Just Plain Trixie

Excerpt from The Girl Sleuth by Bobbie Ann Mason, pages 91-98.

Judy Bolton and all the original girl detectives of the 1930s and 1940s are going out of print, all except the strong Stratemeyer stars - Nancy Drew and her twin satellites, the Dana Girls - and one other, an adolescent who has quietly held her place on the revolving racks in dime stores. Trixie Belden stars in an unpretentious series of sixteen mysteries, published in cheap hardbacks by Whitman Co. Trixie was one of my favorites, and she was closer to my age and situation than the others.

Like the Judy Bolton stories, Trixie Belden mysteries are slightly off key, although the central ingredients of the recipe are obvious. Trixie is poor and her best friend next door is rich, with a mansion, horses, a groom, a governess, a limousine the works. Trixie has to stay home and hoe the garden a lot, but her life is enriched when the Wheelers move into the mansion up the road. As it turns out, Trixie's initial awe of wealth evaporates.

"Oh, Moms, I'm so glad I was born into this family. I feel so sorry for people like Honey.... Honey just never seems to have any fun with her father and mother the way Bobby and Brian and Mart and I do. I'm so glad we're not rich."

"So am I," Mrs. Belden said with a smile. "It's much more fun to work for the things you want than to have them given to you on a silver platter."

The Secret of the Mansion,
pp. 140 141

Thank goodness the Trixie Belden series insisted that the rich weren't happy. It is possible that what depth there was in the Judy Bolton books and the self-congratulation of the Trixie Belden books saved me from pining away into a shadow, longing for Bobbsey heaven. The Trixie stories had a healthy, restraining effect. They held up no glamorous ideals and weren't calculated to make an ordinary little girl unhappy. What they did do was unfairly use Honey and her mansion to work up a hunger for class and privileges and did so, paradoxically, in order to reinforce middle and lower to middling class values.

I cherished the first three volumes of the Trixie Belden series (written between 1948 and 1951 by Julie Campbell; some of the later books were by Kathryn Kenny). They were full of rich natural detail not present in any of the other books. They made living in the country seem all right, even if they did make me wish there was a rich girl with horses up the road a piece. Recently I read the remainder of the series to find out what happened and I found a certain wholesomeness sustained throughout, although the mystery form has a built in preposterousness an incredible number of crooks and jewels and the pop format, however modified, can be seen below the surface.

In the first book Trixie longs for excitement and a horse. She lives way out in the country with nothing to do but chores. Soon after the book begins the rich people arrive in answer to her wish, and the daughter is Trixie's age. Trixie is a tomboy, and so she is at first disenchanted with pale, thin Honey Wheeler. Honey is a starched little fraidy cat who has nightmares and is scared of every bug and weed she sees. But Trixie urges Honey through some adventures and within two days they are bosom pals and Honey is eating like a pig and getting "brown as a berry." In the second book they go traveling in a fine red trailer, chasing after a beautiful red haired boy who has run away from his cruel stepfather. They want to let him know he has inherited an estate from his uncle. Honey likes the boy, Jim' so much that she wants him for a brother and so her daddy adopts him.

Honey's mamma is a socialite who has no time for her daughter, a fact which saddens Honey in every single book. Honey suspects her mother wanted a boy and was disappointed in having a girl. Honey's orphan like state strengthens the role of Trixie's "Moms," who is warm and wise and wonderful, an archetypal, beatific slavewife who's so busy caring lovingly for her children and baking pies that she has no time to worry about society. Wealth can't buy the satisfaction of cooking and canning, as Trixie wisely observes.

"You're right, Honey. I'd hate to have a lot of servants cluttering up our place. And nobody could possibly cook as well as Moms does. The funny part of it is that she never makes a big fuss about it, either. When she dons an apron she looks younger and prettier than ever, and she sort of wanders into the kitchen and wanders out again with an enormous meal."

The Mysterious Visitor,
p. 19

(Trixie doesn't have any intention of following in her mother's footsteps, of course.) Honey is the poor little rich girl, with all those servants hulking about. Honey doesn't even have any blue jeans to wear.

Honey appeared, then, in an immaculate white riding habit and russet boots so shiny you could see your face in them. The Secret of the Mansion, p 3 3

"Goodness knows, I can't have any fun unless I'm wearing jeans," says Trix. (The Mysterious Visitor, p.35) As soon as Honey gets some jeans they start having adventures, hoping to open up the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency when they are grown. One of their first mysteries involves another poor little rich girl, Diana Lynch, who had worn jeans until her father got rich. Trixie and Honey rush in and save her from a swarm of servants, especially the butler "with his silly old silver tray." (The Mysterious Visitor, p. 188) Di gets jeans again and joins Trixie's club.

Trixie is an adolescent (aged thirteen) who is determined to be neither child nor female or feminine, at least. You can picture a tanned, freckled, snub nosed; frizzy haired kid who's no longer a ruffled "little girl", and hardly a teenager and not yet a "young lady" - simply a "kid". In that embarrassing transition period, the world is full of rules and roles one has to resist. Trixie is sharp and shrewd, but if she tries to think some adult says, "Don't think. Every time you do, this place is swarming with state troopers and G-men." (The Mysterious Visitor, p. 84). With domineering older brothers and the responsibility of helping care for a toddler brother, she is determinedly independent. She does her stuff anyway, despite their hoots, and adults and brothers come around to confessing their confidence in her.

They were used to Trixie's bursts of enthusiasm, and they always paid attention to her. Life with her might be exasperating at times, but it was never dull. She had led them into and out of some mighty thrilling episodes.
The Mystery at Bob White Cave
, p. 18

Each book centers on her acts of heroism, and the boys do very little. She goes down a rope over a cliff rescue a girl caught in a bush; she descends into sink hole in a dark cave to collect some rare fish and is almost swept away by a tide; she rescues her brother from a wildcat; she saves the forest from poachers; she gets kidnapped. Her brothers tease her about being unfeminine. They say she handles a needle like it's a crowbar. But Trixie says, "As far as I'm concerned, all sewing is cross stitching, because every time I look a needle in the eye I feel cross." (The Mysterious Visitor, p. 15)
Trixie bristles at being referred to as "just a girl." She is impatient and impulsive, and she excitedly jumps to conclusions (usually correct). The books more or less accede to male/female stereotypes, but for a change twist them and congratulate the female. Though Trixie is excitable, she is also practical. She has no illusions about good times in the big time. She doesn't care for fantasy, but is firmly ro6ted in the garden soil of the back yard. She doesn't even go for fairy tales.

"I know, you're afraid she'll turn us into gingerbread dolls! Or is that the way the story goes in 'Hansel and Gretel'?" Trixie was never sure of her facts about fairy tales.

The Marshland Mystery
, p. 64

Trixie knows the value of work, and though she complains about her chores she knows they must be done. She saves for a horse and works on projects for her secret club, the Bob Whites. Although some of the members are rich, the rule is that all club money must be earned. The club works on charity projects to aid UNICEF, crippled kids, orphans, earthquake victims, etc. There is so much work going on that it's a wonder Trixie gets her mysteries solved. But her chores teach her responsibility. When she sees a shiny bike left in the mud, she deplores the carelessness of the owner.

And she thought with a shudder of what Moms and Dad would say to her or the boys if they treated their bicycles like that. All four had them, and because they knew that their father had paid a good price for the bikes, they were careful of them.

The Marshland Mystery
, p. 64

Trixie's home is like the farm as I knew it: a vegetable garden with endless weeds, a big warm mom in the kitchen canning catsup and beans, and the lurking fear of snakes and wild animals a world far removed from the civilized security of the Bobbseys. Trixie's garden chores are demanding and she is knowledgeable about her work. She weeds with her scratcher, throws scratch to the chickens, pulls out the purslane, hills up the potatoes, and waters the tomato seedlings.

Trixie understands weather and weeds and wild animals. There are more descriptive passages in these books than in any other popular series I know, and there is careful attention to natural settings. The authors write indulgently about the wildlife and forests of Rip van Winkle country Trixie's Hudson River region. Trixie and her Bob White friends ride their horses into the forest and they know every trail and danger. They never go anyplace without their flashlights. Nature is the real world to be dealt with, and social evils are seen in that perspective. The wilderness is present in abundant detail in every book.

The preserve was the place the Bob Whites liked best to ride. it was deep, dark, and mysterious, with trails crossing and recrossing. There were parts of it, still unexplored, where deer and foxes roamed. On rare occasions even a catamount found its way down from the Catskills. The west boundary ended only ten feet from the edge of the great bluffs that hung over the Hudson River.
The Mystery of the Missing Heiress
, p. 19

In the last book of the series to date, the great industrial swoop threatens a marshland which is a favorite wild haunt, 'where Trixie and her friends go to find herbs for botany class tansy, boneset, bergamot, pennyroyal. When Trixie goes on a trip to another region, there is considerable attention to the setting. This is in the Ozarks.

Limestone ledges made a serrated pattern down to Ghost River, which emptied into the huge basin of Lake Wamatosa. Pines, walnuts, hickories, butternuts, papaws, dogwoods, redbuds, and wild crab apple trees tangled, in dense clumps, with wild grapevines and spiraling woodbines.

The Mystery at Bob-White Cave
, p. 22

There is no commentary on the scenery; it is just factual notation, given because it is important given in particularity, unlike the generalized settings through which Nancy Drew floats. Nancy settings are quaint and thrilling. Trixie brought me down to earth and made the natural, real world inviting. The Mystery at Bob-White Cave is full of details (nearly enough to counteract its stereotyped pictures of happy hillfolk quilting and feuding), details such as these: eating wild poke greens and canned squirrel; the rain crows crying rain; gathering ginseng and herbs; making blackberry preserves; driving mules and wagons on treacherous backwoods trails.

The Trixie Belden series stresses work and thrift and plainness and energy, though it does so in a typically seductive fashion, with its emphasis on WASP-centered wealth. But the books are relatively plausible mystery-adventures about a group of energetic kids doing some healthful things.

It's perhaps a good thing I didn't read beyond volume three when I was a child. The later books show Trixie jetting off on impossible vacations, even though her trips are usually to the un exotic Midwest the Ozarks, the Mississippi River, an Iowa sheep farm, places where Trixie still has to do quite ordinary chores. In recent books Honey has become "a tall, graceful blonde" and the club is getting its own station wagon, a spaceship is being launched, and New York City is closer. And Trixie is saying, "Too many people are running down our country and everyone in it, with a special hate for teenagers. I like us. I like all of us." (The Mystery of the Missing Heiress, p. 23) The stories are repetitious, one reason series books by definition leave a bad taste in educators' mouths. And later books are less complex; Trixie's mind seems to have shrunk somewhat.

But among the girl sleuths, Trixie is (or was) one of the most, liberating. The values of the books threaded as they are with girl detective plot fibers are superior to the Bobbsey values of many a series. The simplistic psychology of the characters, situations, and themes must be held up against the utter emptiness of the syndicated series, in which there is no psychological dimension. If I were discussing literary values, I would have no subject, but I'm talking about popular dreams, and the relative damage of indoctrination, and within that context I've become a connoisseur.

The End.

Error: Author refers to Trixie and Honey traveling in a "red trailer", obviously confused by the title of the book.  Trixie and Honey, of course, traveled in the Silver Swan.