Nice cover, and fairly accurate, except that the artist drew a girl with black hair who looks a lot like Diana, even though she’s not in this book. Not sure why Slim is dressed like a detective, either.
I have to be honest. Upon re-reading it, I did not like this book as much as I remember liking it. This is the first time that has happened, and it was a surprise to me. I will try to be at least somewhat positive, but I’ve given fair warning that this is not my favorite.
The Bob-Whites are visiting the Belden’s Uncle Andrew in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. No explanation is given as to why they are there, so I guess it’s just a vacation. (I seem to remember Uncle Andrew being in an earlier book, though. The one set in Iowa, maybe?) They’re not having much fun as the story opens. It’s pouring rain and they are stuck in Uncle Andrew’s lodge home. Trixie is throwing a fit about how she’s bored and she hates it here, and the others call her on her rotten attitude pretty quickly. She apologizes and flips through a magazine to kill time. Trix finds an article about ghost fish. They live in the springs that run through the caves in the area. A scientific journal is offering a $500 reward for three ghost fish specimens in various stages of development. Trixie insists that the Bob-Whites have to find the fish and get the reward so they can donate the $500 to buy a station wagon for handicapped children. She is really, really pushy about it. She wants to leave right away (it stopped raining while she was explaining all this), but the others convince her to wait for Uncle Andrew to get back. At the moment, they are at his home with his housekeeper, Mrs. Moore and her teenaged daughter Linnie. They live behind Uncle Andrew in a three-room log cabin. Mrs. Moore’s husband Matthew disappeared when Linnie was four. He went on a fishing and hunting trip and never came back.
After lunch, the Bob-Whites go fishing, though Trix is secretly on the lookout for a cave to explore. Another storm comes up, and they do indeed find a cave to take shelter in. Trixie is nearly attacked by a wildcat. At the last second, the cat drops dead, shot clean through the head by a rifle. The Bob-Whites don’t see anyone around who might have fired the shot. This is the first of many “ghost” encounters in this book.
Back at the lodge, Trixie is still wound up about the ghost fish. Even Honey seems reluctant to get involved. In a rare moment of total honesty, Honey tells her that sometimes she wishes they could just go places and have fun, and that Mart said the same thing. Wow. Trixie accuses her of not caring about the handicapped children, (again, wow) and Honey gently tells her she knows that isn’t true. She just wants to have fun. Trixie says exploring caves and finding the fish will be fun. After dinner, Mrs. Moore shares some creepy local ghost stories and insists that a ghost saved Trixie’s life that day. Uncle Andrew agrees to her plan, but he insists that they follow the rules of cave exploring (go in threes, leave a note saying when you go in and expect to come out, etc.) and that they have proper gear. Oh, and that they take a guide with them. He suggests a local youth named Slim Sanderson. Trixie is unhappy with the delay (it will take a whole day to get to town, get the gear, and meet Slim), but she agrees.
In town the next day, Uncle Andrew buys the Bob-Whites helmets with carbine lamps, rope, candles, etc. Very generous of him. They also meet Slim, to whom Trixie takes an instant dislike. She kind of does that with a lot of people. Although Slim is, well, a jerk. He thinks they don’t need all the cave exploring equipment, and he seems to dislike Trixie. He’s cruel to both her and Honey. But he agrees to meet them at 8am the next day to go exploring.
They head off to a cave on Uncle Andrew’s property, which has to be reached by boating across a small inlet of water. On the way over, they see a man who has fallen out of his boat and is drowning. The Bob-Whites rescue him and take him back to the lodge. His name is Glennending, and he’s come to Missouri all the way from England. Trixie sees a dip net and cave exploring equipment in his canoe, and she thinks he might be after the same thing they are.
Finally, that afternoon, they make it inside the cave. Their is an underground stream, and they do think they see ghost fish swimming in it, but they don’t catch any. Slim agrees to come back the next day, though the Bob-Whites are already sick of him. He does something mean to the bats that live inside the cave, scaring them outside so the hawks can eat them. The Bob-Whites tell him to get lost and the boys take Slim back across the water. They get permission to explore alone from Uncle Andrew. Trixie finally gets one ghost fish, but it isn’t enough.
There is a whole sub-plot involving ghosts and a cabin and a strange man/possible ghost that I’m not going to get into here, or this post will be way too long. The Ozark people in this book are depicted as very primitive and superstitious. And while I know that was probably true in the 60’s, and maybe still somewhat true in some areas today, it’s still kind of odd to read about. To be fair, they are also very generous and helpful to one another, particularly towards people like the widowed Mrs. Moore. They have a wonderful party that night, which brings out all the locals. There is food and music and dancing, and it sounds like fun. However, someone sets a fire late that night which nearly burns down Uncle Andrew’s lodge and Mrs. Moore’s cabin. Some of her property (chicken coop, shed for the mules) is damaged. All of the neighbors come back to fight the fire. The Bob-Whites think Slim may have set the fire, but Uncle Andrew insists they need proof before accusing him. He is worried that the locals will hang Slim if they think he was responsible.
The Bob-Whites plus Linnie go back to the cave the next day. Trixie had left a bait bucket with the fish in it and someone took it, but then returned it. They think it was Slim, but why would he bring the bucket back? They do find Slim in the cave and throw him out, but not before they accuse him of setting the fire. He tries to throw the blame on the mysterious man living in the “ghost cabin,” but the Bob-Whites aren’t buying it.
A postcard arrives from Moms back in Sleepyside. She wants them to come home the coming weekend because she is going to have to go out of town. Only three days left to get the fish and claim the prize. Uncle Andrew’s neighbor Bill Hawkins agrees to go to the cave and keep a look-out for Slim while the kids explore.
The Bob-Whites split up, with Brian and Jim looking for rock samples outside and Honey, Trixie, and Mart looking for fish inside. In the part of the book that I always remember most, Trixie goes down into a sink hole which has a shallow stream at the bottom of it to catch fish with her net. She’s tied to a rope which is tied to a stalagmite and held by Mart and Honey. It goes well until a storm comes up and the sinkhole starts to flood. Mart can’t pull her up. She’s about to drown when the others come in and pull her to safety.
Uncle Andrew is mad at Bill Hawkins for letting her go (even though he didn’t know about it and he was keeping watch out for Slim like he was supposed to be), and Bill Hawkins is mad at himself, but no one really blames Trixie, even though it was kinda her fault for doing something stupid. Unbelievably, she wants to go back the next day and try again. Even more unbelievably, Uncle Andrew lets her, after the Bob-Whites agree to put some beams and a rope ladder across the top of the sinkhole, and to keep a close watch for rain. Trixie goes back down, and she finds all three specimens of fish they are looking for.
When they come out of the cave, they find Slim attacking a man by the water. Jim fights him off and they tie Slim up to be delivered to the local law. The man he was fighting is the one who has been living in the ghost cabin. In a coincidence that is, frankly, too fantastic for me to believe, he turns out to be Mrs. Moore’s long-lost husband Matthew. He fell and hit his head years ago, losing his memory. He was living in a state hospital, but something drew him back to this area. He is the one who shot the wildcat and saved Trixie. He’s been trying to help Mrs. Moore and Linnie, though he didn’t know why at the time. Brian’s explanation: “I think something happened and he lost his memory. When his head was battered by Slim, his memory must have returned.” I think Brian has been watching too much Gilligan’s Island. It doesn’t work like that in real life.
On their final day in Missouri, they go into town to turn in the fish and claim the reward. Bad news- the specimens they found aren’t the ones the scientific magazine was looking for. But the Bob-Whites did find some kind of fish that was even rarer than the ghost fish. So they are promised a reward at least as big as the $500 one. They will be contacted “in a week or so.” I say don’t buy it, Trixie! After a last meal at the lodge, the Bob-Whites head home. Money is raised, a criminal is captured, and the dead are brought back to life.
Last line: “Oh, dear, I wonder if we’ll ever have another project as exciting as this one turned out to be!” Wait until you get to St. Louis in a few books, Trixie!