amy talks about the dollhouse. Clare says that most women want that at some time in their lives, and she’s no different. Uh, nope. There are plenty of women who don’t want that, and that’s a perfectly valid choice. Amy suggests that Aunt Clare moved to the city to have an exciting career instead, and she’s all, nope, “when Grandpa and Grandma Treloar were – when they died, I went to work,” and that if she’d met the right person she could have had a family and maybe a career, too, but it didn’t work out that way. Notice it looks like she switched from starting to say when Grandma and Grandpa were . . . killed, maybe? The plot thickens!
Thinking she’s changing the subject, Amy asks if they died in a car accident. Amy, good lord, isn’t it obvious she doesn’t want to talk about it? Aunt Clare basically tells her to leave the past alone, then goes to bed early after Amy volunteers to wash the dishes and clean up.
After school the next day, Ellen suggests Amy ask her parents about Grandpa and Grandma Treloar’s deaths, but they always change the subject and don’t want to tell Amy anything about it, so she suggests she and Ellen hit up the library and look for old news articles about it. She knows the year it happened – 1952 – so that’s only a year’s worth of newspapers! Ellen is less than thrilled, but agrees to accompany Amy for an hour.
The librarian shows them how to use the microfilm machines, and they start looking through obituaries. Rather than in the obituary section, they find a front page story halfway through the April newspapers. Grandma and Grandpa Treloar were murdered, and Amy’s dad, five years old at the time, was found hiding in a closet. Clare was out at the movies, and found Grandma in the parlor, then the police came and found Grandpa shot to death in the bedroom. No word on how Grandma was killed, oddly enough.
The murder stays front page news for three days, when the story mentions that Clare’s “friend” Thomas Keaton was killed in a one-car accident the same night her grandparents were murdered. Suddenly, Amy realizes why Aunt Clare reacts the way she does to Amy prying about the past. Clare had it rough, and probably doesn’t like thinking about any of it, and here Amy is asking all these questions!
Ellen has to go, but Amy skims through a few more months of papers, trying to find if the murder was ever solved. In June, there’s an article about Clare moving to Chicago and Paul going to live with cousins, and the murder is still unsolved. I doubt Clare moving or Paul going to live with relatives would be newsworthy, but okay I guess. Hope the murderer didn’t want to finish them off, too, because you might as well have given him a map to them.
Amy has dinner with Aunt Clare, who is telling her about setting up an appointment with an appraiser to look over the furniture, and how she’s going to put everything up for auction after she goes through it. Amy mentions stopping by home the next day to pick up some tapes and her tape deck (why hello there, 1983!), which suddenly reminds Clare that Louann called earlier wanting to talk to Amy. She doesn’t think anything was wrong, but it’s hard to tell because Louann always sounds kind of gruff. Amy tells her that she doesn’t mean to sound that way, but when there’s something on her mind, she doesn’t think about anything else. Then Clare tells her she’s an understanding big sister, and Amy disagrees and thinks she’s being sarcastic. Wtf, Amy? Has Amy’s mom made her feel like a bad sister because she wants to do things that don’t involve being around Louann 24/7? Because Amy is super understanding, even though she does get fed up and wants time to herself. You know, because she’s a person who deserves a life of her own and shouldn’t be expected to take care of her sister every second of every day. Help out? Of course. Let it overtake every aspect of her life? Nah. She’s twelve. Let her be twelve.
Turns out Louann just wanted to tell Amy that Mrs. Peck taught her and Marisa (Mrs. Peck’s granddaughter and Louann’s classmate) how to weave, and they made potholders. Louann offers to make Amy one, then asks when she’s coming home. Amy tells her she’ll be stopping by to pick up some tapes tomorrow, and just barely stops herself before letting it slip about the party. Amy’s pretty bad at keeping secrets, y’all.
She calls Ellen to fill her in on what she found out (or, didn’t find out, really) at the library after Ellen left, and they talk about whether or not the killer ever got caught or if he might come back to the house, then Amy turns around to find Aunt Clare walking through the doorway. It’s obvious she’s heard at least part of the conversation, and she is PISSED. She makes a snide remark about Amy having more telephoning to do since everyone loves hearing about a gory murder, and Amy tries to defend herself, poorly.
As she’s moving boxes up to the attic, Clare retorts that Amy doesn’t need to go back to the library for info – the killer was never caught. Then she goes up to the attic and cries out, asking Amy how she could do such a cruel, ugly thing? Amy is understandably confused, and when she races upstairs she finds the dollhouse standing open, with the grandma doll standing in the parlor, the grandpa doll face down on the bed in the bedroom, and when Aunt Clare pries open the door, the little boy doll in the closet by the fireplace.
That is one asshole ghost, y’all.
Amy vehemently denies moving the dolls, and Clare is not even remotely convinced. She thinks Amy is playing some sick game, that she’s mocking their deaths somehow. Amy points out that she just found out about the murders after school, and she hasn’t been up to the attic since then. Clare counters by asking if it wasn’t Amy, who was it then? Well, have you considered a ghost? I mean, it’s probably a ghost. That would be my first thought. But then again, I’ve read the back of the book, so I have a bit of an advantage here.
Amy goes to her room to do her homework and avoid Aunt Clare, then eventually goes to bed, wondering about the dollhouse and the possible ghost. Shortly after falling asleep, she wakes up and sees her doorknob turning, then hears a huge crash from outside. She screams, and Aunt Clare rushes in, assuring her that it’s just raccoons outside. Amy’s freaked out over the doorknob turning, even though it was obviously just Aunt Clare coming in? Calm the fuck down, Amy, God. It’s all too much for Amy, and she runs to the bathroom to throw up. Ew.
So, Aunt Clare was coming into the room to apologize for blowing up at Amy. It becomes obvious that she still believes Amy moved the dolls, but she’s sorry for reacting so violently to it. Speaking of violence, she knows how much violence today’s kids see on television and in movies, so she can’t blame Amy for being fascinated by what happened to Grandma and Grandpa Treloar. Um, that’s not really what’s going on here, but sure. Amy figures she’ll only make Clare mad again if she keeps denying moving the dolls, so she resigns herself to not saying anything. Aunt Clare explains that this was a very unhappy house, she was engaged to a man that the grandparents didn’t approve of, they were constantly fighting, and she’d told them that she hated them and they’d died thinking that was true. Amy assures her that they knew it wasn’t, and she can’t blame herself. Clare says she can, and Amy has no idea how much.
So, we’re led to believe it was the fiance that killed the grandparents, right? And then died in a car crash, what, fleeing the scene? It seems like that’s what we’re laying the groundwork for.
Jump to five o’clock the next afternoon, with Amy biking up to her house. No one’s home, but she goes inside and starts gathering things she wants to take with her. Mom and Louann come home while Amy’s there, and Louann shows off the puppet she made at Mrs. Peck’s. Louann loves her now, funnily enough. It seems tomorrow Mrs. Peck is taking Marisa and Louann on a bus ride to the mall, because she thinks the girls should learn to ride the bus by themselves. Mom isn’t happy about this, and Amy exclaims that she can’t – they’ll get lost! Dammit, this whole family is trying to keep poor Louann infantilized rather than recognize that she has the capacity to do certain things on her own.
Louann protests that she will not get lost, and you fucking tell them, Louann! Amy thinks to herself that their family knows what Louann can and can’t do, and they don’t need Mrs. Peck coming in and trying to change things. Uh, clearly y’all don’t know what Louann can and can’t do, since you literally don’t let her do anything on her own. She’s not completely incapable, Jesus Christ.
While talking to her mom, Amy lets the word “party” slip, sending Louann into a tizzy of wanting to attend. Nobody tell Amy any state secrets or anything, because this girl can’t even keep her own secrets. Amy’s mom says that the party at Aunt Clare’s is no big deal, and they’ll have Amy’s real party later, but Louann insists she wants to go to the party at Aunt Clare’s. Amy yells at Louann that she can’t come, and wishes her mom would tell her that Amy and her friends have a right to have a party alone, instead of making her feel like a selfish monster. I’m totally on Amy’s side here – she has every right to have time to herself with her friends.
As she’s leaving, Amy says she’s sorry, gesturing toward Louann, and Mom says she guesses she is, and it seems like such a little thing to include her sister at her party, but she guesses it’s up to Amy, and she supposes she’ll take Louann out for a hamburger or something that day. Ugh, fuck off with this passive-aggressive guilt trip bullshit. I can’t stand it. Yeah, you say it’s her choice, but then when she makes the choice you don’t agree with, you punish her for it. One hundred percent bullshit. (My mom once gave me permission to go out one night, then grounded me when I got home, because she “wished she hadn’t given me permission” to go out. Whut. Over twenty years later, and I’m still fucking salty about it.)
When Amy gets back to Aunt Clare’s house, she’s busy making caramel corn. Gross. Look, I’m weird. I love caramel. I love popcorn. However, the combination of the two is an unholy abomination unfit for human consumption. Don’t @ me. Anyway, Clare is excited to tell Amy all about the food she’s preparing for the party, including potato chips and a “very special” dip. Hmm. Very special, huh? So, it’s sour cream that you stirred a packet of dried onion soup into? Very special.
They eat dinner and make fudge (absolutely not a euphemism for shitting), and Aunt Clare is happy to hear that Louann is getting on well with Mrs. Peck, because it’s “perfectly obvious Louann needs other people in her life” other than her family. Well, yeah. I guess Mom got all offended when Clare said that to her, and now Mom’s chilly attitude toward Clare makes perfect sense to Amy.
Because Amy wants Ellen to spend the night after the birthday party, Clare suggests she go and get an extra blanket out of the attic so they can let it air out. This is the middle of June, right? Is that really blanket weather? Hmm. Anyway, Amy is afraid to go up to the attic, and tries to argue that maybe it’s not cold enough for a blanket, she doesn’t know if she can find the trunk they’re in, etc, etc. Finally she realizes she’s going to have to go up there, and to make things even worse, the light is burned out, so she has to go up in the dark with a flashlight. Oh. Awesome?
She hears rustling from the dollhouse, and swings the light over that way. The sheet that covered the dollhouse is on the floor, and the dollhouse is standing open again. She drops the flashlight, and that’s when she sees a light on in the dollhouse. Amy nopes the fuck outta there, I believe without the blanket she went up for, and tells Aunt Clare everything’s fine and she’s just going to do her homework and go to bed. Then she shoves a chair under her doorknob so nothing can get in her room. Because now we find out that just before she fled from the attic, she saw something move in the dollhouse. Something on two feet, that was definitely not a mouse!
The next morning, Amy is showing the signs of having not slept well, but tries to play it off like she was too excited about her birthday to sleep. Aunt Clare asks if she got the blanket out the night before, and Amy says that it was too dark to see so she’ll do it today. Clare offers to do it, and Amy’s like NOPE NOPE NOPE! Can’t let Clare see the murder tableau in the dollhouse again! She rushes up to get the blanket, and slams the dollhouse closed as fast as possible.
Downstairs again, Mom is on the phone, still a little cold but wishing Amy happy birthday. Aunt Clare teases her about becoming a teenager to cheer her up, and it seems to work, although it’s written as “teen-ager.” But only sometimes. Other times it’s written as “teenager.” No consistency whatsoever. Sigh.
The school day drags for Amy, with Ellen making all sorts of plans for the party, and Amy bummed because she can’t tell Ellen anything about the weird goings-on with the dollhouse without feeling like she’s betraying Aunt Clare. Apparently Ellen isn’t coming home with Amy, but being dropped off with the other girls at six o’clock. Which seems kind of odd since it’s her party too, but what do I know. If I recall correctly, I didn’t know anyone in town when I turned thirteen and had my “party” at the local amusement park with my mom, older brother, sister-in-law, and my not-quite-five-year-old niece.
Amy gets home and discovers that her mother had to go help a friend who had a family emergency, so Louann has to stay the night (at least) with them, because Dad is also out of town on business. At first Louann is happy she’s at the party, but Amy’s not at all happy, even saying she bets it’s all a lie to make her let Louann come to the party. She sees the cake her mom made her and hates it because it’s a bribe. Wow, Amy, you’re . . . really going too far here. Especially since Louann can fucking hear you, and she starts crying and calling Amy mean. Welp, she’s not wrong. I know I’ve mostly been on Amy’s side, but this is bratty and paranoid. Louann is a real person with real feelings, and saying this shit in front of her is uncalled for.
When Amy comes back down from her room after calming herself down, Aunt Clare puts her and Louann to work helping make the pizzas. Amy tries to be nice to Louann, but she’s dreading having her at the party because Louann always gets overexcited and monopolizes the conversation, talking constantly. As if reading her mind, Aunt Clare reminds Louann that all the girls will have things to say, and she needs to let them talk and listen to them, too. It’s decided that Louann will share Amy’s room tonight, and she goes up to put her bag away.
While Louann is upstairs, the party guests arrive – Ellen, and four other girls: Cissie, Kathy, Midge, and Carol. Cissie brought fortune-telling cards, and Kathy brought her aunt’s makeup sample case. I guess she works for Avon or something? Anyway, Louann comes back downstairs as they arrive, and Amy is tense about it, but Kathy is super nice and welcoming toward Louann, even when Louann tells her that her eyebrows look like she has crayon on them. That could have been super cringey, but Kathy just laughs and admits she hasn’t quite got the hang of doing all her makeup yet. And that’s it. Nothing to worry about, Amy!
The party goes just fine (with Aunt Clare popping in every once in a while to give Louann a very slight head shake whenever she starts getting too loud and excited), and Amy is amazed that her friends are so comfortable with her sister, because Louann usually makes people uncomfortable. I can see twelve-year-olds being uncomfortable around someone with mental impairment, but I really have to wonder how much of this is just Amy’s perception. She tells us she’s lost friends because of Louann, but what if those friends were just reacting to Amy’s discomfort? Sort of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
While Cissie is telling Amy’s fortune, the dollhouse comes up and Ellen insists they all go up and look at it. Uh-oh. Now Amy’s really stressing. She tells them they really can’t, then Aunt Clare walks back in and Ellen begs her to let them go look at it. Clare isn’t happy, but grudgingly agrees they can look but not touch.
Louann is super enchanted with the dollhouse, and Ellen notices the dolls aren’t where she and Amy put them before. Yeah, Ellen, those dolls have moved themselves around quite a bit since you last saw them. Amy convinces everyone to go back downstairs after a few minutes, because Cissie hasn’t told anyone’s fortune but the birthday girls’, and Louann calls goodbye to the house and the dolls on her way down the stairs. Girl seriously loves this dollhouse already.
After the other girls have gone home, Ellen and Amy rave about what a great party it was, and Amy is surprised at how much Louann being there turned out not to be terrible. They help clean up, then head up to bed, all three girls in Amy’s room.
Amy wakes up at two in the morning to discover Louann gone. Ooh, three guesses where she went? Amy finds her up in the attic, staring into the dollhouse. There’s light coming from the parlor, where the grandma doll stands with her arm raised to the bookshelf. As Amy and Louann watch, several tiny books fall off the shelf and onto the floor. Louann whispers that the poor dolly is crying, and sure enough, Amy hears a muted weeping. This is kind of creepy, sure, but it’s mostly sad. Louann isn’t afraid, but Amy is freaked the fuck out, and practically drags Louann out of the attic while telling her that they can’t tell Aunt Clare about this. Amy whispers to the dollhouse that she’ll try to figure it out. I mean, sure. That’s how you get a haunting to stop in a middle-reader ghost story. Anything older than that, and you’re probably going to get possessed or die or something. Ah, good old middle-reader ghost stories, where they’re almost always more sad than scary.
At breakfast, Aunt Clare asks the girls what they have planned for the day – Ellen and Amy are going to go for a hike, and Amy announces that Louann is going to come with them, to Ellen’s surprise. Okay, maybe Ellen isn’t super comfortable with Louann. Or maybe she’s just surprised that Amy wants to bring her along after the mall incident. Either way, she’s not a jerk about it, so cool. Louann’s excited to go, but she also starts to mention something about watching the poor dolly, before Amy cuts her off to talk about sandwiches. LOL no one in this family can keep a damn secret, can they?
When Ellen takes Louann up to make the beds, Aunt Clare tells Amy that her friends are really good with Louann. Amy says Kathy was really good with her last night, but she’s had friends who were really awful to her. I can see that. Kids can be total dicks, especially about people different from them. It’s probably not all just Amy’s insecurity clouding her perception. But she still thinks Ellen cancelled their picnic before because of Louann. I don’t know what to think about that, but Aunt Clare says that makes it mean even more that Amy’s taking Louann with them today.
As they’re walking down the country lane (or . . . wherever they are), Louann starts talking about the poor dolly crying and the books falling, so Amy tells Ellen the whole story about the haunted dollhouse. She also tells her about how upset the whole thing makes Aunt Clare and how she can’t tell her about it. Ellen tells her that she should tell her about it since it’s her dollhouse after all. But Amy thinks the ghost is trying to tell them something about the murder, and she doesn’t want to upset Aunt Clare by talking about it.
The girls have a race, and turns out Louann is a really fast runner. Ellen suggests she do something like the Special Olympics, but Amy doesn’t think her mom would like that since she doesn’t like to admit that Louann is different. I’m . . . not sure that’s the problem here. Mom seems to only believe Louann is different, and doesn’t want her to do the things that everyone else does. Like ride the bus alone, or have her own friends. Anyway, Ellen seems to have come around to viewing Louann as a real person rather than a scary different “other,” so that’s good.
They walk back home in the mid-afternoon, and Ellen says she’s glad she found Amy as a best friend, then tells Louann that she’s a good friend, too. It’s been a perfect afternoon, but when they get home, Aunt Clare is waiting on the porch with virtual storm clouds over her head. Uh-oh. Ellen’s mom is supposed to pick her up any minute, so Clare sends her up to get her bag, and does that passive-aggressive bullshit where she tells Amy that if she thinks real hard, she’ll figure out why Clare’s pissed off at her. No. Just fucking tell her. I dated a guy once who pulled this shit, and in the instance I’m thinking of, when I asked why he was mad and he said “I think you know,” it was literally because I got mad at him for continuing to do something to me that I’d told him not to, and when I told him to stop, he turned his back on me and pouted like a fucking toddler. Did I know what I did to piss him off? Yeah, I got mad at him for not respecting my bodily autonomy. Fuck sake. (It wasn’t even sexual. I told him to stop tickling me because I fucking hate being tickled, which I’d told him numerous times.) Anyway, this “I think you know what you did” line is some kind of bullshit I hate and react super strongly to. Come on, Aunt Clare. You’re better than that.
As soon as Ellen leaves, Clare immediately goes off yelling at Amy about the dollhouse, and her gossiping with all her friends about their family tragedy, moving the dolls into the parlor and bedroom, and worst of all, what she did to the desk!
Huh? What desk? What in the hell is this woman on about?
She accuses Amy of moving the desk in the parlor to block the door, because that’s how she found it the night of the murder. Grandma Treloar pushed the desk in front of the door to try to block the killer from getting in – a fact that Amy didn’t even know. Louann yells at Clare that Amy isn’t a liar, and then yells that she saw the poor dolly and heard the dolly crying.
Aunt Clare’s like wtf are you talking about, Amy cautiously tells her about the dolls moving on their own and everything that’s happened, with Louann backing her up. Aunt Clare starts to cry, then tells the girls she needs to be alone for a while. At least she’s not yelling at them anymore? As they’re leaving the room, Clare says that if they’re telling the truth and there is a spirit haunting the place, then it confirms her worst fear and she can’t bear that.
Oh. That’s not great.
There’s an actual storm brewing, not just an emotional one, as Amy and Louann enter their room. Louann doesn’t want to stay with Aunt Clare anymore, and Amy doesn’t know when Mom’s gonna be back. She goes to the telephone nook downstairs to call the house and see if Mom is home yet, but no one answers, and Clare comes up behind her and tells her she doesn’t want them to leave.
Apparently Clare bakes when she’s stressed, because she starts making chocolate chip cookies while talking to Amy. She says she’s choosing to believe Amy, but she doesn’t want to talk about the dollhouse. Then she reveals that she’s always suspected her fiance, Tom Keating, was the one who killed Grandma and Grandpa Treloar.
Amy is shocked by this, but now I’m sure he didn’t do it, since a character is presenting it as a theory. Characters never suspect the actual killer, so it can’t be him. Because, logic!
So, Tom was eight years older than Clare, making him twenty-six to her eighteen. That’s hardly a healthy age gap, and turns out he was a drinker, too. Ah. Great. But she was young and rebellious, and even though she eventually started to think Grandma and Grandpa were right about him, she was too stubborn to admit it to them. She was becoming more frightened of his temper, and when he pushed for them to get married soon, she put him off claiming it was because of them. He said he was going to come by the house and have it out with them, and that was the night they were murdered.
Clare had come home from the movies and found the door to the parlor blocked by the desk, but she could push it open enough to see Grandma lying in front of the fireplace, and blood everywhere. She ran half a mile to the nearest neighbor, so freaked out that she didn’t even think of using their own phone. The police found that the lines had been cut anyway, so it wouldn’t have done her any good. It was the police who found Grandpa upstairs and, eventually, Paul asleep in the wood storage closet beside the fireplace.
Louann enters the room, and Clare continues the story, most of which we already know. She speculates that Tom confronted Grandpa and Grandma while they were sleeping, telling them off and shooting Grandpa; Grandma grabbed Paul and ran to the parlor to hide him and block the door, but Tom was too strong and shoved the desk out of the way, killing Grandma and ransacking the house to make it look like a burglary. Quick question (that is never addressed in this book and I find frustrating as hell) – if the killer shoved the desk out of the way to get into the room, how come when Clare got there, the desk was still blocking the door to the point that she couldn’t get in? This is never answered, and it bugs the hell out of me. To the point that for a hot minute I thought maybe it was a murder-suicide, committed by Grandma. That’s probably a little too dark for a middle-grade ghost story, though.
The day after the murders, Clare was told that Tom was dead. No one knew they were engaged, but there were rumors. He had friends who alibied him, so he wasn’t a suspect, but Clare always felt like she was the only one who knew the truth. And this whole ordeal fucked her up, leaving her with anger issues that got her fired from jobs on the regular, which is why she finally decided to come back home to Claiborne – to get herself together and get the house ready to sell.
Amy’s mother calls as Clare finishes her story, updating Amy on her friend’s husband’s condition, and Amy is surprised that there really was an emergency and her mom wasn’t just making it up to force Louann on her. Amy. Jesus. Mom says she’ll be home tomorrow night, and Amy assures her that the party actually went really well. When Mom asks Amy when she’ll be coming home, Amy isn’t sure, because she wants to solve the mystery of the dollhouse first. Groovy. Hey, ghosts, you got a time frame for revealing your cryptic shit, or what?
The storm breaks while Amy and Louann are in bed, and Louann sits up screaming. She doesn’t like the thunder, and even Amy admits that the thunder is louder out here with no other houses around. Amy decides they’re going to solve this mystery tonight, dammit, and talks Louann into going up into the attic with her to watch the dollhouse. Because what better time to do this than during a dark and stormy night?
They leave the lights off in the attic, because Amy wants to see when the little light in the parlor starts to glow. After a while, the little room starts to light up, and they hear the sound of crying. Then footsteps start coming up the stairs, and Louann points out that they’re coming down the dollhouse stairs, not up the attic stairs. Well, that’s spooky. The crying in the dollhouse is now full-on sobbing, and something heavy and invisible slams into the parlor door, as the Grandma doll turns and knocks books off the shelf again. The little parlor door slams open, shoving the desk out of the way, and the girls hear a scream from the dollhouse.
Amy and Louann nope the fuck outta there, running screaming into Aunt Clare’s bedroom. The girls are hysterical and can’t get a coherent sentence out between them, so Clare takes them to the kitchen to make them hot cocoa. The electricity goes out, because there just wasn’t enough atmosphere for ghost-watching, and the girls finally manage to tell their story over hot cocoa. Aunt Clare is convinced that the ghost is Grandma, pissed off that Clare brought this murderer into the house, and determined to make her suffer. Uh, Clare, I don’t think that’s it. Nothing about this screams “vengeful ghost” to me at all. But Clare views the world through her lens of guilt, just like Amy views it through her lens of insecurity.
Amy secretly thinks Clare is probably right, but tries to convince her otherwise, and ends up convincing herself that the ghost is actually trying to show them something. Something in the parlor, with the books. The doll touched one, then another, and they fell off the shelves. Maybe it’s a clue?
They go and pull all the books off the shelves, thinking maybe there’s something behind them, but there’s not. Then Louann points out a letter that fell out of one of the books on the floor, and it’s a letter in Grandma Treloar’s handwriting that reads “He killed James. He wants money. He’s going to kill me, too. We’ve always been generous to Reuben – how could he do this? Please, God, don’t let Paul wake up – ”
Um, excuse you, who the fuck is Reuben?
Oh, he was the handyman. The cops questioned him after the murder, but his wife claimed he was at home. Mmhmm. Oh, and he died years ago, so forget about justice being served. Damn.
Aunt Clare is relieved, because it turns out none of this was her fault, and rather than wanting to punish her, Grandma Treloar wanted her to stop punishing herself. That’s kind of beautiful.
The power comes back on, and Louann returns the letter to the book it fell out of – A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibson. Coincidence? Is anything in these books ever coincidence?
In the morning, Amy and Aunt Clare have a heart-to-heart about Louann, and Amy needing time to herself, and how to talk to her mom about it. Amy no longer feels the resentment toward her sister that she did before, and Aunt Clare, who is a self-professed expert on guilt, points out that Amy’s mom feels guilt about Louann being brain damaged, even though there’s no reason for her to. I’m still wondering about the terminology we’re using here. “Brain damaged” makes it sound like something happened to Louann, but I think she was just born that way. I don’t know, it was the 80s, I suppose I should be just be grateful she wasn’t consistently referred to as “retarded.”
Anyway, when Mom and Dad show up, both Amy and Louann decide to go home with them. When Louann and Amy get into a tiff over whether or not Louann knows how to play the games Aunt Clare gave her, Amy realizes that things are different since they’ve spent the last two days together – she now sees her sister as more than just her burden to bear. She sees her as a real person, with good points and bad points, just like anyone else. I feel like this should be a big fat DUH right here, but I guess better late than never on seeing your sister as a person? Amy offers to play the games with Louann next week, or maybe Mrs. Peck will if Amy’s busy doing something else. It takes a minute, but Mom nods her agreement. Perhaps meaning she tacitly understands that the girls need lives outside of each other.
Before they go, Clare takes them up to the attic to show them the dollhouse and to offer it to Louann. Mom protests that it’s too valuable and Louann might break things, but she shuts up when she sees how gentle Louann is with it.
Oh, and the dolls have all moved back around the dining room table, in the positions Amy and Ellen put them in way back when. So, everyone’s at peace again, it would seem.
Nostalgia Glasses Off
This is a solid little ghost story for kids. Spooky; not scary, and some pretty decent character growth. When I first started reading it, I was worried how the author was going to handle a mentally challenged character, but she did a pretty good job, there wasn’t anything overtly offensive (other than the one time Amy thinks of Louann as her “retarded sister”).
I am always disappointed in mysteries where the killer turns out to be someone we’ve never heard of. Like, who the fuck is this Reuben guy?! I don’t know that motherfucker! How are we supposed to figure out who the killer is when it’s someone we’ve never been introduced to? I know that’s not really the goal of this book, but it still feels like a cheat. It never feels satisfying to me, no matter how much I otherwise enjoy the book. And I did enjoy this, just not quite as much as I’d hoped I would.
I bet I would have loved the fuck out of it if I’d read it when I was eight, though.