In the final book of C.A. Hartnell’s middle-grade series set in 1955, Carol Ann and her best friend Pete raise money to help the poor during the Christmas season. But who is stealing their charity proceeds?
Carol Ann is a thoughtful 11-year-old with a deep faith. Pete shares her beliefs: “God gave us baby Jesus in the manger ’cause we needed him. So shouldn’t we give to others in need?” he says. With that, the two decide to hold bake sales and a pageant to collect money for charity. Friends and family, including Pete’s older brother Hawk and his friends, pitch in with the production. But soon Pete finds money missing from the bake sale proceeds, as well as from his desk at school.
Equally upsetting to Carol Ann and Pete is that Hawk and his friends mysteriously disappear every afternoon. As further travails confront the protagonists, the mystery of Hawk’s absence is revealed in a lovely, unexpected twist, and eventually, the thieves’ identities are exposed.
The plot line holds intrigue, but unfortunately, it wanders off-track by expounding at length on Pete and Carol Ann’s seasonal excursions: holiday parties, Santa’s Village, looking at light displays, and more. These narratives include many unnecessary details awkwardly woven into the text, such as when Carol Ann thinks about eating the school lunch, instead of one from home: “Yum. No sandwich with chips wrapped in wax paper and nestled in my Dale Evans lunch pail. Today I get to buy my lunch. Double yum!” Such moments frequently halt the narrative flow and hamper the story’s dramatic tension.
Despite these issues, this final book is the sweetest of the four: Mr. Chester, their neighbor, demonstrates a burgeoning kindness; there is immediate acceptance and kindness shown toward a new African American student, and a touching empathy toward a poor classmate who must re-gift a second-hand toy. As usual, friends Pete and Carol Ann are winsome.
The book includes a host of additional lists and activities at the back: a recipe for Christmas cookies, photos of the real Carol Ann and her family, resources for further research, a glossary of ‘50s slang (“BASH: a great party”), a cost list of ‘50s items (postage stamp, $.03), a word game and more.
There is much promise in this story—and the series overall — as it offers high production values and an interesting conceit to show young readers what life was like in another era. But in this fourth title, as with the other three, more focus to the main storyline and fewer unnecessary diversions are required to attract an enthusiastic readership. Nonetheless, Hartnell has delivered endearing characters, and Christian readers might find the emphasis on faith appealing.
Also available as an ebook.