My childhood library stays in my memory as I drift to the shelf of the authors starting with “E.” E will become a sign, a hint of fate, a hope, and a dream. After reading all the Elizabeth Enright books I branched out, only a few inches to Eleanor Estes, and then, a strange orange book by Betty K. Erwin. The book, Go to the Room of the Eyes, chosen partly for it’s cover and partly for the sticker on the spine.
The book wasn’t perfect, it didn’t flow nearly as well as my all-time favorite Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright but I did not care. There was a shining brilliance there that even 12 year-old me noticed and was drawn to. It is stunning how good the story is. I could not put it down, and because of that it was easy to overlook the odd side-plot and some of the slight cloudiness of the story in places. A better editor could have easily propelled this book and its author, Betty K. Erwin, to Newberry status. As a child I saw the genius, latched onto it and still to this day enjoy this book very much.
The title refers to the first clue, found by the oldest of the six Evans children, Susan. They have just moved to a huge, old, shabby house in late 1960s Seattle, Washington. The clue floats out of her window-shade as she pulls it down. The children soon start a real treasure hunt as they follow rhyming clues, meet people who knew the family that used to live in their house, get followed by strange men, and end up in an adventure.
The books speaks about the house as though it is a character in the story. And the author knew it well. Her family had really moved to a great big shingle-style house in Seattle when her husband took a job as a mathematician for Boeing. Mrs. Erwin herself was an anesthesiologist. But I believe she took leave of her job on and off to raise her large family. She and her husband really did have 6 children and the children in the book are based on them. The book was written for them to sort of help them cope with the move and to get used to living in a big old place.
The University of Southern Mississippi has Betty K. Erwin’s papers in their de Grummond Children’s Literature collection, donated to them by her youngest daughter Helen (Dinky in Go to the Room of the Eyes). There I was able to get copies of many things, letters, personal essays and even a manuscript for an un-published sequel to Go to the Room of the Eyes called The Happy Room and the Psychic Investigator.
Along with the story go the illustrations, done simply, but with a very sure hand. The lines haunting, blurred, but perfect. Dark and moody, just like the Seattle weather, they give the reader just enough information to start their imagination and leave out enough so that the story can weave it’s magic in the mind. I often wondered how Irene Burns got this signature look. Then, by accident I found out. I bought some water-soluble graphite one day and noticed that it looked just like those blurred, yet dark shadows and secrets in the illustrations. I knew Burns probably didn’t have water-soluble graphite, but a paintbrush full of water on a thick layer of #2 pencil lead did the trick as well.
The clues in the treasure hunt lead the curious reader through a grand adventure. For me, they fed my love of old houses and awoke a love of treasure hunts which I immediately began writing clues for, typing them up on my mother’s old Rand typewriter and hiding in impossible-to-find places around my house. I remember I devised a hunt for my best friend. She could not figure out the hard clues and was very tired of trying and gave up. I was disappointed in her, but kept writing! (My poor friend- she was so faithful to me- even in difficult times!)
The book has a happy ending and I always enjoy it. I will say that Erwin was an odd writer. She had many focuses including sci-fi, ghost stories, fairy-tales, and writing about inner-city children and black people. It is definitely a 1960s book- with children dealing with race and civil rights, as well as inner-city life and even war. In the book, on page 153 there are racial slurs, but they are not meant for anything bad, the black girl character, Linda, is explaining to Kate, who is white, who doesn’t really know. I just want you to be aware if you are reading this book out loud!
The worst thing I can think of about this book is that it is very hard to find. When you do see a copy of it it is very expensive. So if you run on to a copy like I did in the Goodwill back in 2014 snatch it up!
Lastly in this post, the “Room of the Eyes.” I won’t leave you hanging, but I won’t give it away either. It is named because of golden peacock wallpaper and it is in the picture below, but it’s a piece of furniture.
Next time I will write about how this book helped to save me and how much I still enjoy it!
With creepy house treasure hunt stories to you from Kansas Street,