Book Review: THE SEARCH FOR THE HOMESTEAD TREASURE: A MYSTERY
By Ann Treacy
Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2016. $16.95
The title of Ann Treacy’s The Search for the Homestead Treasure sounds as though the early Famous Five have sprung back into action in a book that will engage the reader with a mystery suitably embellished with noble children, unadulterated villains, picnics with hard-boiled eggs and ginger beer, and a gender-bending heroine.
However, The Search for the Homestead Treasure could not be further from this tradition. It is set in the impoverished farming countryside of Minnesota, where the family of fourteen-year-old Martin Gunnarsson is returning to a farm that was inherited by Martin’s father—the infant survivor of a diphtheria epidemic that killed his widowed mother and older sister, Cora.
Martin misses his life in Stillwater, the town where he grew up. He misses his friends, and he misses his older brother Dan who died in an accident before the family moved. For Martin, the farm means not only loneliness, but also exclusion, as he is ostracised by the other boys for his poverty. He must also face the harsh realities of adult responsibility. His mother, mourning the death of her oldest child, has withdrawn into herself, and it falls to Martin to keep the family together.
Martin seems to be facing insuperable odds. The family owes money on the farm, and the bank wants to buy it from them, or foreclose, in which case they will be left destitute. There is very little time for the farm to become profitable, so the family faces ruin, but there are rumours of a treasure hidden there, and when Martin finds Cora’s diaries, he finds hints that indicate the rumours might be true. Cora talks of hiding the treasure—the “dowry”—in her dolls’ house. But even in the unlikely event that the dolls’ house is still intact, there seems to be no trace of it.
Martin becomes friends with a Roma boy called Samson. The Roma is a group that is feared and ostracised by the local community. Martin learns a great deal from Samson, and from Samson’s grandmother, about the world, about attitudes and prejudice, and about the different ways people can live. His family—his aunt in particular—fear the Roma, as do the other farming people, but Martin is learning not to put faith in the views and prejudices of others. He comes to understand that people who supposedly should command respect because of their roles and positions in life may not necessarily be worthy of it. When disaster strikes, Samson’s family comes to Martin’s aid, and Samson’s grandmother tells him, “From bad comes good … look to the ones you love for answers.” And Martin does.
The Search for the Homestead Treasure is a thoughtful, reflective book that follows a young boy as he makes the transition from childhood to adulthood. It also addresses issues that are universal: loneliness, hostility, prejudice, the fallibility of adults. It is set in a world that is long gone (though it may be coming back)—when life expectancy was a paltry forty-nine years, when childhood was a short period in a life, when adult responsibility started young—a world that could be merciless to those who, for whatever reason, were unable to support themselves. This is a book that will appeal to thoughtful readers, and to readers with an interest in the decades before the great wars of the 20th century changed the world forever.