Who’s That Girl

Ah, Trixie Belden.

Not as well known or as beloved as Nancy Drew, I always kind of preferred Trixie to Nancy; and not just because she was kind of an underdog in comparison. No other kids’ series was/is as popular as Nancy Drew; even the Hardy Boys can’t compare to Nancy’s popularity.

But…I liked Trixie more than I liked Nancy. Sometimes Nancy seemed insufferable; and in all fairness to Nancy, that was more a result of the “new” Nancy that resulted from the revisions of the original texts, beginning in 1959, and this “new” Nancy appeared in the newer books as they were released as well. This Nancy was too perfect; she was good at everything, she was nice and polite, she was such a goody-two-shoes I was amazed Bess and George could stand her–although they weren’t much better. The Nancy of the original texts had more of a personality; she was a goody-two-shoes, to be sure, but she also had a lot of self-confidence and self-assurance, and she was a good person who enjoyed helping people. But when the books were revised–and this new Nancy became the Nancy of record for all new books, going forward–they basically took all of her personality away and left a one-dimensional cardboard cutout. I didn’t give up on the series, by any means, but..new Nancy was someone I wouldn’t have liked in real life.

Trixie Belden, on the other hand…seemed like a real person, or at least she did at first. Like Nancy, there was a definite turning point in her behavior in the series which happened when the original writer–Julie Campbell–stepped aside and was replaced by a bunch of ghostwriters using the pen name Kathryn Kenny. (Julie Campbell, by the way, also wrote some of the Cherry Ames ad Vicki Barr series, using the name Julie Tatham.) Trixie lost her temper, was fidgety, was a tomboy with no use for girly things, and hated doing her chores–to the point where sometimes she hurried through them so quickly she kind of did a shitty job. But she was at heart a nice kid, and regularly felt bad when she had misbehaved and tried to make up for it after the fact. She also sometimes blurted things out that hurt other people’s feelings–immediately feeling horrible about it–and these were all things, aspects of her personality, that made her relatable–as opposed to perfect paragon of virtue Nancy Drew, who was so emotionless she might as well have been a Stepford wife.

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“Oh, Moms,” Trixie moaned, running her hands through her short, sandy curls. “I’ll just die if I don’t have a horse.”

Mrs. Belden looked up from the row of tomato plants she was transplanting in the fenced-in vegetable garden.

“Trixie,” she said, trying to look stern, “if you died as many times as you thought you were going to, you’d have to be a cat with nine lives to be with us for one day.”

“I don’t care!” Tears of indignation welled up in Trixie’s round blue eyes. She scooped up a fat little worm, watched it wriggle in the palm of her hand for a minute, then gently let it go. “With Brian and Mart at camp this summer, I’ll die of boredom. I mean it, Moms.”

Mrs. Belden sighed. “You declared you’d suffer the same fate if we didn’t buy you a bike three years ago. Remember?” She stood up, frowning in the glare of the hot July sun. “Now, listen, Trixie, once and for all. If you want to buy a horse like the one you fell in love with at the horse show yesterday, you will have to earn the money yourself. You know perfectly well the only reason your brothers could go to camp is because they are working as junior counselors.”

Crabapple Farm, Trixie reflected, was really a grand place to live, and she had always had a lot of fun there, but she did wish there was another girl in the neighborhood. The big estate, known as the Manor House, which bounded the Belden property on the west had been vacant ever since Trixie could remember. There were no other homes nearby except the crumbling mansion on the eastern hill, where queer old Mr. Frayne lived.

The three estates faced a quiet country road two miles from the village of Sleepyside that nestled among the rolling hills on the east bank of the Hudson River. Trixie’s father worked in the bank in Sleepyside, and Trixie and her brothers went to the village school. She had many friends in Sleepyside, but she rarely saw them except when school was in session. Now that her brothers, Brian and Mart, had gone to camp, there was nobody but her little brother, Bobby, to play with.

Trixie impatiently kicked a hole in the dust of the path with her shoe.

“It’s not fair. You wouldn’t let me try for a job as a waitress or anything. Maybe I could have gone, too.”

“You’re only thirteen,” her mother said patiently. “Next year we might consider something of the sort. Dad and I are really sorry, dear,” she added  gently, “that we couldn’t afford to send you to camp this year.”

Trixie suddenly felt ashamed of herself, and she impulsively threw her arms around her mother. “Oh, I know, Moms, and I’m a pest to nag at you. I won’t any more, I promise.”

As I said, I greatly enjoyed the Trixie Belden series when I was a kid, and while some of the later volumes were also quite good, it was also very clear that the first six–the Julie Campbell written ones–were clearly written by someone other than those who continued the series, and were also vastly superior in terms of character, plot, setting and the writing, frankly. Just this opening of the first book in the series, The Secret of the Mansion, was quite excellent; look at everything that is set up in those first paragraphs and in the dialogue between mother and daughter: you can tell there’s deep affection there; we establish that Trixie has three brothers, two of whom are spending the summer working as junior counselors at camp; Trixie is prone to being overly dramatic; her father works at the bank and her mother likes to garden and grow her own vegetables; they live near a small town on the east bank of the Hudson River; they only have two other homes nearby–the empty Manor House and across to the road from that one is the Mansion, where a creepy old man lives (I doubt the author was using the word queer in the modern sense here; more likely the old definition, “odd.”).

That’s a lot of background and character work, yet it feels organic and not in the least like the bane of all writers, the infamous “info dump.” Soon, Trixie’s mom agrees to pay Trixie five dollars a week with help around the house and garden and sometimes watching her six year old brother, Bobby, and that way she can save money to buy her horse. Shortly after this, Trixie notices moving trucks arriving at the Manor House–her mother has forgotten to tell her that the wealthy Wheelers have bought the place and are moving in–and they have horses. Trixie grabs Bobby and they take off to meet the new neighbors, where she meets her soon-to-be best friend, Honey, who is sickly and ridiculously well-mannered and pale, along with some of the other staff–including Miss Trask, Honey’s governess, and Regan the groom.

The Secret of the Mansion was probably one of the best first novels of a kids’ series ever published. Not only did it introduce us to the Belden family, it did so slowly–we wouldn’t meet the other two members of the family until the third book, when Mart and Brian returned from camp in The Gatehouse Mystery–and we also met the boy who would become the other important tentpole of the series: red-headed Jim Frayne, crazy old Mr. Frayne’s grand-nephew, whose mother had died leaving him at the mercy of a horrible and abusive stepfather, Jonesy. Jim ran away and came to find his great-uncle, only to find out that he’d been hospitalized and in a coma. There was also some depth to the stories, as well–poor old Mr. Frayne’s wife had been bitten by a copperhead snake, he was rushing her to the hospital and their car broke down, and she died waiting for him to get help; the old man went mad with grief, left the car where it was broken down and would never allow another car on his property. The house also began to crumble and get in pretty bad shape–he supposedly had a lot of money, most of which most people assumed was hidden in his messy mansion (old Mr. Frayne was a hoarder). Trixie and Honey are trying to help Jim–Trixie is sure there is money secreted in the house–and eventually, Jonesy shows up after Mr. Frayne dies in the hospital, and Jim runs away again–leaving a note for Trixie and Honey. The old house also catches fire in the night and burns to the ground the night Jim runs away–there’s a lot of action and excitement in the book, including Trixie saving her brother’s life when  he, too, is bitten by a copperhead–and again, character development, as Honey becomes more and more outdoorsy and healthy and more like Trixie, and the two girls become more bonded in their friendship. The book also sets up the sequel, The Red Trailer Mystery, (which was actually the first book in the series I read)–in which the girls and Miss Trask hit the road to go looking for Jim–who actually inherited the small fortune Mr. Frayne had left behind, safely invested. They do find him–and solve another mystery–and it turned out that Jim’s long-deceased father was a college friend of Honey’s father, so the Wheelers adopt Jim, writing a lovely end to the story of the runaway red-headed boy with nothing.

As I mentioned earlier, there was a noticeable shift in tone, continuity, and who Trixie was as a character with the switch in authors, from one author writing under her own name (I believe her name was actually Julie Tatham Campbell, or the other way around). The last two books she wrote, Mystery off Glen Road and Mystery in Arizona, were kind of light on the mystery and stronger on the development of the characters and their friendships/relationships with each other. With the invention of “Kathryn Kenny” as a pseudonym to make other authors,  the books became more heavy on the mysteries and the new authors didn’t care so much about continuity or the established history of the characters: Trixie became more “girly” than tomboy-ish, for one thing, and they started playing up the “boyfriend/girlfriend” dynamic between, not only Trixie and Jim, but Honey and Brian Belden, as well as Mart with Diana Lynch (who was first mentioned in The Red Trailer Mystery, and joined their club, the Bob-Whites of the Glen, after being the central focus of The Mysterious Visitor). They added yet another member to their group, Dan Mangan, Regan’s nephew, in The Black Jacket Mystery–although the core group of five appeared in every book, Diana and Dan often got left out of their future adventures, begging the question of why were they added into the group in the first place? Some of the later books were good, fun mysteries–The Marshland Mystery, The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island, Mystery of the Emeralds, The Mystery of the Missing Heiress–but that core strength from the characterizations in the initial six books was missing from the rest, and as the series continued beyond those first sixteen (a long period of time passed before “Kathryn Kenny” started writing again) the stories and characters grew weaker, which was a shame.

The series gradually evolved from a “how to start a mystery series for kids” primer to “how to ruin a mystery series for kids” primer, which is a shame. I’d match those first four volumes against the first four volumes of any other kids’ mystery series and Trixie would, almost without exception, win, hands down. She was never as popular as Nancy Drew–no one was–but I always thought Trixie and her friends, having fun and adventures in the Hudson valley north of New York City and in the lower Catskills, would have made a fun television series for kids.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Trixie….and The Secret of the Mansion remains one of the best mysteries for kids ever published.

4 thoughts on “Who’s That Girl

  1. Greg, I too loved Trixie Belden. I always thought she was much more interesting than Nancy and wondered why the Nancy Drew books seemed to be so much more popular. (I also loved the Bobbsey Twins, probably because I’ve always been intrigued by twinship.) I lost interested in the Trixie series after a while, probably for the reasons you mentioned. Thanks for a pleasant trip down Memory Lane.

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  2. Interesting to me because I was a big fan of Trixie Belden until I wasn’t — about 5-6 books into the series; never Nancy Drew; Hardy Boys so so; but it was Cherry Ames that kept me interested the longest. (Perhaps she wrote more in that series?).

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