Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review: THE SEVEN SLEUTHS' CLUB by Carol Norton

book cover Original Publication Date: 1928

Genre: middle-grade

Topics: friendship, equality            

Review by heidenkind:

In the small town of Sunnyside, seven high school girls start a club called the SSC, which originally means Spread Sunshine Club until one of the girls figures out their brothers are in a Conan-Doyle sleuthing club. After he tells her girls can't solve mysteries, they decide to change their name to the Seven Sleuths Club and look for mysteries to solve. But before that happens, they have to deal with their annoying brothers, schoolwork, and a new girl in town who's a bit of a snob.

The Seven Sleuths' Club is a combination of Little Women and The Babysitters' Club, with Moral Lessons about treating everyone equally regardless of class or race (and, more subtly, irrespective of gender), the value of hard work, and the importance of kindness and compassion. Despite that, the book doesn't come off as preachy—I probably only noticed the Moral Lessons because I'm old and I notice stuff like that. The lessons are well-integrated into the story and if I was a middle-grade reader—the novel's intended audience—it wouldn't have been too twee for me.

Although there are eight main girl characters, the heroine of the story is really Geraldine, a rich city girl whose father sends her to Sunnyside because she's traipsing out with boys at night without telling him. As her dad explains in a letter to the Colonel, who's taking care of her, "Now I want Geraldine to have boy friends in a frank, open way, but of this sub-rosa business, my son and I heartily disapprove," which is quite open-minded of him. At first the girls of the SSC make fun of Geraldine because she's a horrible snob, but gradually we learn she's just a poor little rich girl who never had a mom to teach her manners and she gets an attitude adjustment.

The girls of the SSC were pretty interchangeable as characters—they're all more or less church-going goody goodies—but I liked Geraldine. Another character whom I LOVED was Danny O’Neil, the son of a tenant farmer who's Irish. Danny's passion is art but his dad beats him whenever he sees him drawing. Now here's the kicker: for Valentine's Day, he carves book ends for one of the girls because he know she loves to read! BEST GIFT EVER. He is so sweet.

The Seven Sleuths' Club most definitely passes the Bechdel Test—the girls talk about school work, events they're planning, their hobbies, and of course what sorts of mysteries they're going to solve (it takes nearly the entire book for them to find one). But I'm not sure I would call it feminist or say that the girls have demonstrable agency, since all the decisions they make are a response to what men do. It starts with the formation of the club—the boys have a detective club, we need a detective club!—and moves on to Geraldine, who only decides to "improve herself" when the boy she's crushing on says he wants to marry a girl who's a decent homemaker. *eyeroll* Still, there are some light—very light—digs at the boys, and eventually the two clubs join in an equal partnership. Oh, and the idea that men and women can't have platonic friendships? Carol Norton obviously doesn't agree: although there are a few romances going on in the story, for the most part all the girls and boys in the novel are simply friends who hang out together.

While The Seven Sleuths' Club isn't exactly feminist by modern standards, and is a little preachy and overly cute (although much less so than other books of its ilk like, say, Little Women), I still enjoyed it and loved the characters. Definitely worth checking out if you're interested in historic middle-grade fiction!

Download The Seven Sleuths' Club by Carol Norton at Project Gutenberg|Librivox