Almost 20 years separates me from the first time I read Mandie and the Secret Tunnel. I loved this series growing up. I read every book and deeply mourned when Lois Gladys Leppard died before finishing the Mandie College Days series. I still remember the day my Mom took me up to the kids section of our local library and suggested I try the first book. I remember finding it slow at first, and then fascinating. I remember staying up till 9 pm reading Mandie books in the living room and feeling quite spooked when it came time to go to bed. I remember my joy when, after I thought I read them all, my library got Mandie and the Quilt Mystery (2002). I remember impatiently waiting for Mandie and the Missing Schoolmarm (2004) to get published. (Incidentally, I still own that one.) I remember reading New Horizons in 2010 and feeling such delight at being reunited with my old friends. For me, the Mandie series remains a dear, integral part of my literary childhood.
Heady with feelings of nostalgia, I picked up Mandie and the Secret Tunnel for a quick trip down memory lane. Unfortunately…or fortunately…well…see my reaction for yourself: (Spoilers to follow.)
The story centers around Mandie Shaw, a 12 year old girl whose father dies and whose step-mother decides to quickly remarry. She then send Mandie to work as a nursemaid which prevents her from going to school. Finding this intolerable, Mandie decides to run away to the house of her uncle (whose existence she previously had no knowledge of) with the help of Uncle Ned – an old Cherokee Indian who befriended her father and vowed to watch over her.
As a kid, this set up a fabulous adventure. Of course she should run away. What an evil family! However, as an adult, I sympathize with the step-mother. What do you do with a rambunctious 12 year old when you do not have food to go around? You send her to a place where she will get food and shelter and be useful. Maybe not kind by modern standards, but perfectly acceptable for the era!
Meanwhile, Mandie travels to her uncle’s home where she learns he is away traveling in Europe. The servants accept her with no questions asked (even though we later learn her uncle only recently learned of her existence, so how they know who she is I-don’t-know) and begin to spoil her. This includes making her fancy new gowns from a special sewing room in the house filled with silks and lace and buttons. (We never do learn why an old bachelor maintains such a glorious sewing room.) Unfortunately, a messenger then arrives to say Uncle John died in Europe and the lawyer cannot find his will. This leads to the crux of the plot, the search for Uncle John’s will. Meanwhile, various people show up claiming to be nieces and nephews of the deceased. Everyone knows they are phonies, but no one can apparently do anything about it.
In fact, at one point, an old family friend blatantly informs one of the phonies that he knew the family for over 27 years and John never had a sister. Instead of kicking out the phony, the servants go, ‘eh, we knew it was smoky! Pity we can’t do anything about it.’
Exactly what these phonies hope to accomplish, especially if a will does turn up, never becomes clear. They really play almost no role in the plot. No one doubts Mandie’s claim as niece, so they don’t even serve to make her role more uncertain.
Anyway, turns out Uncle John is not dead, but only pretending. Apparently he wanted to find out who was trustworthy to take care of his newly fatherless niece should anything happen to him. The niece, I might add, he completely ignored after her father’s death and left to become a drudge. As he could not know Mandie planned to run away to his house before enacting this scheme, and as the only people who appear affected by his death are his servants, I have no idea what he hoped to accomplish by his plan. Literally, it is the most convoluted, useless scheme possible. But it does create the necessary tension to keep the story going.
This book did not age well. Uncle Ned speaks awkward, broken English that 90% of the time consists of the words “papoose” or “happy hunting grounds.” If I remember correctly, this does not change throughout the series. Joe – Mandie’s neighborhood friend who reached heights of romance in my eyes as a child with his repeated statements about marrying Mandie someday – informs her she can’t go to school for too many more years because he “does not want a wife who is smarter than him.” Also, let’s talk about the fact that he is 14 when he says this. What 14 year old thinks that far into the future? You say, ‘ah! They grew up faster then!’ I say, you can’t pick and choose when you want to be historically correct. The characters definitely use the word “boyfriend” – a phrase that would hold no meaning at the time. Finally, I’m not saying he is a gold digger, but I am saying he went from saying “I’ll take care of you” to “I’ll marry you” only after she learned she was an heiress…
Throw in several other slightly sketchy plot elements (like the way Mandie’s real mother kind of get strong armed into marrying Mandie’s uncle) or really off the wall statements (like Mandie’s mother telling her mother she could move away since she knew her mother “had the servants to take care of her”) and you get one weird book.
But not a bad book. You see, I went in excepting a mystery novel. The plot elements baffled me because no mystery really existed, and the motives of the characters made no sense. I do not think this book ever intended to stand solely as a mystery novel, though. It resembles much more the genre of ‘adventure books for girls.’
From a writing perspective, it screams plot inconsistencies. From an adventure book for grade and middle school girls? Oh, it rocks. An orphan heroine, strong friendships, secret tunnels, missing wills, ghosts, wealthy relatives, fabulous dresses, a Cherokee spy network, long-lost relatives…this book contains it all! When you focus on the adventure, plot consistency matters less. What does matter is an exciting story with crazy twists and scary turns. And this book contains those elements in abundance.
While this book lost some of its nostalgic glow (poor Uncle Ned), overall I am pleased with it. It remains a romping adventure for young girls. It made me wince occasionally, but it also reintroduced me to some of my favorite characters and awoke a bunch of dormant memories. I consider this re-read a success.
And finally, to the person who told me it did not matter that Lois Gladys Leppard would write no more Mandie College Days because fans could write fan-made sequels, I’ve thought about what you said for 8 years and I disagree. It is not the same.