Monday, June 16, 2008

American Girl- A Kirsten Mystery: The Runaway Friend by Kathleen Ernst

Although I usually read adult or teen-oriented books, I am a sucker for a good mystery and work in a library, which leads to me occasionally checking out a book normally meant for kids. An example would be this one, a American Girl Mystery starring Kirsten, a Swedish Immigrant who settled in Minnesota with her family.

While I am impressed by the complete market saturation that American Girls have achieved (what with the books, mysteries and the "Insert Girl's Name Here"'s World books that the library I work for owns, the idea of paying that much for a doll ($100) and then having to fork over insanely huge wads of cash to purchase the clothes, accessories and furniture (all of which they have primed girls to want along with the dolls by the catalogue) that each doll "requires" is just... ridiculous. Mind you, I know America is built on Capitalism, and I am sure they are making wads of cash hand over fist this way... more power to them. It just makes me slightly nauseous.

In any case, the story is this: Kirsten's family have teamed up with others in the area to each work their farms. Kirsten's family has only been in Minnesota for a few weeks, but Kirsten has taken to Erik Sandahl, a young man living on his own. He owns hand-carved marbles given to him by his father, and she enjoys being with him (not in *that* way! She's only 12!). Kirsten's family has been fortunate enough to purchase two oxen with which to help out on the farm, and have been loaning them to other farmers to help them get their crops in.

One night, visitors from Sweden arrive at the farm: a Swedish authoress, Miss Mobeck, who is going to write about life in Minnesota to inform Swedes as to whether travelling to America is a good idea, and the sorts of challenges they will find there, and a priest, who has brought newspapers for those who subscribed, and mail from home. Also attending the sudden party are Kirsten's Uncle Olav and Aunt Inger, who live on the next farm over, the Berg brothers, the Greens, along with their daughter and Kirsten's friend Johannah, who are Swedish but abandoned their Swedish name so that they could fit in better in America, and the Vanstrums.

Erik gets a copy of the paper and a letter, and Kirsten's mother gets a letter from their Mormor, or grandmother, which her mother saves to read later. During the party, everyone talks with Miss Mobeck and about how life is in America. After the party, some of the guests stay, while the Greens decide to return home, with Erik escorting them. That night, Kirsten discovers that her one gift from her Mormor, an amber heart pendant on a black suede string, is missing. She searches for it, but cannot find it. Did someone steal it? And if so, who?

The next morning, Erik, who is normally on time and always shows up for work, doesn't arrive. Worse, the Sherriff shows up and says that Erik has defaulted on a loan, and since Kirsten's father co-signed the loan with Erik, he must seize something of equal value... which happens to be the family's oxen! Uncle Olav is quick to blame Erik, and says he must have known this was about to happen, and ran away from his responsibilities. Kirsten's father doesn't blame anyone, but he is intensely saddened by the loss of the oxen. Now the entire family will have to work extra-hard to get in the harvest before the fall rains. Kirsten doesn't believe Erik could do something so hard-hearted, and tries to solve the mystery of Erik's disappearance and her missing amber heart.

She travels to Erik's house and discovers a tiny hidey-hole set under the floor with a removable floor board set above it. Inside is a picture of a woman, the paper Erik recieved (with a piece of it torn out), and a small sack containing his marbles. Knowing Erik would never leave them behind, Kirsten becomes sure that Erik didn't just run away and leave. She determines to find the meaning of the puzzle.

She starts with the other party guests, asking them if Erik spoke to them of a sweetheart or a girl he was fond of. Apparently, he did not. She visits Johannah at the Green's, and finds that her mother seems acutely nervous. Also, their chicken coop has a lock on the inside. What could this mean? Kirsten admires the carved box Johannah's mother had from her father, but she pushes it away from Kirsten.

This is not easy for Kirsten, with all the extra work that she is required to do on the farm with the oxen gone, and the wolves seem especially bold now, frightening her when they howl, and even coming up to look in her bedroom window. With all these things pulling at her attention, can Kirsten find where Erik disappeared to and clear his name?

This is a short story meant for kids, but good enough to even hold the attention of teens and at least one adult (me!). The readers are given clues slowly and must work out for themselves what they mean, although, this being for kids, the writer even works an Aesop (don't be so quick to judge others!) into the story as well. Red Herrings (Or should we call them Red Lutefisk?) abound, diverting attention from the main story, which is grounded in the actual work required to run a farm in that time, and includes a section at the end where the author talks about the people and time period covered in the story.

It's cute and it's sweet, and knowing it's an American Girl book, there isn't going to be anything inappropriate in the story. For kids, and girls who love the American Girls books, this will be a definite hit. Even girls who aren't into the whole American Girls thing will enjoy how strong and smart Kirsten is and how she ends up solving the mystery on her own, without the help of any adult.

A first class book for kids that even (gasp!) boys would enjoy.

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