My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Borrowed from the VPL (Central Branch).
Read in May/June 2014.
After I posted about the children’s book that changed my life, I received a comment with a link to a review that confirmed Samantha’s Secret Room was in fact the book I remembered. I checked the VPL catalog and they had a copy (the 1991 reissue), so I took it out the next time I was downtown. I took copious notes, so WARNING, spoilerific recap to follow. If you don’t want to know the plot of this 50-year-old book, flee now!
SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS
As for the rating, 4 stars up until the arrival of Sam’s insufferable cousin Josh (who I had completely blocked from my memory); 2 stars thereafter. Fortunately Insufferable Cousin JoshTM and his mansplaining are only in the last four chapters or so. Pretty sure readers are supposed to like Insufferable Cousin Josh; pretty sure 12yo me hated him as much as present-day me (hence the memory-block). Unfortunately, he ruins Sam and the book. He is for sure the reason why I only read this once. But I am getting ahead of myself. Back to the beginning!
The story begins in the fall of 1959, three weeks before Christmas. Sam Wiggins is 11; her brother Stephen (Steve) is 9 and her brother Jeremy (Jem) is 7.
Aside: another Jem! There’s Jem Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird of course; and Jem Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables series. Are people named Jem anymore? Well, there was Jem of Jem and the Holograms. Maybe that killed it as a boy name 😉 But I digress.
Sam is short for Samantha. She hates the name Samantha “She had always wondered why she couldn’t have had a nice plain name like Mary or Lynn or Jane.” (17) (or, erm, Sam?)
Aside: Lyn Cook’s name is short for “Evelyn”—guessing this detail was autobiographical?
Somehow Sam is never seen as a legit name, which is weird (esp. after Kim enters the story; more on that later). She’s named after her great-grandmother, who lives with them. Great-Gran will be 90 in August. She’s grumpy and a bit confused memory-wise and always demanding Sam do something for her. In particular, she wants Sam to find a book she is missing—“The one with all the flowers in it.” (25) Great-Gran says she wrote down her grandparents’ stories in the book. (This is Secret Book #2.)
I hope she doesn’t ask me to look for the book tonight, Samantha thought. (7)
Just in time, she thought. I’ll get Jem to go up for the tray. Then I won’t have to look for the old book. It was only some silly idea Great-Gran had, anyway, something about a book she’d lost, but nobody knew what it was. (10)
Sam objects to looking for the book because she thinks the book is made up to prevent her from doing what she likes. Sam’s mother (Martha) notes Great-Gran did not start asking for it until 2 years ago.
Sam is actually the third Samantha in the family; Great-Gran was named after her mother, who was the daughter of the lumber baron who was originally given the chunk of land on which the Wiggins family lives by the Queen (erm, Victoria, I guess). He then proceeded to chop down all the trees and get rich, at which point he built a 20-room house. This house is where Sam and her family live, but the house is closed up except for the first floor and the tower room (Great-Gran’s room).
Aside: there’s a good deal of Canadian (well, Ontarian) history thrown in throughout the book, but I’m not recapping that. The book was published by Scholastic, so I’m assuming that’s in there to make the story more “educational” 😉
Sam’s mother wants her to do things like help set the table and do dishes, but Sam would rather help her father in the barn. She also wants a boat (horse + boat > dresses). Her father calls her “Captain.” She tells her parents they should sell the farm and then they’d have enough money to buy a boat, move into town, and buy a non-rusty station wagon. Meanwhile, someone’s trying to buy something from Sam’s father; Sam’s trying to figure out what.
It’s Sam’s friend/neighbor Colette who lives on the Christmas tree farm that I remembered. Sam ties a note to one of the trees before they’re shipped off to customers. When Sam finds out that Colette’s father is selling the land with their house on it for summer cottages, she realizes that the buyer had also talked to her father about buying their property. At first Sam is mad, but then she realizes if her father had sold their farm she wouldn’t have her secret room anymore. EEP! So she’s relieved, but at the same time, sad because Colette’s family does move to town and she loses Colette as her bff.
Subplot: The children are creeped out by their neighbor Mr. Martin who lives alone in a big house. Sam’s father bought all the land around Mr. Martin’s house except for the patch with the house on it; it used to be a farm belonging to his brother. Colette makes fun of him for having a Christmas tree because he lives alone. Sam doesn’t like this and decides to buy him a present. Christmas Eve she takes Mr. Martin’s gift to his house and drops it through the letter slot then is scared off when she hears Mr. Martin himself walking up to the veranda.
One week before Christmas, Sam gets a Christmas card addressed to “Miss Samantha Wiggins” from someone named Josh, who turns out to be a relative from Connecticut, also named Joshua Bigsby (like the great-great-great grandfather who pillaged the forests). He’s “old” (~22). His mother Kate sends a letter to Sam’s parents suggesting a family reunion for Great-Gran’s birthday in August.
Aside: “dinner” means lunch.
Aside: random mention of hockey (Canadiens/Leafs, of course) on TV on Saturday night.
Sam’s secret room is the old root cellar in the hill behind the barn. The door is hidden behind lilac bushes. She keeps her treasures there, she’s lined the walls with old quilts, and she lights the room with a candle. She has a book to write in, and goes to the secret room to write everything that happens down.
After Christmas, the story fast-forwards to late January/early February. The town is preparing for Winterama, their winter carnival. Sam gets a letter (dated January 23, 1960) from the person who found the note she tied to the Christmas tree. It’s from a 13-year-old girl named Kim Lawrence who lives in London, Ontario with her father and a housekeeper (how Nancy Drew!). Kim thinks Sam is a boy. Sam tells her family about the note and the letter and Steve suggests Sam invite Kim to Winterama. Mother says she thinks they only have winter carnivals in the northern part of the province. (ok, so I had to look up Georgian Bay on a map. conclusion: Ontarians have a weird concept of “north”).
Sam writes back to Kim inviting her. They get a phone call from Kim’s father. He and Mrs. Wiggins talk and when she gets off the phone, she says Kim is coming. Steve wonders why he didn’t write because long distance phone calls cost a lot of money. Mother says, “You don’t send your only daughter to a perfect stranger’s house without some investigation.” (49)
Winterama weekend. Kim is excited about all the things Sam takes for granted. There’s an ice-fishing derby with the first prize of a boat and motor, so Sam wants her father (David) to enter, because boat. He agrees if she enters the snowshoe race. He doesn’t win, but Jem places 3rd in the kids ice fishing, and wins a camera (with film!) that he gives to Sam. She and Kim take pictures of each other.
One float in the parade has the carnival queen and Jem gets excited that she waved at him. I only mention this detail because my parents grew up in northern Ontario, and their city also had a winter carnival, and my mom was the carnival queen one year. True story!
Kim finds out about the teen dance and asks if they can go—to Sam’s consternation. Mother thinks the dance is a great idea and makes Sam wear a dress. They see Colette, and Colette steals Kim away from Sam. A boy asks Sam to dance. She trips and, embarrassed, runs to the cloakroom. Kim is dancing, but eventually comes to find Sam. She suggests they go shopping; she has some money to spend—a whole $5! (According to the Inflation Calculator, $5 in 1960 = $40.61 in 2014.) She gets Sam to pick out a hairband for “a friend” (cough) then a gift for Sam’s mother.
Sam tells Kim about Colette; Kim shares that she also lost her bff to a new girl at school. Sam asks Kim to be her bff. Sam takes Kim to meet Great-Gran. GG complains Sam won’t look for her book. Sam tells Kim the book is made up.
Kim is short for Kimball, Kim’s mother’s maiden name. No one ever tells Kim her name isn’t legit and it’s ALMOST IDENTICAL to Sam! 3 letters! vowel in the middle! ends in M! idgi.
Kim asks Sam what she wants to be when she’s older. Sam doesn’t really know. Kim wants to be a doctor. Her mom was a nurse. Sam thinks she would like ride horses in the circus (um, random) or write books. A-ha.
Time passes. Lambs are born; Jem gets to take care of the sickly one. He names it Pluto “That’s a planet in outer space.” (91) awww, Pluto!
They get a letter from Josh asking if they’ve found Samantha’s secret room. At first Sam is freaked out thinking he means her room, but he means Samantha #1 who wrote about it in letters to her brother, Josh’s great-great-grandfather. Sam and Jem start looking for the secret room in the attic (Steve’s at hockey). They find lots of old things, but no secret room.
Great-Gran keeps asking for her book. The search for the secret room continues: top floor, 3rd floor, 2nd floor, 1st floor, basement—and the Tower Room. They find some portraits under the 3rd floor stairs. One looks like Sam. Mother says it’s Great-Gran when she was a girl. Sam says no one’s ever taken a photo of her except the one Kim took. (Um, really? Not even school pics? That’s weird.) They also find a secret cupboard in the library above the oak desk. They search the coach house, then Mother remembers the dumb waiter. They put Jem in it (!) but he doesn’t find anything. Sam goes to her secret room to write everything down.
At a school assembly, they are given a project to raise money to adopt a foster child in another country. They are to collect scrap paper, rags, and “rummage” (whatever that is) to sell. Steve says he’d go to “Old Man Martin’s” if he wasn’t afraid. Mother says not to call him that. “Just because he chooses to keep to himself is no reason to suppose he’s violent.” (111) hahaha. Sam goes to Mr. Martin’s house. He is nice, of course. He asks if she gave him the tobacco pouch (Xmas gift) and thanks her for the surprise. He’s just done his spring cleaning and has a bunch of things Sam can have, including a chair she’s excited to snag for her secret room. He tells her he doesn’t talk to anyone because he tried when he first arrived and he received a frosty welcome. He thought people weren’t happy that he wasn’t a farmer. He’s retired, so can live anywhere, and he didn’t want to let the house go because it had been in his family almost as long as Sam’s house has been in hers. He has a son who lives in Kitimat (omg) with his family. His son’s an engineer. Sam sneaks the chair off to her secret room and writes about everything that happened.
The paper drive is a success and as a reward, grades 7 and 8 get to go on a cruise on the Penetang 88 (Sam’s dream). So Sam is in grade 7? even though she was only 11 in December. Hmm. Skipped a grade? The school’s foster child is Meerabai, a girl from India. Sam is excited about writing to her and getting letters from her.
Sam writes to Kim but Kim doesn’t write back. The headband is all worn out now, but Sam’s hair has grown out. Kim and her father make a surprise visit. Her father is an antiques dealer and he’s wondering if they have anything they’d like to sell. Sam wonders if the secret-secret room might be full of antiques. Kim and her father spend the night, and Sam and Kim sleep outside. Great-Gran gets worked up about Kim’s “slacks” (foreshadowing).
They look for the secret-secret room in the barn. Sam takes Kim to meet Mr. Martin. Kim tells Sam she likes her hair and asks if she’s going to grow it long. Sam says maybe, but it doesn’t look like her. She wonders if Josh will like it. (ack! more foreshadowing!)
Great-Gran asks to come downstairs and sit in the kitchen; she starts doing this every day. While looking at photo albums with GG, Sam finds a photo of Josh, when he was about 10. She takes it to her room. (noooo!)
School ends (Sam’s now 12). They all passed! (lol) Terry Cartwright (a classmate) and his father are going to “call for” Sam to go to the cruise on Monday. The girls are told to wear “slacks” because it might be cool, erm, meaning chilly, not you know, cool. Before Sam leaves, Mother asks her to say goodbye to Great-Gran, who freaks out about Sam’s “nice plaid slacks.” Mrs. Wiggins asks why Sam just doesn’t change but she doesn’t want to because she would stand out and the other kids would think she was “being smart.” She yells at GG and then she runs off and hides.
Terry and his father arrive and leave. She watches the boat leave the dock, then goes to her secret room. She hears another car and when she peeks out sees it’s the doctor. Now she is worried about GG and feels guilty. She sees the boat return, then goes to see Mr. Martin. He tries to get Sam to see things from GG’s and Mother’s perspectives. GG had nine children; she’s used to being in charge. Mother’s caught in the middle. Mr. Martin understands Sam didn’t want to be “that different” by going in a dress and he thinks her mother understands that, too. She goes home and apologizes to her father. Later she sneaks in to see GG and asks her to live. GG says, “I intend to.” (146)
GG indicates the book with the flowers in it was a secret. Sam starts to believe it might be real. GG says she wrote in it, under the flowers. “(Nobody knew) about the writing. They would’ve minded if they’d known.” (147) Sam thinks to ask where GG wrote in it but she won’t tell. Sam thinks the flowers were pictures, but GG insists, no, flowers.
A boat comes up to their shore while they are swimming. It’s Kim and Mr. Lawrence who are on holiday for a month at a cottage on one of the islands. They invite Sam to spend a week with them. Mrs. Butters (the housekeeper, guess she doesn’t get a vacay of her own) prefers knitting to boating. Kim and Sam discover a cave while they’re exploring the island—another secret room! The cave has a lookout with a view of the bay. They decide to keep it a secret.
Near the end of July, when they are getting house ready for reunion, they find out Josh is arriving August 16th… with Nefertiti. They think Nefertiti is a person and Sam is upset because she won’t have Josh to herself. (nononono) Josh is still obsessed with the secret-secret room.
Josh finally arrives in a caravan (named “Nefertiti”), towing a boat. He introduces himself as “Josh” (not Joshua) and calls Jem and Steve, “Jem” and “Steve” but insists on calling Sam “Samantha” even though a) she tells him she’s called Sam and b) Steve tells him that she hates being called Samantha. He is extremely Dale Carnegie (ugh) with Sam, appending “Samantha” to every sentence. I hate this guy. He’s a misogynist mansplaining asshat.
Josh graduated with a degree in Art and Archaeology and thinks he’s an “archaeologist in the making” (169) He’s going to Egypt on a dig (Aswan Dam). He plays the guitar and writes songs and sings. Of course he does. And no one will ever tell him how much he sucks at it. Josh takes them out on his boat and starts teaching Sam how to sail (because he can do everything!).
Sam tells Josh about Colette and that she doesn’t see her anymore and Josh says smugly: “Another friend came to take her place. Right?” (174) I… guess? Because having a penpal friend who you see a couple times a year is completely the same as having a bff who lives next door? What an asshat.
He really really wants to find the secret room. He keeps bringing it up. He’s going to ruin everything. They tour him around the house, and look for the room again.
Sam and Josh sail to Kim’s island and, of course, she shows him the secret cave. Boo. Inside Josh finds a letter addressed to Sam. It’s from Kim who apologizes for showing her father the cave. Sigh. Like…
Josh makes supper because he can do everything! It’s a casserole. Steve doesn’t like it. Father prefers meat and potatoes. Josh lectures them about half the world going hungry and tells them to just eat. Oh, brother. Are we really supposed to like this guy?
Josh takes the 3 kids camping in the caravan on Huron Hill. When they go into town to buy food, Sam goes to the dollar store and buys hair curlers so she can curl her hair like Kim’s because “Josh would like it better that way.” (185) CURLERS. While CAMPING. #NO.
They make a welcome banner. Josh sings. They make a campfire and look at the stars, which Josh can identify. Of course. Sam puts her curlers in. She’s uncomfortable. DUH. Josh lectures Sam about GG being old and thus Sam should forgive her for being grumpy. Sam confesses about yelling at GG and Josh tells her she has to forgive herself, while patting her hand. Ugh. He’s insufferable.
In the morning everyone comments on Sam’s hair, which is totally stupid because they’re going to work to get ready for the party, then go swimming.
Sam tells Mother not to call her “Sam” anymore. “My name is Samantha.” (195) omg, Josh blows. Way to take an awesome girl character and destroy her. BOOM.
They set up a treasure hunt for the kids. Birthday cards arrive for GG. There is thunder the night before but the day of the party is perfect, of course. Guests begin to arrive from all over the place. A 4yo cousin is “lost” but they find him in the caravan. There’s a 12yo cousin, Sarah, from NY who Sam bonds with. GG’s party is more fun for everyone else than her. There is more Josh-led singing. And then everyone leaves the next day. Uh, ok. Some long drives for a one-day visit!
Josh lectures them about folk songs containing sadness as well as joy because joyful things are over so soon. (*barely resists stabbing things*)
While closing up the house, Mother asks Sam, er, “Samantha” to put away the pictures. She takes the one of GG to her secret room. When she tries to hang it on the wall, the sacking rips away, revealing a door to another room. Duh, duh, duh! It’s Secret Room #2. (EXACTLY AS I REMEMBERED IT!) Sam finds a cross-stitch on the wall that says “Samantha Wiggins (sic), Her Sampler. August, 1844.” (“Wiggins” is obviously wrong. Samantha #1 was Bigsby. Samantha #2 (GG) was Selby. It’s Sam #3 who is Wiggins.)
On the table Sam finds a book with flowers pressed in wax and writing. Of course she has to tell Josh, thus spoiling her own secret room. ARGH. I knew he was going to ruin everything. Of course, Sam doesn’t clue in that the flower book is GG’s (WHAT?! AFTER LOOKING FOR IT FOR TWO YEARS? I CAN’T.) Instead, Josh has to lecture her. Because he is so great. No. He sucks.
Josh apologizes for spoiling Sam’s secret room. She says it doesn’t matter anymore; she’s getting too old for things like that. NOOOO. Josh adds his words of wisdom “Maybe other things have come to take its place.” (207) UGH. I CANNOT. HE IS BEYOND INSUFFERABLE.
Sam takes the book to GG. Everyone and their dog tromps through Sam’s secret room. Look, if Sam’s not going to cry at this travesty, I will.
They give the sampler to Josh. Who leaves. FINALLY.
At the end, Sam has lost her secret room and is left waiting for letters and reading the 23rd Psalm to GG.
WORST. ENDING. EVER.