Thursday, September 27, 2012
What kind of got to me while reading Mary Louise is that this is the last series Baum created before his death. Not only was he writing the Oz books up until he died, he was also writing the Mary Louise series under the "Edith Van Dyne" pseudonym.
In my last blog about the Aunt Jane's Nieces series, I mentioned how that series had reached a stopping place (made even more final in the revision), and to keep multiple forms of income going, "Edith Van Dyne" needed a new series.
Thus, back to basics. Reilly & Britton issued the new series as "The Bluebird Books." I can only presume they wanted to keep the options open, which would not be realized until after Baum's death, when the series was continued by Emma Speed Sampson.
Mary Louise opens with the titular character, Mary Louise Burrows (named after Baum's sister, and one may well wonder if the last name beginning with a "B" is not coincidence) at school. She appears to be a very moral girl, and sincerely devoted to her grandfather, who she lives with. However, her grandfather gets word of something and he and Mary Louise's mother suddenly have to leave, and Mary Louise is sent to stay at school.
While discussing arrangements at school, Mary Louise is questioned by a man from the Secret Service: her grandfather is wanted for some crime and he wants to know where her grandfather and mother went. Mary Louise staunchly believes her grandfather is innocent, and refuses to answer any questions; anyway, she doesn't know where they went.
However, word gets out at school and locally that Mary Louise's grandfather is a criminal, and soon, all the schoolgirls make Mary Louise an outcast, simply because they think she has "bad blood" in her. Finally having enough, Mary Louise sells some jewelry for a train ticket to Dorfield and escapes one night, noting that she's being dogged by a mysterious man.
In Dorfield, the man reveals he is, indeed, a detective, Mr. O'Gorman by name, and he was following her. He's concerned because she obviously underestimated the cost of her journey and expected to find her grandfather in Dorfield. However, Mr. O'Gorman pays for her board at a hotel and informs her that her grandfather is not in Dorfield. He does give her his card in case she's in trouble.
Mary Louise goes to stay with her old friends the Conants, who have with them their niece Irene, who is wheelchair-bound. The Conants manage to send a message to Mary Louise's grandfather, who tells her to stay with them.
The Conants and Mary Louise go stay in the country at a friend's summer cabin, where they meet a few colorful characters: the servant boy Bub, who "hates gals" (hmmm...) and the visiting neighbor Agatha Lord, who seems friendly until Irene finds a letter in a box of second-hand books Mr. Conant bought and says it's about Mary Louise's family. Then Agatha begins to act suspiciously. Mary Louise and Irene begin to wonder who they can trust.
A working girl named Sarah Judd pops up, claiming she was hired by the actual owners. However, it becomes clear that there's more to Sarah than meets the eye. (Particularly when she takes a tiny booklet containing a cipher out of her hair...) Unknown to Mary Louise, Agatha and her maid Susan are both working for the Secret Service as well, and they surprisingly say they want to clear Mary Louise's grandfather's name, as they are sure he is innocent. The letter seems to be a key piece of evidence, but Irene attempts to hide it.
Things come to a head when word is sent that Mary Louise's mother has died, and it looks clear that her grandfather will be coming to see her. This is indeed the case, and when he arrives, all three women, Agatha, Susan, and Sarah drop their disguises, and Mr. O'Gorman has arrived as well. Sarah is actually his daughter, Josie, who's training to be in the Secret Service herself.
Since it becomes apparent the letter needs to be exposed, Irene reads it, revealing that Mary Louise's late father turned military secrets over to a foreign country, and when he died, he tasked his wife with completing the task. When she was caught, her father took the blame, causing them to live on the run. Since the letter proves this, and the military secrets are now irrelevant and the government doesn't wish to publicize this case further, all charges against Mary Louise's grandfather are dropped, meaning he can finally live in peace with his granddaughter.
Baum gets to play with espionage, not a wholly new subject for him, but I can't recall government espionage in any of his other books. The mystery of Mary Louise's grandfather is quite the driving point to catch the reader's interest.
The problem is, this comes at a great sacrifice to Mary Louise's personality. While she is a smart, kind, trusting young girl, she is quite the most generic featured female character I've read that Baum created. The most interesting thing she does is managing to get herself out of the school and to Dorfield. She gets showed up by both Irene and Josie, as they prove to be much more interesting characters than herself.
In fact, Eric Shanower spoiled future books for me, saying that Mary Louise in the later books generally winds up calling in Josie, who winds up solving the plot's problem.
Baum wrote five books in all for the series before his death. Three more Mary Louise books were written by Emma Speed Sampson under the "Edith Van Dyne" pseudonym, and then two books were issued as a spin-off Josie O'Gorman series, which Shanower commented was practically giving the series over to its rightful heroine. These Emma Speed Sampson books are really highly priced, so don't expect me to be covering them. Maybe I'll get lucky and pick them up eventually, but for now, I'll be focusing on Baum's series.
So, while Mary Louise started off as an interesting character, she failed to become really interesting in the end. Still, it's a worthwhile story for Baum's characterizations and plots. It's just a pity the main character got skipped when it came to characterization.