Intruders at Rivermead Manor

Published in 2014; author Kathryn Reiss; illustrator Sergio Giovine


As autumn arrives, Kit's great-grandfather hires her to do errands and chores again. The cold weather is causing his arthritis to act up. One day she happens to hear a faint cry coming from next door, and finds an elderly neighbor of his, Miss Mundis, in her front yard, having twisted her ankle. Kit helps her inside and fixes her some food. The woman declines Kit's offer to get a doctor, but instead hires Kit to do some chores for her after she finishes at her great-uncle's (provided her parents don't mind). She promises to pay better than cheap Uncle Hendrick. After talking with Uncle Hendrick--and seeing him turn away a distraught woman named Mrs. Addison who's desperate for work so she can provide for her five children after being abandoned by her husband--Kit learns that working Miss Mundis at Rivermead Manor would be relaxing and intriguing. Apparently Miss Mundis is very into science fiction, and Uncle Hendrick thinks she might actually believe the stories she reads. Plus, she learns at a school assembly that Rivermead Manor might have been part of the Underground Railroad! While she's excited, Kit resolves to keep an eye out for Mrs. Addison. She could use the work more than Kit could.

As anticipated, Miss Mundis is full of odd notions. She thinks time travelers are living in her home, passing through a time portal in a hidden room that once helped slaves escape north to Canada. Kit isn't sure what to think of Miss Mundis. She's nice, but time travelers? Uncle Hendrick says that growing up, Miss Mundis's family was "too grand" for him to associate much with her, but that she's pleasant and certainly not dangerous. When Miss Mundis asks Kit to stay the night on a weekend so she can help out more, he sees no issue with the suggestion. Neither do Kit's parents. 

Before she heads to spend the night at Rivermead Manor, Kit accompanies Stirling to Ruthie's house. She's invited them over to look through the Smithens' things for props they can use in the skit they're performing about the Underground Railroad. Kit finds an old diary written by an escaped slave and starts poring over it. Oddly, Ruthie hurries Kit and Stirling out soon after it's found. Back at Kit's, she and Stirling get a closer look at the book. The girl who wrote it was from West Virginia? And knew how to write? And is that coffee on the pages, making them look older than they really are? Kit is furious. Ruthie made the stupid diary and planted it, just to make a fool of her. She confronts Ruthie and upbraids her, storming out of Ruthie's house before her ex-friend can react.

At Miss Mundis's house, things get strange. The woman is still convinced that time travelers are around. For evidence, she notes that a spill in the cellar is cleaned up and her store of lightbulbs is replenished. Kit isn't on board with things at first, but by morning she's baffled. She saw children's footprints in the dust and a Civil War era bonnet in the attic. Then she spent part of the night reading Miss Mundis's  science fiction stories, and some of the predictions, like airplanes, have come true. Later in the night, she heard voices and footsteps in the cellar, but couldn't find their source--just a cryptic note about being desperate. Miss Mundis is now more convinced than ever about her supernatural visitors. She thinks they're traveling from the 1860s, escaping slavery through a time portal in her house (Addy?). See, a jug of milk is missing, and in return the time travelers left a bouquet of asters. Kit almost has a solution when her family's new boarder, Mr. West, stops by to try to cajole Miss Mundis into making her home a boarding house. He's been by several times, trying guilt, bullying (he also berated Ruthie when he found out her father works at the bank that foreclosed on him), and now bribery. He's brought chocolates, maybe he also brought the flowers? But he denies it, and Kit can see how he would have gotten in.

But she does see a young girl darting into the bushes behind Miss Mundis's house. An African-American girl. For a wild moment she wonders if Miss Mundis is right, then she remembers her friend Jessamine, who she used to play with but has moved away after her father lost his job (at Kit's father's car dealership). Has Jessamine's family or another fallen on hard times, and is now hiding out in Miss Mundis's house? She happens to see Jessamine leaving her school on Monday, and tails her to an orphanage. There, Jessamine introduces Kit to two young children she visits. They lived near Jessamine until their mother died and their father left to find work. He must be having trouble, because he hasn't sent money in a while. It's not a very orphanage; the children work most of the day, are fed little, punished harshly for minor infractions, and hardly have any free time. Jessamine sneaks them books and food when she can. But Jessamine clams up when Kit asks for Jessamine's address to bring some more books, and takes off. Kit's more confused now than before.

At least when she returns home, Ruthie is there for her. Kit now understands that Ruthie meant for Kit to have an adventure and be caught up in the excitement for a moment, not to deceive her or make a fool of her. Now made up, Kit and Ruthie go to Miss Mundis's with Stirling. Kit's friends visit with Miss Mundis while Kit does her chores at Rivermead Manor and Uncle Hendrick's. She discovers that the clothes her great-uncle had so carefully set in the attic have been picked through. And then she realizes that the handwriting of the note she found earlier matches Uncle Hendrick's. But that note was (actually) old. What's going on?

Before she has time to process anything, she and her friends see Jessamine again. They follow her back to the orphanage, where she's meeting her two friends again. But only the sister shows up; her brother's been locked away somewhere all day as punishment for reading during chore time. The five children surreptitiously search the area, and find him in a dark closet in the barn. Jessamine helps the siblings escape after they tell her literally anything is better than living at the orphanage. They'll go to the hobo camp for a while, then ride the rails to Cleveland where their uncle lives. They imply that Jessamine's helped others before, but again Jessamine won't tell Kit what they mean, or where she's living now.

Kit soon finds out what they mean. Mrs. Addison's five children had been at the orphanage, and Jessamine helped them escape. Their toddler sister was separated from the rest, and they couldn't bear being kept apart in such terrible conditions. They've been hiding in an old passage that connect Miss Mundis's house with Uncle Hendrick's. In fact, the two were once in love. Uncle Hendrick proposed, but Miss Mundis turned him down because she know her parents wouldn't approve. The scrap of paper Kit found in the cellar were old love notes from Uncle Hendrick, and he's the one who's been sneaking in to do repairs (the children did take the milk, out of desperation; Jessamine brought them food whenever she could). Miss Mundis insists the Addisons live with her. Their mother can work as a maid, and the older children can also help out. With the extra help, she can take in some boarders and make her home feel alive again. And she'll be sure to keep up with Uncle Hendrick, too. The spark is gone, but they still care for one another.

Uncle Hendrick starts up his car to give Kit and her friends rides home. It's then that Kit finally learns where Jessamine lives. Her parents are employed at the school, as a mechanic and a janitor. They live in a storage shed, without permission. Kit promises not to tell.

At home, Kit sets up her typewriter. She's going to tell the world about the abuse at the orphanage, and find a way to fix things there.

Looking Back

The historical section talks briefly about the Underground Railroad, which likely had routes through Cincinnati, as the city was so close to the Mason-Dixon line (nothing's been confirmed, but there are some very suggestive tunnels). It goes on to discuss how it was incredibly difficult for minorities to find work during the Great Depression. Some soup kitchens wouldn't even allow non-whites in. In desperation, some families sent their children to orphanages, where they would at least have their most basic needs met. Then as now, there were many dedicated people working in orphanages, but some orphanages were harsh places to live. Children often had to work for their keep (like Nellie in Changes for Samantha), and sometimes living parents were charged for their children's expenses. If they couldn't pay, the children would be eligible to be placed for adoption. With all the stress of the Depression, people turned to far-out fantasy and science fiction stories as escapism.


This book is dedicated "with love to our two youngest children, Dolores and Raymond--brave adventurers both. And special thanks to Louise Reiss for the yummy description of Cincinnati chili." Special thanks is also given to Judy Woodburn on the publication page.

Okay, Uncle Hendrick does have arthritis. Now it makes sense for the penny-pincher to have someone else shine his shoes. (Not to say every able-bodied person shouldn't, just that it seems like a strange expense for a miser.)

I was hoping for more resolution with Mr. West. Yes, it would be nice for people with large houses to let out rooms, but it seemed a bit unreasonable to expect an elderly, practically feeble woman to take on such a task.

No comments: