Sunday, January 17, 2010

Childhood Challenge: THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERS

There are books that I read as a child that have left deeper imprints on me than others; I'm sure my readers can appreciate that simple statement, and I hope you can also agree with it as you look back into your own reading history.  What's funny is that many times I remember a book fondly without remembering specifics.  I can't recall characters or details about the plot, but I'll remember the feeling I had when reading the book.  I decided to give myself a little challenge for the year and read one book each month that I remember enjoying as a child reader to see what my thoughts are now about the book.  For the most part, I won't have a problem finding these childhood gems because while I don't remember details, I can remember the title and/or author.  Of course, there are those books whose titles/authors I can't remember, and their covers will be haunting my dreams all year long as I challenge myself to find them despite the lack of author and title information.

My chosen book for January is The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright.  I can't remember what age I was exactly when I first read the book, but I do know that I had read it at least by the fifth grade.  I also know I read it more than once--it intrigued me, and reading it just once wasn't enough to satisfy my 'joie de lire' cravings.  Amazon is my bookseller of choice, especially when I'm looking for older books that may or may not still be easily found in bookstores, and I was excited to be able to buy the book to grace my adult bookshelves as a reminder of my younger reading days.

From My Memory
I can't remember not being a fan of ghost stories--I don't like horror, per se, but I do enjoy a thrilling, well-told ghost story.  My favorite segments of Unsolved Mysteries were those concerning the paranormal, and many sleepovers of mine turned into games of telling stories of the supernatural variety.  I devoured books that centered around ghosts, but I wasn't a fan of the Halloween-type ghoulish characters.  I craved ghosts based on real people with real histories, set in houses or countrysides worthy of those ghosts.  When I say 'real,' I don't mean that the ghosts have to be based on historically accurate people--I simply mean that I prefer ghosts to be based on the memory of a character already gone who is important to the story.  Of all the ghost stories I read, though, the one that stayed with me most was The Dollhouse Murders.

Thinking back on the book, I couldn't remember anything specific about the story except that a girl found a dollhouse and that the dolls in the dollhouse acted out a murder that had taken place years before.  What I could remember about the book is that I stayed up late into the night reading it because I couldn't put it down and that it left me with that deep, 'joie de lire' feeling that made me feel satisfied and wanting more all at once.  I thought it a perfect choice for my Childhood Challenge (though it may have been a more appropriate choice for October than January...), and I was excited to get the book to read again.  My initial rating of the book (based on memory alone) is a 5-star rating (out of five stars possible).

Current Re-Reading
This morning, I sat down with my old-time friend, one I hadn't read in nearly (gulp) two decades.  Maybe more like a decade-and-a-half.  It was rather gratifying to finish a book on the same day I started reading it without it taking over my ability to function for an entire day.  My first complete thought as I started the beginning chapters was, "I had totally forgotten all this!"  The plot was much more complicated than only focusing on the dollhouse; in fact, there were several chapters of important information I had forgotten about.  I had forgotten the main character, Amy, had a sister; I had forgotten that Amy resented her sister at times because she had a mental handicap that left Amy in charge of her many times; I had forgotten the dollhouse was in her aunt's attic.  In short, I had forgotten the bulk of the story.

The story pushed me forward, and it was like reading a new book because I had forgotten so much.  I was hooked and didn't want to stop reading--luckily I started it in the morning, so reading it didn't involve missing out on any sleep.  Even as an adult, I was pulled into the story and felt those familiar deep-seated feelings of comfort and addiction as I scarfed the book down.  The story was written for readers a couple decades younger than myself, and yet I still love the book.

Betty Ren Wright has an amazing way of presenting the story with just enough detail to engage your mind while not overloading you with details that would take more pages to explore.  The information she presents in 149 pages could easily have been expanded to fill well over 500 pages.  Even though she skimps on the details, she doesn't make you feel like there is information missing.  Instead, she makes it feel like she expects you, as the reader, to fill in the rest.  The characters in the book are complex, and the story's resolution doesn't make it feel like part of the story is missing (though it still ends too quickly for my tastes).  The ending suggests possibility, which makes me sit here and imagine what the family must be doing now that the story has ended.  In short, it has all the elements of what make a book memorable for me while being intended for young readers.  It is a gem of a book, and I am glad that I discovered it as a young reader and even gladder that I rediscovered it as a not-as-young reader.

My adult rating is still a 5-star rating--especially if I'm rating it for younger readers who enjoy mysteries and ghosts.  The book makes me wish the adult equivalent could be written to further explore the characters and that fabulous dollhouse....

What's interesting is what I will remember about the story now that I've reread it as an adult.  As a young reader, the dollhouse affected me most--not only because there was a ghost in it but also because I have a long-standing obsession with miniature things.  Everything's more exciting if it's miniature--even those small cans of Coke.  The dollhouse in the story is filled with miniatures, and I remember wishing I could have a dollhouse of my own just like it (I even wanted the ghost).  As an adult, though, the thing I think I will remember most about the story is the evolution of the characters: Amy's (the main character's) growth in her relationship with her mentally challenged sister and Clare's (Amy's aunt's) growth in her ability to face her past.  Sure, the dollhouse is still pretty amazing, but the subtleties of the characters' relationships are what I think sets the book apart as a must-read for young readers.

While I was perusing the internet to find images, I found another blogger who talked about her memories of reading The Dollhouse Murders: Elizabeth of 'Underage Reading' wrote "Nostalgic affection or genuine book ardor?"  I hope you enjoy her post as much as I did.

I challenge you to also pick up some books you loved as a young reader and to further recommend those books to young readers around you.

Happy reading (or re-reading, as the case may be)!


Paperback Reader said...

I read this book around the same age as you (the first time) and it stayed with me; it was just recently though that I came across it again online after searching for it for some time, only remembering that "dollhouse" appeared in the title and the bare bones of the story. Now I'll be tracking down a copy and rereading it!

Jessie Sams said...

I hate it when I can't remember a title... Once you've re-read the book, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

Angie said...

Ahhhh!!! I LOVED Dollhouse Murders as a child/young person. I had completely forgotten about that book.
Thanks for reminding me, and thanks for the idea of re-reading childhood gems.
For me, nothing will ever compare to the Ramona books. I still re-read the entire series every two or three years as an adult. They will never get old to me.

Jessie Sams said...

When I got DOLLHOUSE MURDERS in the mail (I ordered from Amazon), I can't tell you how excited I got by just seeing the cover. It was like an old friend had returned for a sleepover filled with nostalgia. I'm deciding what the books will be for the rest of the year for my Childhood Challenge, and your comment on the Ramona books never losing their appeal has me in the mood to read what was my favorite Ramona book growing up: RAMONA, AGE 8. And that just reminded me of those age books--FIFTEEN AT LAST and what not. I can't remember the author, though. Candace something?

If you, too, re-read childhood books, I'd love to hear your thoughts on them.

Angie said...

yes. Candace Ransom. More golden nuggets!! Going on Thirteen, Fourteen and Holding and Fifteen at Last.. Are those the books in the series? I'm pretty sure there was a book for Twelve too, but I guess that could be Going on Thirteen. Loved loved loved all of those books!

Jessie Sams said...

Ah, Candace Ransom! Thank you for helping me remember her name. I think you hit the whole list of books--now I have to decide if I want to read one of those as a future Childhood Challenge... This is fun!

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