In The Mastodon Mystery
, a boy called James is sent to stay with a great-aunt, whom he hardly knows, in the small Nova Scotia town of Norton. Although this is a tired and overused device in children's literature, it allows Dorothy Perkyns to place James in unfamiliar surroundings with time on his hands. His great-aunt is busy with fund-raising for Norton's local museum, so he is thrown into the company of Emily, the thirteen-year-old who lives next door. She too is looking for distraction, as she is depressed because her mother, who hated small-town life, has left the family to go and live in Toronto. The big news in Norton is the recent discovery of mastodon bones, and James and Emily become drawn into helping at the archaeological dig and then solving the mystery when some of the bones are stolen.
Dorothy Perkyns is at her best in the creation of the mystery itself. Dinosaurs and fossils appeal to many children, and she uses this fascination to good effect, imparting a great deal of information about archaeology without ever being didactic. She is careful to make sure that James's and Emily's tracking down of the villains is reasonably realistic, if relying a little heavily on coincidence; the thieves never do anything without one of our heroes being nearby. She also ensures that the police finally capture and arrest the bone thieves, but makes it clear that they couldn't have done it without James and Emily.
The Mastodon Mystery is, however, weakened by a lack of characterization and by a sentimental ending that is jarring and unnecessary.
James and Emily are blandly drawn and, when the book has been read, it is hard to recall much about them. Most adults are ciphers, used to move the plot on, but nothing more.
Perkyns feels it necessary to tie everything up neatly. At a party to honour James and Emily, she brings in not only James's parents, who have been remarkable by their absence in the rest of the book, but worst of all, Emily's mother returns and very heavy hints are dropped that everything is going to work out and that she will stay. It is almost as if Perkyns feels that a happy ending is obligatory, though it seems at odds with the earlier picture she draws of Emily's family situation.
Young readers will enjoy The Mastodon Mystery as far it goes, applauding the resourcefulness of the child protagonists, but without vibrant, memorable characters it is not a book that many will find challenging or absorbing.
Gillian Chan is the author of Glory Days & Other Stories, reviewed in this issue, as well as Golden Girl & Other Stories, both published by Kids Can.