Ruby Rings, Imaginary Friends, and Mastodons, Oh My!
Updated: Jan 1, 2022
I was fascinated with the premise of this book, Carly Piper and the Mystery of the Ruby Ring by Shirley Gilmore. When Carly Piper is helping with inventory in her grandfather’s antique shop, she grasps a ruby ring and is overcome by a vision of the former owner’s fateful end. I am enchanted by that kind of supernatural angle for launching into an adventure, and that is what initially compelled me to pick up this title. I imagine the tangible sensation of holding such a ring in my hand now.
As the story opens, Carly has recently moved with her grandfather to the quaint and peculiar town known as Turn Back, a small enclave in the eastern Missouri Ozark Mountains. We don’t immediately learn why she is living with her grandfather, and I applaud the author for not relying upon a common-place trope of tragically deceased parents as a device for creating this non-traditional family. That her father is too busy working to care for her, and possibly trusts his own father’s parenting skills more, and that her mother abandoned the family when she was a toddler, lends a certain amount of realism to an otherwise fantastical tale.
This provides for some plausible rationale behind Carly’s imaginary friends. She is a child who is isolated from other kids her age; having moved at the start of summer it will be a while, beyond the edges of this story, before she encounters other kids in school she could potentially befriend. Real friends. In the meantime, enter a young boy, a pixie girl with wings, a German shepherd, and a horse. All her allies. Each with a unique personality and manner of “speaking” to Carly. We are introduced to them early in the book, and they persevere to the end because nothing is so resolved in Carly’s personal life that she would be ready to let them go just yet. Her father demonstrates his continued lack of parenting maturity and selfishness, even while he makes a half-hearted ploy at taking her back to live with him.
I’ve never personally known a child who had an imaginary friend, but I have limited experience as a mother of two. I am an only child and was also rather isolated at Carly’s age (10). But while I lived inside my head, I never felt compelled to reach in and pull out imagined beings to interact with. I suppose I just read a lot of books instead. So while I stumbled a bit on this concept, Shirley Gilmore wrote each of the four “friends” clearly so they were easy to follow and I found myself envisioning them as if watching an imagined Hallmark Channel movie version of the story. Carly pulling her pixy friend in the wagon through town (in my vision she becomes a 3-year-old girl with wings attached to her like a fairy costume); the little boy riding on the back of the horse while the dog runs circles around them all. They are in the frame when Carly speaks to them and confers life upon them, they are absent, invisible, as soon as one of the townspeople step into the frame and talk with Carly.
The town itself is a character that creates a strong sense of place and setting for what could be considered a cozy mystery, in that the main character is an amateur sleuth and there is no violence in the pages of this intimate community. As Carly learns more about her new home, the clues accumulate throughout the town. Turn Back is relatively famous in the story for its labyrinth prayer walks. I must interject here that I brought this book with me to begin reading when my husband and I stayed overnight at a friend’s cabin in the woods in the Mt Hood National Forest. One of the last things they said to us before we turned in for sleep, as I reached for this book in my backpack, was that they would take us to the stone labyrinth the next day before we left. It was a short walk from their cabin. Imagine my astonishment when I opened up this book and read the introduction describing a labyrinth.
People who participate in the labyrinth prayer walks tend to experience mass dreams - everyone dreaming of the same thing, in this case, Mastodons. I loved this, even though I don’t have a strong interest in Mastodons. This connection to apparent strangers, this reminder of our interconnectedness, our oneness through a shared dream are all elements I appreciate in a tale lending it a universal quality. But before I wax too philosophical about the dreams, I will point out that the Mystery of the Ruby Ring is a light read. It is uplifted throughout by an overarching sense of positivity. Carly, although abandoned early in life by her mother, is not a damaged child. Her father, although he continues to make bad parenting choices as we witness when he (briefly) locks her in a closet, is quickly overridden by the grandfather. The scene is not as terrifying as it could be. This is a safe read, a cozy curl up with a mug of hot chocolate kind of story, and slow-paced.
The unhurried momentum allows the reader to savor the periodic illustrations throughout the novel, which add depth to these details; the antique store building, the Beauchamp House formerly occupied by the owner of the ruby ring, and the map. I love a good detailed map of a town real or imagined. Maybe it's just me, but I cannot locate the labyrinth on the map. Although as I take another look, I'm wondering if the town itself is the labyrinth as the buildings are arranged in a concentric circle formation.
The leisurely tempo of the drama seems to mirror the rhythm of the community in Turn Back, a classic small town of our dreams. One where a person can go to start life anew. Maybe buy an antique store. Maybe solve a mystery. As the story came to a close, I wanted to continue inhabiting the streets there, maybe walk the labyrinth, listen in on Carly's conversations, browse in her grandfather's antique store. Luckily Shirley Gilmore has written four other related books, which are sure to satisfy this longing.
Find out more about the author here: https://shirleygilmore.com/