Message in a Bottle

Published in 2017; author Kathryn Reiss; illustrators Julie Kolesova and Michael Dwornik


Julie's mom and Aunt Nadine haven't seen each other in a decade, since the siblings parted ways when Julie's aunt and her family moved to a remote area to start a commune. But a letter from Aunt Nadine begging for help sparks a reunion. Julie and her mom drive over a hundred miles to the commune. There they learn that Julie's uncle went against his pacifist ways to enlist in the Army and go to Vietnam to search for his twin brother, who was missing in action. Sadly, the brother was dead, and Julie's uncle came back wounded. Since then, the marriage has been strained and Julie's uncle has been living and working in the nearby town of Sonora. Julie ten-year-old cousin Raymond misses his father terribly. The visits a few times a week aren't enough.

Furthermore, the commune is in decline. Some families have moved out, making the farm chores like tending crops harder. One member had the bright idea to sell things like eggs, butter, honey, and handmade items (e.g.; knit sweaters using wool from their sheep) in town, and Aunt Nadine took it a step further: why not set up their own store? Knowing her sister had experience running a store, Aunt Nadine asked for help. But starting the store is going to be difficult with the apparent sabotage going on. Most of the commune is convinced a Sonoran businessman, Eli Coker, is behind it. He wants to buy the commune's land, and maybe he's shady enough to scare them into selling.

As her cousin Raymond shows Julie around the commune, they find an old perfume bottle with a note inside near an abandoned and collapsed mine. The note starts as a poem, clearly left for someone else to finish, and has another note indicating that now isn't the time for poems. Could someone have been looking for gold in the old mine? Or, given that Julie and her cousin find a passage in the tunnels, could someone be using it to sneak into the commune for sabotage? Also of interest is the fact that the perfume appears to the same as what one of the commune's teenager's wears--and she happens to work for Mr. Coker in his restaurant.

But Julie decides to trust the teen, Delores. Delores says the bottle and note aren't hers, and suggests she show it to a couple who own a museum in town. They're able to identify the bottle as handblown, and the writing as antiquated--most likely, Julie's find is over a century old. Delores gives Julie a brownie from her store to take back to Raymond (and one for Julie, too). When she arrives there, a calf is missing and some scraps of napkin from Mr. Coker's restaurant are in the pen. Julie finds the calf quickly, but people are still upset about the incident. The commune says it's more evidence that Mr. Coker is behind the sabotage, but as she holds the brownie wrapped in the restaurant napkin, Julie realizes that Raymond might be the culprit. Is he trying to convince his father to come back and fix everything at at the commune? Julie confronts him, and Raymond vigorously denies the accusation. The next morning, Raymond's nowhere to be found. Julie and Aunt Nadine go into town, assuming Raymond is at father's apartment. Raymond isn't there, and Julie realizes he must have gone into the mine. Sure enough, he's there, but trapped but a fallen beam and behind a partially collapsed wall. Julie's able to fit through the narrow spaces in the rocks and help him out.

That evening, Julie happens to look through a scrapbook and recognize some handwriting. It's revealed that the message she found in the bottle was a last message from Raymond's great-great-great-grandfather, proposing marriage to Raymond's great-great-great-grandmother. The family had thought he left for San Francisco, abandoning the woman he loved and their young child, but it seems he got stuck in the mine on one last attempt to strike it rich, and wrote the note in hopes it would be found.

This gives Julie an idea: she compares some handwriting samples and is able to uncover that a mysterious A. V. King, who offered to buy the commune's land to built an amusement park, is actually Vicky Prince, a new commune member. She's been trying to frame Mr. Coker for the sabotage, while gaining the trust of the commune members so she could buy the land! With her aunt and uncle's help, Julie outs Vicky.

A week later, the commune store is being set up, but Julie's mom doubts it will bring in enough money to sustain the commune. Julie can't help feeling sad; it's such a lovely area and people would be missing out on the peaceful--that's it! Julie suggests the commune operate a summer camp for people to get back to nature. Surely that will be successful enough. And her uncle can run it, a less physical job better suited to a man whose war injuries make walking difficult. He can even move back home with his wife and son.

Inside Julie's World

Communes provided an escape to idealism in troubled times. But they weren't a long-term solution to many of the problems of the 1970s. Although some communes still exist, none have prevented returning military members from facing hardships brought on by injury and mental illness like PTSD. But the idea behind communes--working together to support each other toward common goals--is helpful is a variety of circumstances.


Dedicated to "the real Raymond and the real Delores, our son and daughter who would like to see their names in print, with love. And to my patient editor extraordinaire, Judith Woodburn, thank you!"

My dad spent some time working on a relative's farm when he was a teen, in the 60s. The main lesson he took from it is that farming hard. A decade later when people wanted to get back to the simple life and live off the land, he thought they were misinformed at best: farming is not simple!

Julie's sister is with her father during the story.

No comments: