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Hoofbeats on the Turnpike by Mildred A. Wirt
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Hoofbeats on the Turnpike (1944)

by Mildred A. Wirt

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I no longer hate this book as I did when I was a girl, when the changes in Penny made me so angry I wrote on the title page '-from this book on, Penny is scarcely the same girl she was in the previous books. Mildred A. Wirt, you goofed!' Now I suspect that the publisher was responsible for those chages.

Intrigued by an ad offering $500.00 for information leading to the capture of the Headless Horseman, Penny (and her best friend, Louise), take a train to Hobostein, Hobostein County. Mr. Silas Malcom, the old man who gave Penny the clipping, called the area the 'Red River Valley' in chapter 1, but it's known as the 'Red Valley' in the rest of the book.

There is a headless horseman haunting a fancy Red Valley estate called Sleepy Hollow. The Burmasters, the couple who had Sleepy Hollow built, want that horseman caught. They don't think it's a ghost, but Mrs. Burmaster's nerves just can't take it. Mr. Burmaster caters to his wife too much. They bought all of the valley except the village of Delta and 3 acres owned by the Widow Lear. They made all the tenant farmers leave the valley and they didn't hire any local workmen when they had their estate built. Is it any wonder that they aren't popular with the locals? You can get a good idea of what a shrew Mrs. Burmaster is from her introduction in chapter 6. She tells her husband she wants everyone who crosses the footbridge to their property arrested. Mr. Burmaster protests that, legally, they have to let pedestrians and people on horses cross it. His wife retorts, 'Then make them change the ruling! Aren't you the richest man in the valley? Or doesn't that mean anything?' (Frankly, if the 'Headless' Horseman carried her off in the middle of the night and she vanished forever, I doubt that anyone but her husband would grieve.)

The girls stay at the home of the Widow Lear, who is quite a character. She's mighty spry for her age. When the girls come down for breakfast at 8 a.m. they find their hostess has already canned a bushel and half of plums and peaches. The dialect that the widow and her friend, Silas Malcom, speak sounds a bit cartoon hillbilly to me, but I like the characters anyway.

There's a very big problem facing Red Valley. It's been raining more than it usually does, so the Red River is pouring more water into Huntley Lake. The Huntley Lake Dam needs repairs, but the normal citizens of the valley, such as the village of Delta and the hamlet of Raven, can't afford the repairs. I've quoted an argument between Mr. Burmaster and the editor of the Hobostein Weekly to get the flavor of the problem.
(The dam was checked about a month ago by a man who said it would hold, but as the Widow Lear noted, he didn't live in the valley.)

Who's right about the dam? Ms. Wirt answers that question in chapter 18. Penny does learn the identity of the Headless Horseman, but there are far more important things going on. It's the biggest story in the series to date, and much, much, more serious. If not for the changes in Penny, this would be one of my favorite books in the series.

Penny is definitely a blonde again -- her hair is described as a stream of gold in chapter 6. However, contrast this description of Penny from chapter one of the first book: 'Her deep blue eyes, golden ringlets, and clear skin, gave one an impression of beauty; and besides, she had sparkle and vivacity.' with this from chapter one of this book: 'Penny's chubby, freckled face brightened.'

From the previous frontispieces, I had no trouble believing that Penny was in high school. In this book, she doesn't look old enough to be out of middle school. Penny just isn't as confident or competent as she used to be. If I had never read any of the previous books, she'd seem fine, but I have and she doesn't.

Language changes: this book has the current spelling, 'Halloween'. (The Vanishing Houseboat, which had a 1939 copyright, uses the older spelling, 'Hallowe'en'.)

Fellow fans of raw cookie dough may like the fact that Penny would have eaten some in chapter 2 -- if Mrs. Weems hadn't stopped her. (Yes, Mrs. Weems does ask if she can't wait until they're baked. No, Mrs. Weems, we still can't -- unless the eggs have samonella, of course.)

In my review of the previous book, Ghost Beyond the Gate, I noted some changes to the title and copyright pages that simplified the novel's look. My copy of Hoofbeats on the Turnpike has a glossy frontispiece and the series list doesn't go beyond this title, so it's probably a 1944 printing. The less elaborate end-papers design I'd seen on a couple of my books which were likely mid-1940s printings (they have redrawn frontispieces on plain paper) is present. I suspect that the publisher started using cheaper paper at this time because the pages of those two later printings and my copies of books 11 through 14 are much more yellow and brittle than the books printed earlier. I had some pages tear just by turning them. ( )
  JalenV | Jun 10, 2012 |
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A GIRL in crumpled linen slacks skidded to a fast stop on the polished floor of the Star business office.
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[Byron Schultz, editor of the Hobostein Weekly. and J. Burmaster, local resident, are arguing]

'You're a pin-headed, stubborn Dutchman!' the other man retorted. 'It makes no difference to me what you run in your stupid old weekly, providing you don't deliberately try to stir up the people of this valley.'

Worrying about your pocketbook?'

'I'm the largest tax payer in the valley. If there's an assessment for repairs on the Huntley Lake Dam it will cost me thousands of dollars.'

'And if you had an ounce of sense, you'd see that without the repairs your property may not be worth a nickel! If these rains keep up, the dam's apt to give way, and your property would go in the twinkling of an eye. Not that I'm worried about your property. But I am concerned about the folks who are still living in the valley.'

'Schultz, you're a calamity howler!' the other accused. 'There's no danger of the dam giving way and you know it. By writing these hot editorials you're just trying to stir up public feeling -- you're hoping to shake me down so I'll underwrite a costly and unnecessary repair bill.' (chapter 3)
'Horrible!' Louise shuddered. 'Some of the passengers may have been trapped in there!'

'Most of them escaped,' Penny gasped. (chapter 19)
Penny hesitated and then went to the instrument. She opened the key and answered with the station call,'D-A.'

'Where have you been for the past twenty minutes?' the train dispatcher sent angrily at top speed. 'What's happened to No. 17?'

Penny got only part of the message and guessed at the rest. Nervously, and at very slow speed, she tapped out in Morse Code that the train had been washed off the track.

The dispatcher's next message came very slowly, disclosing that he knew from Penny's style of sending that he was talking to an amateur telegrapher. (chapter 20)
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