Classic children’s literature often reflects the real problems of their young readers at home and at school. But somewhere in the 1980s, the kids in those books started having less ordinary predicaments. In addition to their usual concerns, there were now ghosts and other unnatural threats. And if there was one author who helped start and sustain this new trend of weird encounters, it was Betty Ren Wright. Of all the scary stories for children she published during this pivotal decade, the best known is undoubtedly The Dollhouse Murders.
The title of Wright’s 1983 novel seems too adult, but despite its target audience and predominantly young cast, The Dollhouse Murders is not exactly juvenile. It’s a good balance between adult and teen content. Wright and his contemporaries knew how to write a well-formed coming-of-age tale without speaking to the intended readership. Adults who read this book can also relate to the main character, who feels trapped in a life situation over which he has no real control.
Amy Treloar is a 12 year old teenager growing up in a town called Claiborne. And like other kids her age, she has trouble making friends. Amy believes her loneliness is due to her 11-year-old sister Louann, who has an intellectual disability. Since it’s the 80s and all, people can be insensitive or just plain rude when they meet someone different from them. Of course the author embellishes these moments of disorder to better illustrate his point. A slight altercation at the mall plays out more dramatically than in real life, but for this story to move forward, Amy had to be angry.
Louann accidentally causes a scene at the mall while Amy is watching. A potential new friend named Ellen is also present, and Amy worries that she, like so many others, has been scared off by her sister. Resentful of Louann and her mother, a frustrated Amy flees to her great-grandparents’ former home in a nearby town called Rainbow Falls. Her paternal aunt Clare temporarily returned there after moving to Chicago when she was eighteen. Clare is now cleaning up the place so she and Paul, Amy and Louann’s father, can sell it. After hearing what’s troubling Amy, Clare hatches a plan to keep her niece away from home for a week. She thinks Amy and Louann need some time apart.
To her surprise, Amy’s parents allow her to stay with her great-grandparents next week. Clare explained that she was looking for help and companionship. Amy’s mother reluctantly agrees, but not without blaming her eldest daughter as only she can. “I still don’t understand… I don’t see why you are so eager to leave us.” What the mother doesn’t realize is that Amy not only wants to spend time away from Louann, but also have the chance to forge her own identity. Having to take care of Louann all the time, Amy missed her childhood. She doesn’t want her teenage years to be the same.
It’s a sad place, she thought, just like before. The sadness wasn’t just upstairs in the dollhouse; it was all around her.
The other main character of The Dollhouse Murders is Aunt Clare, who is even more complicated than her niece. She cherishes her independence and encourages others to have theirs. Claire and her sister-in-law understandably disagree on how to raise the girls; the aunt thinks the separation can do them good, while Amy and Louann’s mother doesn’t understand her daughter’s sudden desire for individuality. Meanwhile, Amy admires her aunt and wants to emulate her life trajectory. What she doesn’t know is how Clare became like this. All Amy sees is a woman who no longer answers to anyone. She never stops to ask what made Clare so detached and ultimately alone.
The Treloar family skeletons start coming out as soon as Amy feasts her eyes on the old dollhouse in her great-grandparents’ attic. This custom-designed toy is a spitting image of the house Clare and Amy’s father grew up in after their own parents died. The grandparents took in the two once they were orphaned, but they never got to see or treat Clare as a young woman during those few years they lived together. They basically wanted her to stay a child, which is why they gave Clare a dollhouse for her fifteenth birthday. The only room in the dollhouse that doesn’t look like its real base is actually Clare’s bedroom. As Clare told her niece, Amy’s great-grandmother had the miniature version of her room “look like she thought a young girl’s room should be.” So while everyone adores the dollhouse, Clare only sees the bad memories attached to it.
Amy knows her great-grandparents died in 1952, but no one would tell her how. True to her vintage YA form, Amy finds the answer at the library. There, in the obituaries, she discovers that her great-grandparents were murdered. Not a big surprise given the title, but the details of the crime are odd. While Clare was away, someone broke into the house and killed her grandparents. Her little brother only survived because their grandmother hid him in a closet. The worst part is that they never found the killer. The police questioned domestic workers like the housekeeper and the handyman, but it ultimately turned into an unsolved case. Now the book had the opportunity to turn into something more plot-driven. Maybe even overused. With Amy and Clare digging into the past, the author could have made it into a thriller where the murderer of the great-grandparents comes to settle the last details.
Fortunately, Wright doesn’t do that.
The Dollhouse Murders is set in the realm of horror, although this book is more about the characters than what haunts them. Yes, the contents of the dollhouse move mysteriously at night; in the story’s scariest moment, dolls resembling Clare’s grandparents are positioned in locations corresponding to where their real-life counterparts died. Claire becomes understandably panicked and she accuses her niece of pulling a morbid prank. A suspicious reader might believe that Clare succumbs to a guilty conscience.
Not to tarnish Clare’s character, Wright removes any doubt about her and whether or not she strove for her freedom at a young age. That is to say, has she kill his grandparents? At first, it was mentioned that the night Clare and Paul’s grandparents died, Clare’s older boyfriend, Tom, died in a car accident. She had seen him in secret against the wishes of her elders; they thought he was a drunken loser. The two were even engaged. Like the readers trying to solve this puzzle, Clare suspected Tom of being responsible for the murders. She had no proof, and there was no way to confirm her doubts now that he was gone. So, all her life, Clare believed that she was somehow responsible for the untimely death of her grandparents, and she punished herself.
“If you didn’t move the dolls, who did?” »
The result of The Dollhouse Murders is a bit anticlimactic, but that doesn’t diminish the overall value. After opening her heart to her nieces, Clare makes a shocking and important discovery. In the dollhouse, Amy’s great-grandmother doll points to a shelf in the living room. Clare thinks this means something, and after dismantling the library in the real living room, she and her nieces discover a letter in a book. Written by Amy’s great-grandmother shortly before her death, she identified her and her husband’s killer: the greedy handyman. If you’re like Clare, you feel the weight suddenly lift off your shoulders. It’s unfortunate that this mistaken belief plagued much of her life, but it’s a relief to know that Clare and her grandparents have, in some way, made peace with each other. They can all move on now.
As for Amy, her arc is more subtly managed than Clare’s. Amy was quite shy when it came to all things Louann; she threw a huge A tantrum after an emergency forced her mother to drop Louann off with Clare, just before Amy’s private birthday party. Even so, her behavior makes sense to anyone who has ever felt like they had to make a choice between family obligations and inner happiness. It’s obvious that Amy still feels more or less the same as before; she still yearns for a personal life. But the whole dollhouse ordeal has put things in perspective on her family. With Clare’s experience with guilt, Amy understood that her mother felt responsible for Louann’s disability. Amy also realized Louann wasn’t her burden – she’s her sister.
Betty Ren Wright has written a compelling story for and about young people without ever sacrificing depth. What this book lacks in pages, it makes up for in depth. The supernatural element is not as pronounced as one might expect or hope, but The Dollhouse Murders is a good reminder of how this best ghost stories are sometimes less about ghosts and more about the living.
There was a time when the children’s section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identifiable by their flashy fonts and garish covers. This notable subgenre of YA fiction flourished in the 80s, peaked in the 90s, and then finally came to an end in the early 2000s. YA horror of this genre is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories endure at buried in a book. This recurring column reflects the nostalgic novels that still haunt readers decades later.