“She didn’t want to think about the attic anymore today. She didn’t want to talk about the dollhouse. If she did, she’d have to figure out how one of the dolls—Grandma Treloar it was—could be standing in the parlor, when Amy was practically certain they’d left the whole family sitting around the dining room table.
Dolls can’t move by themselves, she told herself, and felt goosebumps pop up on her arms.“ — p. 38
I am fond of dollhouses, but certainly not of dolls coming to life in the middle of the night. Neither is twelve-year-old Amy Treloar, the protagonist in Betty Ren Wright’s chilling murder mystery for children.
The Dollhouse Murders revolves around the mystery surrounding a dollhouse owned by Aunt Clare, Amy’s father’s older sister. The dollhouse was given to Aunt Clare by her grandparents—Grandma and Grandpa Treloar—on her fifteenth birthday. But Aunt Clare was not too happy about it. She was hoping for a phonograph, rather than a dollhouse that her grandparents expected her to play with.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Tired of looking after her younger sister with special needs, Amy had decided to run away—away from Louann and from her mother and from the terrible things she’d heard herself saying. [“I’m sick of baby-sitting and losing my friends and having everybody stare when we go by. I don’t want to protect her anymore. I’m never, never going to take her any place again!“]
Amy went to visit Aunt Clare who was staying temporarily in the house that had once belonged to Amy’s great-grandparents. The house was miles away from Amy’s place, one of those far-apart houses that stood along the road. A huge old house that holds painful memories and an old family secret—a perfect setting for a mystery, I must say.
What makes the story scarier is the fact that the dollhouse was the exact replica of Grandma and Grandpa Treloar’s house. From the stair tower to the eagle door knocker, everything was just like the real ones in the house. And what’s a dollhouse without dolls? It came with miniature versions of Grandma and Grandpa Treloar, fifteen-year-old Aunt Clare, and five-year-old Paul, Amy’s father. Amy fell in love with it, but Aunt Clare refused to have anything to do with it. And so, the dolls have decided that Amy should be the one to know the truth. The truth about the night of the murder…
I have been on a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit marathon for the past couple of weeks. (Yes, I have immersed myself in crime series while trying to finish my reading list. Ha!) Yet, in spite of the numerous murder cases I have seen in the television series, I still felt my spine tingle while reading The Dollhouse Murders. Now, don’t get me wrong. I grew up with R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps and some of the stories I’ve read scared the wits out of me. But reading about murder in a children’s book kind of threw me off guard. I didn’t expect it to be written so bluntly. Then again, I don’t remember the last time I’ve read about murder in children’s books.
“The story was terse and ugly. The Treloars’ granddaughter Clare had discovered the body of Margaret Treloar in the parlor when she returned home after attending a motion picture with friends. Police were called, and they found James Treloar, fatally shot, on his bed in the couple’s upstairs bedroom. The Treloars’ little grandson, Paul, was at first believed to have been kidnapped, but when the police searched the house, they found him curled up fast asleep in a small wood-storage closet next to the fireplace in the parlor. There were no suspects.” — p. 51
For a children’s book, I think The Dollhouse Murders did a pretty good job at concocting the elements of a chilling murder mystery—an old mansion, a haunted dollhouse in the attic, a murder story to back it up, the dolls’ re-enactment of the crime scene (which gave me goosebumps), and ghosts making their presence known to humans. Unlike the classic horror movie Child’s Play featuring the notorious Chucky, The Dollhouse Murders is different in the sense that the dolls mean no harm. The dolls merely became Grandma Treloar’s medium to convey an important message to her grandchildren or, better yet, reveal the truth about the night of the murder.
I don’t believe in ghosts—mainly because I’ve never encountered one—but I am more accepting of the idea of the dead trying to communicate with the living. Especially when the dead have their so-called “unfinished business,” as in the case of our story.
Grief and Guilt. Coming home to find your grandparents dead leaves an imprint in your mind that puts you in shock and makes you totally defenseless. But for Aunt Clare there is more to trauma than meets the eye. When Grandma and Grandpa Treloar were murdered, Aunt Clare decided to leave Clairborne and move to Chicago. She felt responsible for the deaths of her grandparents. She disobeyed her grandparents by going out with a guy they did not approve of.
She remembered her guy, Tom Keaton, having a big argument with her grandmother the night before they were murdered. She thought Tom had killed them out of anguish, and that he committed suicide when she heard news of his car crash that same night. This explains why she kept the dollhouse hidden in the attic. It is a constant (and tangible) reminder of the guilt she has carried all those years. She became as lonely and as miserable as the old house.
The guilt had prevented her from “communicating” with Grandma Treloar. Although there was nothing said in the book about her having ghostly encounters, I surmise that she refused to be open to and accepting of the few encounters she might have had. Hence, Grandma Treloar had decided that Amy should know about the truth. Not only was she interested in the dollhouse (and the murder, for that matter, after researching at the local library), she also has the “openness” that children have.
Family Issues. Behind the murder story is a backdrop that is familiar to us—family issues. Betty Ren Wright lightly touches on the tension that divides the family. Amy ran away to escape from the responsibility of having to look after her younger sister with special needs. Her mother became upset with the way Amy was acting, and became even more upset that Amy decided to spend some time with Aunt Clare. Later on, it was revealed that Aunt Clare and Amy’s mother barely spoke to each other. This was rooted in the fact that Aunt Clare had said something about Louann, Amy’s sister, when she came down for a visit one time. And, as previously mentioned, there is Aunt Clare—your typical rebel who went out with a guy that her family did not approve of. As the truth about the murder is revealed, each character comes into terms with their own demons and finds stillness in their souls.
With an old-school cover (dating back in 1983), Betty Ren Wright’s The Dollhouse Murders is, at first glance, like one of those old books in the thrift store you wouldn’t consider picking up. Yet, as an Apple Chiller, the book has served its purpose. It’s a good ghost story that will send shivers down your spine while also teaching you a lesson about family. A nice and easy read.