Mystery on the Isle of Skye (1955), by Phyllis A. Whitney

Whitney-SkyeAs a teen, I read most of Phyllis A. Whitney’s 20 “Young Adult Mystery” novels. As they were written between 1949 and 1977, it is not surprising that the notion of “young adult” (YA) has changed somewhat. What is surprising is that the values expressed in these novels—while somewhat dated in terms of gender biases—still hold strong. The focus is on the teen protagonists’ relationships with others: family, friends, relatives, strangers. I remember as a young reader being a bit upset that there wasn’t a bit more romance between the protagonist and the key male accomplice (when there was one, which was not by any means always). Rereading Mystery on the Isle of Skye as an adult, I was pleasingly impressed by the solid social values the novel adheres to. This is not to say that the characters are especially well behaved; in fact, the social and emotional drive stems from the adolescent conflict between adherence to adult social regulations and the need to become an independent being—just as teen and YA novels do today.

Mystery on the Isle of Skye opens with orphaned Cathy MacLeod leaving the beloved grandmother who has raised her, but who has been hospitalized with a serious illness. Cathy is not fond of the rather curmudgeonly aunt who is taking her in, and uncertain of the garrulous uncle and his family who take her on their trip to Scotland, a trip Cathy had anticipated taking with her grandmother. Cathy takes with her a carry-on bag full of mystery presents form her grandmother (which of course we would not be permitted to do with today’s travel regulations). The presents are all marked with the time they should be opening, and Cathy—like the reader—wonders home her grandmother could know what would happen. It turns out that Skye is not so large a place, and the people Cathy should meet, and the places she should visit, were bound to happen. The mystery still remains, though: what did her grandmother mean by writing that “these separate puzzles add up to a surprise which you won’t be able to see unless all the parts are in place” (23).

Travelling over Skye, meeting the friends and relatives her grandmother had left behind, Cathy learns a great deal about her cultural heritage as well as her extended family. This connection is artfully enhanced by Whitney’s repeated allusions to the well-known Scottish lay “The Skye Boat Song” and the subtle reference to the relatively unknown, anonymous “The Canadian Boat Song”written in the early 1800s by Scottish immigrants to the New World:

From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas —
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides (144).

The mysterious events that Cathy’s grandmother had anticipated come to pass, as readers had hoped. It is to Whitney’s credit that however hard we might have desired the final outcome, the story maintained a sufficient level of doubt to keep us interested to the end.

And, in reference to the temporal specificity of the books, here is the cover of The Mystery of the Black Diamond (Whitney-Diamonds1954, reissued in 1974). Love the bell-bottoms!

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