Friday, December 25, 2015

Vicki’s Mysterious Friend (1947)

Vicki’s Mysterious Friend
Emma Atkins Jacobs, il. Jean MacLaughlin
1947, The John C. Winston Company

Her upstairs room was none too warm in winter; so Vicki wriggled herself into a faded brown wool jersey and jerked the side zipper snugly into place.

A very promising beginning, with clothing porn.  In a small city in Washington, nineteen-year-old Vicki Burnett has been stand-in mother for her four younger siblings since their mother’s sudden death five years earlier.  She (of course) has someone to do the heavy lifting in Aunt Bertha, but it’s to Vicki that all the million small chores come – keep Bob (14) from drifting into trouble with his pals, wrangling the small children Donald (7) and chatty Susan and, most of all, dealing with pretty, popular little bulldozer…er, sister, Margery.  As the book opens, Margery blows into Vicki’s bedroom to demand big sis do some sewing for her (she’s got a hot date). Vicki weakly protests she has to work on her sketches (she’s a budding interior designer in college) but capitulates quickly.

At that moment the door burst open and Margery swept in. She wore a dark gray Chesterfield coat with a scarlet beret and mittens. Gold-blond curls framed her gay young face. Her eyes were very blue and her saucy mouth was vividly accented with cherry-red lipstick. She carried a green frock, which she tossed on the bed.

Somehow, it’s obvious the underlying theme of this book is going to be sister rivalry.  And indeed, a handsome young man soon arrives at the door.  He has nearly killed Donald, who was sledding on a dangerous street.  The kid’s fine, so we’re told – he then vanishes from the book.  He existed only to bring together Brian Royce with the mostly legal female members of the family.  They will fight over him like cats over a fish head.

And then we switch gears and discover that their father is sick.  He owns a bakery and his hard work and stress over supporting a large family have given him a “bad digestive condition” and his doctor says he needs a six months break in a warmer climate – say, southern California – to recover fully.  He stresses over who will run the business, and Vicki volunteers.

For a while, we watch Vicki struggle mildly to learn the baking business and make inexpensive décor changes to the shop and sign. She realizes how hard her father’s worked to support them all, and begins to wonder if she really wants to finish that design course instead of staying with the family business.

And then we switch out again.  While the above action was going on, Margery and Vicki had been jousting for the McGuff.. er, Brian Royce.  He seems a swell guy, charms the family, dates both sisters genteelly.  But Bob, drifting into a tough part of town, finds Royce in a seedy bar. The man manipulates Bob, who’s found himself in a bit of a argument with the bar owner, into keeping his mouth shut about seeing Bob in this disreputable place. 

The first half is snappy and interesting enough, if not fully realized. The mystery that begins with Royce’s strange, unsavory behavior simply ruins the book.

Other books by Emma Atkins Jacobs
The Secret Spring (1944)
Far West Summer (1949)
Trailer Trio (1942)
Smooth Sailing (1954)
A Chance To Belong (1953)
For Each A Dream (1958)

Kirkus review

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