Boxes for Beds – A Mystery in History

Boxes for Beds is a mystery novel set in the early 1960’s. 

Plot summary: Author and single mother Leslie moves from the big city to a small town in Arkansas after a bad breakup. Her fiancé responds poorly to learning the truth about Leslie’s daughter’s deceased father, and Leslie turns to the town where she visited her grandmother as a child for a fresh start.

Now, I’ve lived in the south for twenty-five years, and being from up north, I have first hand experience that Yankees aren’t always welcomed with open arms. Leslie starts to learn what it’s like to be the outside, what it’s like when you’re considered different for no meaningful reason, and what it’s like to be the target of small town gossip… when you’re not quite sure what everyone is gossiping about.

Then, a horrendous crime takes place: a baby is snatched. And then, another. The community is shocked and afraid, remembering a time when similar crimes took place in the past, and went unsolved. In desperation, they look around for someone to blame, and who better than a stranger? Leslie finds herself, illogically, the focal point of a criminal investigation, and gets a crash course in what it’s like to be an outsider, how the “good old boys” network functions, what you can (and cannot) do about it… and who her friends really are.

I’d like to talk about this book on two levels: 

First, as a mystery, it “scratched” my itch. There was intrigued, and fear, and just the right amount of horror. Who would do such a thing? What would motivate such actions? I give the author credit for creating a resolution that, rather than feeding our fears, feeds our sense of compassion for others. The main character also (in the denouement) shows us the power of empathy. We are first hand witnesses to how it not only saves the last child in danger, but creates a path, a short course of action, for all involved in solving the mystery.

Second, as a historical novel: I saw this book mentioned as a historical novel, but it didn’t feel like one to me. When I read a historical novel, I generally find that the plot is subservient to the rich and deep retelling of actual events, with descriptions and explanations all carefully set into the plot. In these books, the plot serves the historical context. Boxes for Beds is something different, though. Here, the historical markers are valid, tI found that they – the historical events and contexts – serve the plot. At first, I was a bit disoriented, but as I grasped the author’s use of history as supporting the plot, I really began to enjoy the book on a new level. 

To all my homeschool mamas out there: If you have a reader who’s into mysteries, Boxes for Beds can be a great resource for integrated study.

Discussion points/Writing prompts:

  • Freedom RidersThese groups of civil rights activists are mentioned throughout the book, and we notice Leslie’s attention being drawn to them. An uppercrust girl from the Big Apple, Leslie has never had much inclination or time to consider such things before. Who were the Freedom Riders? What events are mentioned in the books, and when and where did they take place in history?  Now, an outsider herself, Leslie begins noticing news reports, and they resonate in her consciousness at a different level. Why might this be so?
  • The role of wives in the 1960’s. Leslie’s heart-wrenching breakup with her fiancé is forced to our attention when he arrives – unexpectedly – to patch things up. Without a doubt, the character of Ronald shows good character in stalwart support of Leslie in the legal shenanigans she endures. But Leslie remains distant, at times flat out petulant. She loves Ronald, but is slow to consider returning to their relationship. What do we imagine might be the future that Leslie is considering? What do we learn of Pauline’s life as a 19060’s wife? What might Leslie be considering gaining and/or losing?
  • Hot Springs. The fictional small town is approximately 40 miles from Hot Springs. For what was Hot Springs famous? Why would someone travel there to take a bath, of all things? Why might this have been a destination for the “business meeting” the “bosses” from Chicago were planning?
  • Organized crime. Why was Sheriff Bates so difficult? Who was Sammy, and what hold did he have over Bates and others in the legal establishment? What activities might they have been involved in? How did organized crime fit into actual historical events in Garland County? (Bonus: Might Sammy have been another “Sam” mentioned in the story? What connection would that make?)

Note: [puts on her mom hat] For those who are considering sharing this book with students, I feel obliged to let you know that there is a certain amount of innuendo between Leslie and her ex-maybe-on-again-fiancé Ronald. There is never any sexual activity, beyond a couple of occasions when the two share a kiss. But there is some unclear reference, and at one point Ronald suggests (jokingly) that he and Leslie get a hotel room for the afternoon. I was feeling like the author was being really wishy-washy about what she wanted to say about they relationship, and I finally came to the conclusion that she, the author, opted to leave the decisions about just how much of Leslie/Ronald’s relationship is physical up to the reader’s imagination. It is worth noting that Leslie’s daughter was born our of legal wedlock. This is a key plot point, in no small part because of the great difficulty put on a young, single mother with a baby in the 1950’s. As a rule, I personally am pretty picky about these sorts of plot figures to which I would introduce my own children; however, in this case, I believe that the life lessons to be taken from the decisions made by the characters are in keeping with our family’s values. If this is an area of concern for you, I suggest you pre-read the book, or read in tandem, with your child.

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