the book: A Silver Spade by Louisa Revell
Sally was in swimming too. I saw her white cap and bathing suit – what there was of it – the first thing, and waved. She was sitting on the farthest float, with the lifeguard that had to sit there all the time, and two or three little campers that must have been mighty good swimmers for their age. The float was far out.
Sally slid into the water, and the smooth, strong, effortless crawl bought her back to shore ad tracing speed. The little campers doing valiantly behind her, were a long way behind by the time Sally waded in, unfastening her white cap and shaking the water out of her short light hair. Her skin looked even darker wet that it did dry, with a startlingly white stripe where one shoulder strip had slipped.
commentary: As with so many books – particularly US crime fiction of the mid 20th century – John Norris at Pretty Sinister Books is responsible for this one. I’d never heard of the author – apparently the name is a pseudonym for an academic, Ellen Hart Smith, who wrote a handful of detective stories as a sideline. And, A Silver Spade was a delight: I will certainly be looking for more, though I think the books are virtually unknown here in the UK.
Series sleuth is a retired Latin teacher, Miss Julia Taylor. In this one – set just as WW2 is ending – she comes out of retirement to teach at a very fancy girls’ summer camp in Maine. It is not the prospect of the very high-IQ girls that has tempted her, but the reports that there is something funny going on at the camp: there have been anonymous letters.
So off she goes, and we are introduced to a huge staff, and quite a few of the girls. We hear stories and legends of Pirate Island, where the Camp is, and the backstories of the characters – some of it very much tied up in the war. Meanwhile the girls spend their mornings in very academic studies, and their afternoons in outdoor pursuits such as swimming, shooting, archery, sailing and riding. It sounds like a cross between Swallows and Amazons and a school story, so perfect for me. (In books, anyway.)
Miss Tyler is a splendid narrator, and has strong views on all kinds of things: the camp is based on the idea that clever children should be educated separately from the less gifted, and this is seen as a controversial and new idea (it would have been commonplace in the UK at that time, educational fashions go back and forth). This is discussed, along with modern psychiatry, the benefits of knowing Latin and Greek and (I’m sorry to say) the importance of the young girls not quoting from the poets too much, as it will put boys off…
One character is much mocked for his work as a top-end designer of housewares, ceramics and table silver – he is
‘sort of wrapped up in his designs for flexible living.’
We two old reactionaries laughed together.There is much mockery of the flexible living (‘his flexible cream jug’), but it is clear that the author sees right on both sides of this particular argument. And there is a rather sad backstory for one of the staff, a familiar tale of her scientific achievements being hijacked by a more senior male…
The clothes details were great – the swimwear, the tailored dresses, the green uniform shorts and jerseys the girls wear, and the man who could sleep on the beach because he would be warm in his bearskin poncho.
And when all the staff quarters have to be searched, there is a wonderful description of what clothes they have:
Except for Miss Gates’s lacy, frilly, exquisitely unsuitable dress, they all had the same kind of clothes, young and old. Shetland sweaters and gabardine skirts, tweed jackets, chambray shirtwaist dresses and denim slacks. The younger teachers had a greater proportion of pedal pusher and shorts. Everybody had a raincoat and a bathing suit. Everybody’s shoes were sensible and strong. Nobody had brought every interesting underclothes or perfumes or make-up, naturally, to a summer camp in Maine.There are quiet witticisms – the girls are divided into teams named after wildlife, and as it turns out the trophy for the tidies tent goes to the ‘housewifely Ravening Wolves.’
The solution is finally revealed at a meeting of all the grown-up participants (all the ones still surviving, that is) and actually I had guessed some of it via some good clues. But that didn’t reduce my enjoyment at all: I would forgive anything to an author who has made sure that most of the staff are dressed for the water carnival, as there was no time to change from their costumes. So a couple of different theories are revealed to a party including scantily-dressed sirens and mermaids, a pirate, Ulysses, Neptune, and a woman in a yellow mac and sou’wester. This scene cries out to be filmed…
Girls doing archery are at a summer camp in Massachusetts in 1950, from Flickr Commons.
Swimming girls at another summer camp, also Flickr.
Two women ‘off to the creek’ at a Mennonite camp in 1950, also Flickr.
The swimsuit is by Jantzen from the 1950s