Mary C. Jane’s books tell of the Maine of yesterday—rural farms and northern towns, the days of general stores and country doctors and mysteries with pedestrian endings solved by children who have never heard of iPhones or podcasts, the Internet or video games or TVs with a thousand channels.
When I was a kid, these books were my first introduction to mysteries. Mary C. Jane grew up with my great grandmother—she and her sister Nellie, in particular, feature in a dozen black and white photos taken over the years and now archived in our family albums. Mary is perpetually serious in the pictures, often intense, while her sister Nell has a perpetual gleam in her eye, a look as if she’s about to burst into laughter or whisper a secret she’s been keeping.
As Mary got older and embarked on her career as an author, she would send new books to my mom and my aunts and uncles with each release. From 1950 to 1972, she wrote and published more than a dozen mysteries for children, most of them set in Maine. I’ve inherited a copy of almost all of them at this point, each one inscribed in Mary’s neatly flowing script, to various members of the family.
The Mystery at Dead End Farm – my favorite when I was growing up – tells the story of a Portland girl named Priscilla and her brother Lee, visiting their uncle’s Aroostook County potato farm with their widowed mother. When Priscilla and Lee join forces with their cousin, they learn that their eccentric Swedish neighbor Nils has gone missing. Nils is working on a potato-picking invention, and there’s rumor that he has a lead mine on his property that once belonged to the Native Americans (Indians, in those days) who lived in the area. There’s a subplot involving a crashed airplane, and another one involving a white deer the kids want to trap and tame in order to protect it from hunters.
The mystery is solved in 120 pages, complete with illustrations by Raymond Abel of clean-cut boys and girls lurking on hillsides and creeping through abandoned tunnels. In the end (spoiler alert!) Nils returns from having sold his potato-picking invention, and signs over any profits from the lead mine to the local tribe. Priscilla and Lee wind up staying on the farm when they learn their mother and Uncle Ted – their dead father’s brother – have become an item. The final pages are filled with simple resolutions and blueberry pie, as Priscilla ponders the lessons she’s learned.
Mary’s love for both Maine and its people – particularly the children – comes through clearly in her books. On the final page of Dead End Farm, Priscilla ponders the landscape as the family discusses the future of the white deer the kids found in their travels.
She turned her eyes to the rolling potato fields, high, wide, and windswept under the arching sky. What a free kind of country Aroostook was! It didn’t seem right, here, to keep anything – even a deer – penned up and a prisoner…
“It’s wonderful to be safe,” she said, “but it’s even more wonderful to be free. I think we should let the white deer go.”
When I was in third grade, I wrote to Mary and asked if she would speak to my class. I was a shy, pudgy kid with glasses, vacillating between becoming a writer, a jewel thief, or a veterinarian. I had already read every book Mary had written, burning through a mystery a day, and had even convinced our teacher to read one aloud to the class. Mary wrote back, agreeing with great enthusiasm to join us for an afternoon.
Afterward, I was allowed to leave school early to have lunch at home with Mary and my great grandmother. I remember their laughter and the stories they told, Mary’s generosity, and what a keen interest she seemed to take in my own writing. It was the only time we ever met, though we exchanged letters for many years after that. When I started writing poetry and submitting my work to competitions in high school, she weighed in with tips, critiques, and encouragement, in letters I still have today.
Mary’s books can still be found in libraries throughout Maine, her prose and Raymond Abel’s illustrations a reminder of a simpler time. What I find comforting, however, is that while the world has unquestionably sped up and gotten a little more complicated, in many ways Maine’s quiet back roads and rural country charm remain the same. We still rely on our neighbors; we still cherish our quiet spaces; we still believe freedom to go our own way and march to our own drummer is the best way to live.
If you haven’t checked out Mary C. Jane’s mysteries, I recommend taking a look for yourself. She remains a favorite of mine, even now. Is there a series or author that got you interested in reading when you were young? I’d love to hear about the books that first got you hooked on mysteries!
Jen Blood Bio:
Jen is author of the bestselling Maine-based Erin Solomon mysteries, a five-book series telling the story of investigative reporter Erin Solomon as she strives to solve the mystery of an alleged cult suicide she witnessed off the coast of Maine as a child. The final book in the series, The Book of J., was published in February. Jen holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine, and has worked as a freelance journalist for magazines and newspapers from Maine to Oregon. She currently lives in the midcoast, where she runs Adian Editing, providing expert editing of plot-driven fiction for authors around the world. Her next novel, Midnight Lullaby, will be out in June.