History Mystery #4: Voices at Whisper Bend

Author: Katherine Ayres

Illustrators: Dahl Taylor and Greg Dearth

Publishing Year: 1999

Setting: near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, spring 1942


The United States entered World War II a few months ago, and twelve-year-old Charlotte Campbell wants to do something to help. She's helping tend the victory garden and has saved up to buy defense stamps, but it doesn't seem like enough, especially when her brother Jim enlisted in the Navy. On the way to school one morning, a piece of litter inspires her: a scrap drive! Her teacher has Charlotte announce her idea to the class, and the whole school seems on board. Charlotte's sixth grade class will collect scrap metal, the seventh graders will start a newspaper drive, and the eighth graders will bring worn tires to be recycled. Younger students will help older siblings and friends. When Charlotte's younger brother Robbie proudly announces the drive to the family, Charlotte's mother has her own announcement: she's entering the work force. She'll be helping make plate steel for different military machines (Charlotte's father has a boat that he uses to ferry supplies to a steel mill). Charlotte will need to help more at home, doing some of the things her mother normally would. It'll be tricky to collect scrap metal and keep house. She and Robbie, plus Charlotte's best friend Betsy, find a big haul in a neighbor's yard. The elderly woman, Mrs. Dubner, has piles of junk and is happy to let the kids clean up her yard for free (except for gladly parting with her things, the description of her house makes her seem like a hoarder).

Thanks in large part to Mrs. Dubner, Charlotte's class fills up a storage room at her school with metal. The steel mill is ready to send a truck to collect it, but over the weekend someone breaks in and steals it all (it could be sold for a nice bit of cash). Charlotte is devastated and furious, but then proud of her classmates when they agree to start over. She wants to find the thief, but is happy that in the meantime the scrap drive will continue. But it seems like everyone's a suspect--the new teacher with the Italian last name, the single man who didn't enlist, the mean kid in class; someone even accuses Betsy because her great-great-grandparents were from Germany. And then someone steals the newly-collected metal.

One day while collecting metal, Robbie cuts his hand badly enough to need stitches. This means Charlotte has to help on her father's boat, on a day that it's raining. Charlotte nearly drowned a while back, having fallen off the boat in a rainstorm, and is still terrified of being on the high water. Jim rescued her back then, but he's not around to do that now. As luck would have, two coal barges come loose further upriver, and Charlotte has to help get them. She succeeds and regains some confidence, but still doesn't want to go back on the river in the rain again. She wants Jim home, to help on the boat, and so the family won't be so tense with worry.

A short time later, Charlotte, Robbie, Betsy, and Paul (a boy from class Charlotte initially didn't like but has turned out to be okay) find a huge stash of scrap metal. They go for a closer look to haul it to the school and discover that it's the pieces stolen from the school--Charlotte recognizes a baby buggy that she'd gotten out of Mrs. Dubner's basement. They leave quickly, in case the thief is coming back. They decide to go back at night to see who comes to the stash (minus Betsy, who needs to help with things at home).

They have to approach by boat, and of course it's raining that night. Charlotte, Robbie, and Paul wait in the dark and finally hear another boat approach. A trio of kids gets off it and heads for the scrap pile. Just as Charlotte and the boys confront the thieves, the school janitor appears to do the same thing (some people thought he did it too). Everyone agrees to go back to Charlotte's house so the trio can explain things. On the way back, Robbie falls in the water. Charlotte goes after him, but the oldest of the scrap thieves rescues him, and Paul helps Charlotte back on the boat. So Charlotte gets over her fears.

Once at Charlotte's, the story comes out: the three are Joseph, Tommy, and Tessa, siblings. They were orphaned a few weeks prior, when their mother died after a long illness. Their father left about a decade ago to look for work and never returned (like Stirling's father). Joseph has been doing odd jobs to earn money for his younger siblings, and Tommy (in eighth grade) will start working at a grocery store in the summer. Joseph was going to sell the metal to tide them over. Charlotte's mother asks why Joseph hasn't gotten a proper job, which are plentiful and pay more. But Joseph is 18, and if he gets a regular job the draft board will know he's 18. If he goes off to war, who would take care of Tommy and Tessa? He wants to serve, but he has to take care of what's left of his family. That's also why the siblings haven't gone any charities--if they make it known that they're orphans, they might be split up. To avoid their status being let out, they even left their mother's body anonymously on the steps of a church, so that she could have a decent burial without her children being sent off to orphanages.

The janitor has a solution: Joseph can get an extreme hardship exception to the draft. He's the only parental figure Tommy and Tessa have. And especially if he can get a defense job, the draft board should grant the exception. The janitor knows the head of the draft board, and can put in a good word for Joseph. Furthermore, Charlotte's father needs help on the boat...Seems like things are looking up for the siblings. Charlotte agrees to reclaim the metal anonymously, but will inform Betsy and the school principal. Robbie even knows where they can live: with his hand hurt, he's been spending time getting to know Mrs. Dubner. Her sons died in World War I, and she's lonely. And her house is cleaned out now. He knows she'd love the company. Joseph is relieved and grateful. Getting caught might be the first good thing to happen to them in a while.

A Peek into the Past

The historical section covers a lot of the same information that Molly's books did, about rationing and scrap drives. It also mentions that letters from the war fronts were heavily censored so that people receiving them at home had little idea where their loved ones were or what they were doing.


Dedicated "for Elena, for Rachel, my daughters, my friends."

The man who "suspiciously" didn't enlist? He was classified 4-F, due to a weak heart from having had rheumatic fever as a child. My maternal grandmother had the same heart problem.

The title of the book refers to a part of the river near the stash, where the acoustics work so that you can hear conversations on the shore as if the people were in your boat with you.

No comments: