23 October 2018

[REVIEW] The Secret of Skytop Hill

The Secret of Skytop Hill – A Thrilling Collection of Adventure Stories
Enid Blyton | 2014, Bounty Books | 352 pages
Illustrated by Pythis Ashton-Jewell
Cover illustration by Laurence Whiteley
978-0-75372-705-8
Hardcover, BBW Jakarta 2017, IDR 85000

Reading Enid Blyton made me feel nostalgic. As a person who grew up entangling in adventures with the Famous Five and Five Find-Outers, I am curious how it feels to reread or read another works of Enid Blyton now. Would I be thrilled over again by those kinds of adventure?

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I bought this book at BBW Jakarta 2017 (technically it was not in Jakarta; it was in South Tangerang) and only in the mid of 2018 I finally read it. This book contains 13 stories; some of them link to each other, i. e. “The Mystery of Melling Cottage”, “Number Sixty-two” and “The Case of The Five Dogs” which present John the “detective” as the main character. Most of the stories, of course, was about teens trying to uncover the mysteries they found, and it can be their first time engaging in that kind of mystery-solving. (So, I, who during these years in my life of absenteeism of Blyton’s mystery books have consumed adult mystery fictions which much more sophisticated—Holmes, Poirot, Yukawa “Detective Galileo”—now needed to adjust my expectation when reading Blyton’s mystery fiction for teens in which the characters are also teens and the plot was simple enough for quick case-solving.)

For example, “The Mystery of Melling Cottage” is the story when John the “detective” was first engaged in his own mysterious case. Beforehand, he only could imagine that he was a detective. He adored his Uncle Thomas, who was an inspector in the police force, and he loved to hear the tales of catching burglars, thieves…. But, I dare say that the mysterious case didn’t happen to John out-of-nowhere; it could happen since John let it by doing what his uncle once said,
“We learn to use our eyes, our ears, yes, and even our noses, in the police force! You would be surprised if you knew how many times a very small thing has led to the capture of criminals.” (p. 90)
Whoa, indeed, this is one of the messages the author wanted to deliver to me!

Because John was eager to find something strange, the universe author granted him through small things when he ought to go to Melling Cottage to give a bundle of old clothes from his mother to Mrs Browning (who lived all alone there). But, strangely, John discovered the signs that there was another inhabitant besides of Mrs Browning in that cottage. Who could that be?

Ever since John had solved the mystery of Melling Cottage he had been on the lookout for another. But mysteries didn’t seem to come along very often—and some mysteries turned out not to be mysteries after all! (p. 145). This time, in “Number Sixty-two”, John was eager nothing like before to solve mysteries again. When he climbed and settled at a branch of a tree in Oaktree Wood, he heard two men in their (seemed-to-be) secret meeting under him. The one said, “Number 62, tomorrow” that made John thrilled. What could that mean? And then, he tried to search and solve the number of what that 62 might be.

“The Case of the Five Dogs” is the last John the “detective”’s story in this book. After solving the previous cases, John was becoming pretty well-known in his neighbourhood. One day, four kids came to him, seeking for help to prove that their dogs neither killed nor chased Farmer Warner’s sheep. Instead, it was the log-man’s black dog that did it. Julie, one of the gypsies, told them that she saw the big black dog chase the sheep and kill it, but she won’t tell the police because she was afraid of the police. But, was it true, for the log-man said that at that time when the sheep was killed, he was miles away from there. Which one was true? And, I wondered, why were the gypsies scared of policemen? (p. 248)
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If John the “detective” gained the fame from his acts, James and Malcolm (in “Great-Grandpa’s Telescope” got a pair of real binoculars as a reward from the police for helping get the thieves arrested. And it was James’ great-grandpa’s telescope that made James spot some men on the church’s roof, and then, he with his friend, Malcolm, tried to discover what they were doing suspiciously. Meanwhile, for helping the police to arrest the smugglers, the three kids in “A Night on Thunder Rock” got a new boat as reward, for their old boat was leaking very badly and finally sank, just before they got to shore. But maybe James, Susie, and George in “The Lost Treasure” were the ones who got the most bejewelled reward—the famous family jewels, hidden treasure of their great-great-grandfather—of course, if they could find it, or if that treasure even existed. Did Blyton imply that one deserves reward for her/his good deed.

The main character did not always get the role of the detective. In “It Happened One Afternoon”, Mike, the main character, was the culprit. And the case itself was so simple. One afternoon, Mike came into his Dad’s study, saw his new golf club and swung it; accidentally it smashed a valuable vase. Mike was a coward, so he ran and hid. And, who knows that his friend, Joe, who then will be blamed?
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Some stories have this typical plot: a bunch of teens (usually they’re in [summer] holiday, so they had plenty of times to follow their curiosity and were not in the time when everybody is engaged with their gadgets) went to an old (supposed to be empty) house, found a secret passage, and then saw mysterious things that were actually the “clues”. “The Secret of Skytop Hill” follows this pattern, in which John, Molly, and Harry went to the old ruin at the bottom of Skytop Hill. Inside the ruin, they wanted to set the fire in the fireplace but they found that something was blocking the chimney. Guess what? It was a box contained a map. They followed the map, walked down into the secret passage led towards the heart of the hill. They discovered a powerful lamp hidden inside the hill with its light shone up—what for? However there’s something I still wondered: the inspector claimed that it was actually a little nest of spies, but spies of what? What was they’re spying?

And other stories weren’t about mystery-solving at all, i.e. “The Wild West Kids”, “Caravan Holiday”, and “A Week before Christmas”. “The Wild West Kids” is a lengthy, near-boring drama about a circus. Peter and Jill loved to ride their horses, Bunter and Nuzzler, so much. They even liked to do some tricks as if they were in circus. Luckily, there was a circus camp arrived there, and they got to know Sam and Dan, “the world’s wonder riders, the real Wild West Kids”, and learn many tricks from them. But, unfortunately, before the last performance, Sam fell from the top of the tent and couldn’t perform. Blyton showed that diversity is a normal thing (in circus): each performer has their own fondness towards particular animal. Jill liked horses, Madame Lilliput loved dogs, etc. (pp. 281 – 282).

Meanwhile, in “A Circus Adventure”, two mischievous children made a scene in the circus that came to their village. They unlocked Sammy the chimp’s caravan and opened the monkeys’ caravan. They’re out to the village and their masters were frantically looking for them.

And then, “A Week before Christmas” told about three nice children, Robert, Ellen, and Betsy who agreed to look for jobs to earn money for it was a week before Christmas and sadly, Mum’s lost her purse that contained all of the money she had to prepare all the Christmas things. Robert was being a delivery-boy for the butcher; Ellen helped Mrs Harris to take her three little children for walks; and Betsy was reading and being a good company to Mrs Sullivan. They all did their jobs very well and finally could have a decent Christmas celebration. And see, what the kind words Robert told his mum,
“And what’s more, Mum, I once heard the headmaster’s wife saying to the head that she had noticed that all the nicest children were the ones that had the best mothers—so, if you think we’re nice, you’ve got yourself to thank!” (Robert, p. 345)
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Apparently, the most interesting thing for me is the gender-based stereotypes that I found. In a game which was played by the children in “The Wild West Kids”, the girl is the one who should be rescued by boys (p. 280). In the most tiring-cum-annoying story in this book, “Caravan Holiday”, the socially constructed gender role was explicitly shown when Roddy told his sisters (Jenny and Ann) to do the packing for their holiday (p. 167) and then do the cooking when they were out caravanning, although actually Jenny didn’t like to do those things (p. 168), but she ought to do it anyway just because she was a girl. Meanwhile, towards Geoff, Roddy stated (p. 164) that “he will be all the odd jobs of getting wood for the fire, putting up the tent, and that kind of thing.” It didn’t matter if Geoff really wanted to do it or not; he must do it because he was a boy. And he was lazy; so was Jenny, so Roddy got angry easily as the oldest made them do things.

Nevertheless, I appreciate how Blyton had portrayed how four young brothers and sisters with his and her own weakness went caravanning on their holiday and in that journey, they learned from their mistakes. After they came to a turning point, the story was ended with them promising each other and decided to continuing the holiday better. Well, just a promise? Hehehe.

In “The Lonely Old House” I also found a sexist comment. Dick, Cathy, and Harry, oh, and their dog, Kim, discovered a secret underground passage which led towards the cellar of the old empty house. And then there was someone—“a real recluse”—came to stay at that house. In a night, Harry saw a light went out through the top window of that house, as if someone was trying to give signal to somebody. Cathy was indeed afraid of one’s shadow, but it’s not right for Dick to—though he meant to be kidding—say like this to her:
“Do come on. Can’t you enjoy an adventure, Cathy? Just like a girl—scared of everything.” (p. 113)
WOW, Dick, she was really a girl—not “like a girl”, and “scared of everything” was not a character built in the DNA of girls. I’m not blaming the author here, for maybe she just projected reality of gender stereotyping in the 20th century in UK. But, still. She could do better. When a writer is writing, (a part of) her/his ideology is also dwelling into the writing.

Look, this book maybe is also responsible in conserving patriarchy by teaching its young readers how to act based on her/his gender and how to throw sexist comment at their friend! And maybe someone reads this and accuses me of violating the freedom of writing of the deceased author, but hey, what can I be violating while her books have already spreaded all over the world? 

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As a whole, this book, which was first published in 1998, didn’t give me much thrill, but it entertained me in my holiday last June with the stories of holiday too. And the nostalgia it gave me was irreplaceable. But, I am also anxious, what if the other books by Blyton (including the ones I have read when I was too naive to be aware) also include these kinds of gender stereotypes and sexist comments?
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