Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rocket Ships and Historical Mysteries

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet
Eleanor Cameron

What could be more enticing than the idea that you, a mere child, could build a rocket ship and then launch into space all by yourselves to a secret planet with a box lunch and a chicken for company?

One of the prevalent themes in children’s literature is children doing traditionally adult things, things that we readers would never have been allowed to do in a million years in real life. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet operates on this premise. It opens with best friends David and Chuck reading a cryptic personal ad in the paper, looking for two boys to build a spaceship. Their indulgent parents go right along with it. Through the ad they meet Mr. Bass, a mysterious scientist who asks them to go on a rescue mission to his home planet, Basidium, an undetected satellite of Earth.

The boys eagerly build a rocket out of wood and scrap metal (!) and Mr. Bass supplies the fuel. Because they were supposed to bring a mascot but forgot, at the last minute they grab Mrs. Pennyfeather the chicken.

When they arrive on Basidium, they find the inhabitants are slowly dying from a nutritional deficiency. But they eventually save the day.

Eleanor Cameron (1912 – 1986) was a Canadian born writer of children’s novels. She also wrote the Julia Redfern series, but it is the Mushroom Planet collection that captivated me as a child.

Her writing is simple and concise but completely plausible in the way she presents these implausible activities and events. Except for having to suspend your disbelief that parents would allow their children to head into outer space in a handmade rocket ship, she deftly connects the plot details. The characters are well developed and the story, especially for its day, was unique.

When I first read The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, I was enthralled by the concept of such independence and adventure. I devoured the series, which also consists of The Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, A Mystery for Mr. Bass, Mr. Bass’s Planetoid and Time and Mr. Bass. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet has been in print since 1954 (I treasure my 1950's edition)and Stowaway has been reprinted. However, the last three are rare and non-library copies range from $25 to almost $500.


Current Reading

Robert Goddard

Past Caring

Sight Unseen


I have always loved the concept of linking the past and the present to solve a mystery and that is a plot technique prolific English author Robert Goddard employs in his many books.

I just read these two consecutively and I was afraid they would be repetitive. But while the plot device of historical documents figures in both of them, the stories were different enough to be completely absorbing.

Past Caring is the longer of the two and, I thought, the more satisfying. Set in Madeira and then in England, Goddard tells the story of an out of work history teacher who is tantalized with the prospect of solving a decades old mystery surrounding the journal of a minor Cabinet official. He had been a rising political star, engaged to a beautiful woman he deeply loved and then it all came crashing down. What happened?!? The narrative switches back and forth between the journal and the present. There are plot twists and double crosses and questionable motives galore.

I have read so many mysteries that one of my criteria anymore is guessing the outcome. If I can early on I am disappointed and, since there are only so many stories in this world, I usually do. While I guessed part of the plot here, the rest was a surprise and worth the read. A really original story and I was sorry when it ended.

Sight Unseen is also centered on a historical mystery involving an eighteenth century character. But in addition the plot revolves around a sickening crime the main character witnessed twenty years earlier, the kidnapping of a baby and the murder of her nine year old sister. The two stories end up being connected and the protagonist finds himself over his head when he begins to investigate. Sight Unseen is shorter, more violent and is slightly more complicated that Past Caring. I questioned the conclusion as being unlikely in real life, but it was another good read.

Past Caring
Five Stars

Sight Unseen
Four Stars


GIVEAWAY!! (AKA: Shameless Bribe):

I will be giving away a new copy of Past Caring to one lucky person who leaves a comment over the next two weeks. Leave a comment and I will draw a name at random. Good luck and thanks for reading!!

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