Friday, October 9, 2015

The Mystery of Dirk's Castle

I just finished reading Mystery at Skull Castle by Dirk Gringhuis. I suspect a few of my loyal readers may be rolling their eyes and mumbling to themselves, "Boy, that David sure has eclectic taste in choosing his Ozzy reading matter."

Perhaps I do, but this book, written and illustrated by the illustrator of Hidden Valley of Oz (1951), has more than a few bits that I think you'll find interesting.

To begin with, the book was published by Oz publisher Reilly & Lee in 1964. I had not realized that Dirk had done more work for Reilly & Lee after illustrating Hidden Valley. But what makes the book even more interesting is that the "castle" in the story is based on the castle at Castle Park in Holland, Michigan, where the Oz Club held its Ozmopolitan Convention each year from 1967 to 1984. I attended the Castle Park Oz conventions from 1980 through 1983.

Photo of Castle Park in 1984 by Eric Shanower.

To be honest, I am surprised that so few Oz fans seem to know about Dirk's Mystery at Skull Castle. He himself seems to have told Fred Meyer about it and it is mentioned in the Dirk interview in the Autumn 1971 Baum Bugle. A year or two ago I was reading that issue of the Bugle, saw the reference, and immediately went online and bought a copy.

The book is not actually set in Holland, Michigan, but in a fictional Michigan town called New Vollendam which is just a stand-in for the town of Holland. The castle of the book's title was built in 1870 by "non-Dutch outsiders or 'Yankees,' a suspicious lot not to be trusted and given to dancing, fiddling and putting on airs. No honest Dutchman would have thought of building such a place. Designed to be used only in summer, it was a shameful waste of money."

The real castle at Castle Park was built as a residence for Michael Schwartz and his family. It was completed in 1894. But the Schwartz family moved away within a year and the real castle lay abandoned for a year or so before being purchased in 1896 as a summer camp for kids. You can read a much more detailed history of the real Castle Park here.

In the story the castle was a social hot-spot for one glorious summer, until one evening in September it was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground, only the ominous tower remaining. The action of the book supposedly takes place in 1880, ten years after the fire. I'll come back to that in a bit.

A fine photo of Dirk Gringhuis from the jacket of the book.

The book is set up as a late-nineteenth century, Hardy Boys-style mystery with lots of Dutch immigrant detail: Dutch slang, Dutch foods, etc. The story begins rather well, but soon the story of Dutch Hardy Boys devolves into a sort of Dutch Scooby Doo. The two teenage protagonists, Bram and Piet, are characterized by totally ineffectual and nonsensical behavior.

I don't really feel like going into the plot, but I guess I must. If you find it as tedious to read as I find it to write, skip ahead a paragraph: The boys are secretly saving money to purchase a new buggy for Piet's uncle. They move their savings to the old burnt-out castle for safekeeping. While at the castle they find a stash of jewels and seconds later meet Major Willoughby, supposedly the long lost heir to the man who built the castle, and his East Indian servant, Singh. The Major cons the boys into leaving their money in the same niche that the jewels were in and tells them to keep quiet about the discovery. In the end Major Willoughy is a phony and the jewels in the castle are fakes that the major leaves as substitutes when he steals the real Dutch Crown Jewels that just happen to be on display in New Vollendam, Michigan! Bram's ten-year-old cousin Bertram witnesses the theft and yells the news to anyone within ear-shot. But Bram and Piet vouch for the Major, so no one listens to Bertram. Since Bram and Piet can identify the fake jewels, the Major and Singh take the boys prisoner, tie them up in the old Castle, and plan to kill them.

Piet and Bram
This is problem number one: Bram and Piet are stupid and oblivious. They are gullible to every idiotic suggestion and notion the Major tells them. They ignore the truth even when little Bertram is telling them flat out he just watched the Major steal the jewels. Even after they manage to escape their bonds in the castle they don't run for help in town but allow themselves to be cornered on the shore of Lake Michigan where they cower until Piet's uncle solves the mystery (he recognized the red mud of the castle grounds on the major's wagon wheels) and comes down to the shore where he hears the commotion and shoots the Major. In a children's mystery, shouldn't the main characters be the ones to find the solution? Not only do Bram and Piet not solve the mystery, their primary goal at the beginning comes to nothing, since the uncle has no interest in a new buggy.

Now if the plot is a problem, it is nothing when compared to the novel's horrendous editing issues. In the book's first eighteen pages it is explicitly stated that the time period of the story is 1880.

Now in 1880 it still stood. A blind tower staring sightlessly across the timeless water of Lake Michigan. A mute monument to folly, the villagers said. . . . This suited young Abram Van Dam perfectly.

But on page 18 the book is suddenly set in 1897. Bram has been defending Piet's uncle but Bram's mother won't hear of it:

"Well, it's time he realized it's 1897 not 1847 when he came over on the boat." Mrs. Van Dam turned her back and headed for the kitchen.

The action of the novel lasts only two or three days, not seventeen years! I suspect Dirk means for the action to take place in 1897. In addition to the quote above, he explains the New Vollendam town fair is celebrating fifty years since its founding in 1847.

Also, a number of elements in the story demand the 1897 date: the boys listen to a cylinder-playing juke box via listening tubes. The New Vollendam marching Band plays "Stars and Stripes Forever," which premiered May 14, 1897. Apparently, New Vollendam was on the cutting edge of 1890s pop-culture! None of these date specific inventions or compositions is integral to the plot. Did Dirk add them and decide to change the date of the book from 1880 to 1897 to make historical sense? Possibly. But Dirk had a solid knowledge of the Dutch immigrants in Michigan. Indeed, it is the focus of several of his other books. It's a mystery to me why he ever introduced the date of 1880 into this story.

And this brings us to another Dirk Gringhuis/Castle Park connection. Many Oz fans that attended the conventions at Castle Park will recall that there was a bar in the basement. The walls were adorned with drawings by Dirk Gringhuis showing the history of Holland, Michigan. In 2012 the Oz Club held a convention in Macatawa, just down the road from Holland. A few of us spent an afternoon over at the old Castle and I took some mediocre cell-phone photos of Dirk's drawings in the bar.

Dirk Gringhuis artwork from the bar at Castle Park, Michigan.

In the one above, "Building Holland's First Home - 1847," we can see further evidence that the book's New Vollendam closely mirrored the real Holland's history. Both were founded in 1847. The half-century celebration in the story almost certainly indicates that Dirk meant it to take place in 1897.

Below is another of Dirk's Castle Park drawings, "Welcoming New Settlers - 1847."

Dirk Gringhuis artwork from the bar at Castle Park, Michigan.

But this still leaves the question as to how the book can be so explicitly set in 1880 for the first eighteen pages. The date references are not typos as they're all story specific details that establish two contradictory dates. Frankly, it seems like Reilly & Lee may have typeset an early draft or a combination of two different drafts of the manuscript. This is further evidenced by a few other glitches that made it into the published book. On page 179 Bertram has the line:

"Never mind about that," shrilled Bertram. "How about the buggy?"

Which is immediately followed by the line:

"What about the buggy?" shrilled Bertram.

Clearly one of the lines of text shouldn't be there. Someone on the Reilly & Lee editorial staff was slacking off. At the end of the book the two boys are still rather fond of the fraudulent Major. Bram says: "I sort of hope he gets off. He did save our lives when Singh wanted to use his knife. Even though he isn't a major, maybe not even English."

Huh? I totally missed this "saving of lives" part and can't find it in the book still. So who can say what happened? My guess is that Reilly & Lee used some wonky draft of Dirk's manuscript.

However, I can pin one odd bit directly on Dirk. At the festival parade Bertram decides to play a little joke and sucks on a lemon, which causes chaos in the marching band when the members' mouths begin to pucker up, thus ruining the music. I found this event preposterous. Aren't the musicians looking at their charts? Aren't they looking at who is marching up ahead? At the band leader? At anything other than a ten-year-old boy sucking a lemon? And the entire brass band sees Bertram and becomes incapacitated?

I stopped reading the book and told Eric about it. Surprisingly, Eric said, "I think Dirk stole that from a Robert McCloskey book called Lentil." When I looked at a copy of Lentil (1940) a few days later, there was the scene much as Dirk had written it. Coincidence? If only poor Dirk had been able to write and draw as well as Robert McCloskey.

I wish the book had been better. There was such an interesting series of connections between this Oz book illustrator and "the Castle" where we used to hold Oz conventions. And it's sort of sad that no one tried to get Dirk to attend the Ozmopolitan Convention. He lived all his later years in East Lansing, Michigan, where he died in March 1974. He could have attended any of the Castle Park cons from 1967 to 1973. But the Oz Club has a long history of missed opportunities. But that is another blog for another time.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

The things we do for Oz are, fortunately, not much worse than forcing ourselves through the occasional poorly written book.

Tim Tucker said...

"Someone on the Reilly & Lee editorial staff was slacking off."

It's good to see that tradition was continued for decades! LOL