Sunday, May 21, 2023

Guest post: Finally finding a "white whale" book from childhood

I recently connected with Caroline Stevermer and was thrilled that I was able to get her a copy of a long-lost Ruth Manning-Sanders novel from her childhood. Stevermer is an author who writes fantasy, most recently The Glass Magician from Tor Books. Her website is I'll let her tell the full story of this book reunion:
Mystery at Penmarth, by Ruth Manning-Sanders, illustrated by Susanne Suba. Robert M. McBride & Company, 1941 (first U.S. edition)

Like many if not most of us, as a child I read with reckless abandon. Even when a book delighted me, I often forgot the title and author. I relied on my memory of its location on the library shelves to find and reread it.

I came to regret my recklessness when those shelves were no longer available to me. I learned that if I wished to reread these books of delight, I had to hunt for them. Hunt I did. By recounting what I remembered of the plots to children's librarians, book-finder websites, and fellow bibliomaniacs, I have able to identify and reread those lost books. Every book but one.

Mystery at Penmarth
was my white whale. I had lost hope of ever finding it again. 

(tl;dr — I've found it!)

A few days ago, thanks to Peggy MacEachern, book-finder extraordinaire, I learned its title and author. I have received a gift copy of the book from the incredibly generous Chris Otto, journalist and Papergreat blog-master. 

So I reread Mystery at Penmarth for the first time in sixty years. Spoilers ahoy! If you want to read the book without knowing more about it, stop here. 

Five children (delightfully portrayed in Susanne Suba's illustrations throughout) unite to form a secret society. There is most definitely a mystery for them to solve, and they solve it. There is a secret room, a message to decipher, and a mission which they successfully carry out. There is archaeology. There are ponies. 

No wonder I loved this book. It has everything.

What I completely failed to notice reading it in childhood was how adroitly the story is told. Rebecca, our first-person narrator, keeps the minutes of the secret society meetings, which allows her to recount the stories the children are told by subsidiary characters — local gossip, ghost stories, and folk tales. Ruth Manning-Sanders is famous for her anthologies of fairy tales and folklore. I can certainly see why. The stories aren't just a source of clues for the children. Such is the author's skill, they stand on their own.

Honesty is valued highly throughout the book. Although the children are truthful, the secret society is only dissolved once they carry out their final mission, something they keep a secret from the grownups. As an adult reader, I found that small secret a large part of how satisfying the story is.

My memories of the story were not always accurate. The children are responsible for the fire that destroys part of the house and all of the adjacent stable. In my memory they had been unfairly blamed for it. A big part of my love for the story came from what I remembered of the children communicating with the ghost of Penmarth, but there is nothing like that in the book. Anything that could be considered ghostly is given a rational explanation. However, Manning-Sanders conveys the atmosphere and mood of the secret room vividly. It is a ghost story, as far as this reader is concerned.

As I opened the book, I admit I dreaded a visit from the entity James Davis Nicholl has dubbed the Suck Fairy. Very often when a book from the twentieth century is never again reprinted, there is good reason to neglect it. Although this story is not without its embarrassments, it wasn't ruined for me. 

There are definitely issues of class, no surprise in a book published in 1941. The local accent is conveyed through spelling. I could ignore it, but I can easily imagine readers who couldn't. There is also at least one moment that denigrates Romani people. Probably I have missed other problems.

I am delighted to be reunited with my long-lost book. Peggy and Chris, I can never thank you two enough.


  1. Great post! I found a copy through Inter Library Loan--halfway through it and really enjoying this book.

    1. For those who really like it, some of the same characters appear in the Ruth Manning-Sanders novel "Adventure May Be Anywhere" (aka "Children by the Sea")

  2. This is amazing!!! I can't believe you found the book and were able to read and enjoy it. A big thanks to all those out there who work to connect readers with books they loved and lost.