Nine year old Tolly returns to the old house at Green Knowe to face some terrible news: his great-grandmother has sent away the old picture of Toby, Alexander and Linnet for a London exhibition, which means—gasp—no ghosts to play with, since the ghosts are attached to the picture. Some people might consider this a good thing, but not Tolly, who now thinks of the ghosts as his best friends, which probably says something about the boarding school he’s at, but I digress.
Worse news is to come: Mrs. Oldknow is actually considering selling the painting. All of those wonderful floods and heavy snows from the first book have heavily damaged the roof (maybe not as wonderful as described) and Mrs. Oldknow has no money to pay for repairs. Since she also legally has to keep the historic house repaired, she has little choice: the painting, the only valuable object she has left, has to go.
Unless, that is, another ghost can help Tolly find the Treasure of Green Knowe. Fortunately enough, the house just happens to have another ghost—Susan.
It’s not particularly hard to convince Mrs. Oldknow to start telling stories about the people who lived in the house in 1795: the sea-faring captain father (apparently, most of the men in this family end up going to sea); the spoiled, rich mother Maria; the rigid, religious grandmother, convinced that her blindness is a punishment for being frivolous; Mrs. Softly, the well-intentioned nurse; Sefton, the overindulged son, largely selfish and amoral; Caxton, the equally amoral if more ambitious servant; the other servants Betsy and Cook, and little Susan, who was born blind.
Susan’s greatest problem, however, is not her blindness, but the fact that even the best intentioned people assume that because she is blind, she is also stupid, clumsy, untrustworthy and helpless. As a result, she is unable to feed herself or do much of anything else, although her grandmother, somewhat accidentally, does teach her the rudiments of sewing. It doesn’t help that Mrs. Softly, the nurse, is convinced that Susan’s habit of touching things—her only way to see and explore the world—is rude and wrong and has to be stopped, trapping Susan in a world of only sound.
Worried that the girl will be even more isolated in his absence, Susan’s father hires Jonathan, the son of a local vicar, to give Susan some sort of education—reading to her, teaching her numbers, and so on. But before the captain has a chance to see if this will work or not, he’s off on another voyage—not to mention that Jonathan, although eventually successful beyond the captain’s wildest dreams, is ten years older than Susan, so not exactly a playmate, and in any case, cannot spend all of his time at the house. (Also, Jonathan and Sefton do not get along at all.)
So it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that while on a military trip to Barbados, the captain impulsively decides to buy a very young black slave boy, Jacob, and bring him back to England.
This is part rescue mission—Jacob is terrified of the alternative owners, and begs to be purchased—and part an attempt to help his daughter, since Jacob can be assigned—at very little expense—to help her.
Boston does not shrink away from describing the thoroughly negative reception Jacob receives after arriving at Green Knowe. The thoroughly racist grandmother and the only slightly less racist Maria assume that Jacob will be a godless heathen at best and a thief at worst, with Maria adding the additional claim that Jacob won’t be very fashionable. (This is 1795.) Sefton initially laughs, because the kid’s arrival is disruptive (Sefton, if you haven’t gathered this already, is not a very nice person), but later calls Jacob a monkey.
In a later nasty incident, Jacob is sent some clothing, which he puts on eagerly, hoping to finally look like everyone else—only to find that the clothes, bright green velvet, aren’t like everyone else’s, opening him up to the monkey accusations again. The clothing, it turns out, was ordered by Sefton as a cruel practical joke. Even the racist grandmother is infuriated. I’m delighted to tell you that Susan and Jacob get their revenge in a thoroughly childlike and thoroughly satisfying way, though I should warn readers that the beginning of this subplot can make for painful reading.
The other servants and even the captain are also inclined to judge Jacob on his appearance, and think rather less of him, although Jacob does manage to win over the cook. Even Jonathan, who doesn’t, initially continues to focus on Susan’s education, not Jacob’s; to be fair, Jonathan was hired to educate her, not Jacob, and Jonathan does willingly teach Jacob how to read and write as well—and later helps shield Jacob for that punishment.
Part of the racism does come from the fact that Jacob is not just uneducated, but speaks very bad English, and has a fervent belief in what he calls Juju which is not shared by any of the other characters—indeed, it deeply offends them. And in at least one instance, these racist attitudes work in Jacob’s favor—when he and Susan are caught doing a Juju ritual, based on stories Jacob has heard, Jonathan is so unconvinced that this could have any real religious element to it that he believes it was only pretend and make believe—which shields Jacob from getting into trouble for being unChristian.
It all leads a definite sense of yes! and payback! when Jacob turns out to be the hero—and for a lot more than playing pranks. It was a highly satisfying moment.
While all this is going on, Tolly, in the real world, is continuing to explore the house. To his astonishment, as he does so, he finds himself almost getting pulled back, just a little—that is, it’s not entirely clear what’s happening, but where in the first book the children he was talking to were very definitely ghosts in the present, in this case, Tolly seems to have slipped back to talk to Susan in the past. Since she can’t see him, but only hear him, this cancels out any issues of strange clothing and haircuts and so on; when Jacob, too, is later able to see Tolly, he’s still too unfamiliar with 18th century British clothing to have any real issues with what Tolly is wearing. It’s a good thing they are able to talk to them—since as much as Tolly might need their help to find the treasure, they need his help to save someone else.
Parents should probably be aware that the book’s ending has more than one rather macabre note (of a sort that I think most nine year olds will love) and a return to the romanticized gypsies. Parents may also want to read this book with their children because of the racist attitudes it portrays. To be clear, at no point does Boston portray any sense of approval of these attitudes: indeed, the entire book is a quiet protest against racism. But it is also a book with a young black character who speaks grammatically poor English and who faces some scenes that can make for very painful reading, and never does manage to become the social equal of the young white character.
Having said that, this is also a book about two outsider children who manage to defy the stereotypes placed on them. (Also, I should note that Susan starts off as gentry and Jacob starts off as a slave in 1795; that they’ve managed any type of genuine friendship is at least a start, even if they don’t end up as social equals.) If the final couple of paragraphs are perhaps too realistic, they do nonetheless provide a much happier ending for Susan and Jacob than I think either one of them could have expected in the beginning. And that they manage at all against the negative expectations they face is in itself a minor miracle.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.