For the past few Throwback Thursdays I’ve been reviewing a series of books put out by American Girl (yes, that’s the doll company) about a girl growing up in the 1970’s named Julie Albright. Since I was a young girl back in the 1970’s, I thought it would be fun to compare the books to my own memories of growing up in the 1970’s. I also figured that it could provide an idea for some light summer reading.
Earlier this summer I started with all the books in the original Central Series then moved on to the Best Friend Book. I’m currently on the Julie Mystery books.
Lost in the City, originally published in 2013, is the last of the Julie Mysteries that have been published so far. Only American Girl knows whether there will be any new Julie Mysteries scheduled to be published in the future or if Lost in the City is the Julie Mysteries’ swan song—and that company is not talking. (And, no, I’m not about to engage in any speculations or rumors either. This is NOT Living a Doll’s Life.)
The book was written by Kathleen O’Dell, who has written a variety of short stories for American Girl Magazine as well as other children’s books like the Agnes Parker series. The illustrations for this book were done by Sergio Giovine, who has illustrated a number of other book covers for a variety of publishers (in addition to American Girl).
All of the Julie Mysteries follow the events in both the Central Series and the Best Friend book. Lost in the City is the fourth Julie Mystery and it follows the events in The Tangled Web, The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter, and The Silver Guitar
The one thing to keep in mind about the Julie books is that they were written for a target audience of girls between the ages 8-12. As a result there won’t be an in-depth look at certain controversial issues of the day.
Synopsis: Julie Albright is a 10-year-old white girl with long blonde hair and brown eyes growing up in 1977 San Francisco. Her parents are divorced so she spends most of her time living with her mother, who operates her store full of handcrafted items (some of which are made from repurposed and recycled clothes) called Gladrags, and her 17-year-old sister, Tracy, in a small apartment that’s located above her mother’s store. On most weekends she stays with her father, a commercial airline pilot, in the same home that the entire family lived in before the divorce.
During her visits with her father, she gets a chance to spend some quality time with her pet brown rabbit, Nutmeg (who can’t live with her because her mother’s apartment complex doesn’t allow pets), and play with her best friend who lives across the street, Ivy Ling. Nutmeg was generally written in previous books as living in Julie’s father’s home while Ivy comes over to care for the rabbit whenever Julie’s father is on one of his long plane flights. Except page 63 of the second Julie Mystery book, The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter, had described Nutmeg as now living with Ivy in her home. But in Lost in the City, Nutmeg is described as currently living with Julie’s father once again. This book doesn’t mention that Nutmeg had ever lived with the Lings or why the bunny is back with Julie’s father after living with Ivy but what comes next may explain why Nutmeg’s time as a member of the Ling household was relatively short.
The book begins with Julie happily riding in her father’s car while Dad is driving. The San Francisco public schools have closed for spring break week and her father managed to arrange his work schedule so he wouldn’t have to go on any long distance flights, which means that Julie can spend the entire week with him. On top of it, her sister Tracy has decided to spend her spring break with her friends from her high school so Julie has her father all to herself (and the reader is spared from Tracy’s frequent moping and complaining). Even though the month isn’t mentioned, The American Girl Wiki managed to pinpoint when the story takes place by doing some sleuthing. The beginning of the book mentions that Julie’s current favorite song, “Dancing Queen,” has just made number one of the pop charts while that song went to the Number 1 position on Billboard’s Hot 100 on April 9, 1977 in the United States. It sounds about right for the story to take place in April, 1977 because the last book took place in the previous month. On top of it, many schools, colleges, and universities tend to close down for spring break somewhere between mid-March to mid-April (usually to coincide with Easter and Passover).
Normally Julie would be spending time with Ivy Ling as well since she lives across the street from Julie’s father’s home. However, Ivy is going to be in Long Beach to attend her Uncle Lee’s wedding during most of Julie’s time at her father’s place. But she invites Julie to come to her home the day before she has to leave to check out a new addition to the Ling household—an African Grey parrot named Lucy. The bird had belonged to Uncle Lee but he had to give her away to the Lings because his fiancée, Hannah, refuses to live with the parrot because she feels that Lucy is too noisy. So Lucy’s cage is located in the bedroom that belongs to Ivy’s brother, Andrew, while the door is closed to keep out the Lings’ two cats, Jasmine and Wonton.
Minutes after Julie and her father arrive at his home, Julie gets a phone call from Ivy inviting her over to the Ling place so she can see Lucy in person. As Julie walks across the street, she runs into a boy named Gordon Marino, who’s a former classmate at the school Julie used to attend with Ivy before her parents’ divorce. She invites Gordon to come with her as she goes to Ivy’s house to meet Lucy. When they arrive at Ivy’s place, the three of them go to Andrew’s bedroom where Lucy and Uncle Lee are located. Lucy talks and does a variety of tricks that wows Julie and Gordon. Lucy seems especially friendly towards Julie, which impresses Uncle Lee because the bird is usually shy around strangers.
When Julie’s dinnertime curfew arrives, Gordon also leaves with her. Gordon tells Julie that he has just moved into a house that’s located just down the street from her father’s place and has invited her to come over whenever she gets bored. He starts to walk towards his home and Julie notices that Gordon seems more glum these days than when she used to be in his class and he was known as the class clown.
As Julie prepares to cross the street, Ivy catches up with Julie to give her this news: Uncle Lee was so impressed with the way that Lucy had taken to Julie that he wants to cancel the pet sitter he lined up for the week and give the job to Julie instead. When Julie accepts the offer, Ivy immediately hands a key to the Lings’ house and a set of instructions on caring for Lucy. She also tells Julie that she’ll need to show up tomorrow morning to feed both Lucy and the two cats because her family is leaving for Long Beach very early. Ivy also tells Julie that they have a couple staying at the Lings’ place. They are known as Mr. and Mrs. Shackley and they are the parents of one of Ivy’s mother’s law school classmates. Mrs. Shackley has just received a kidney transplant and she and her husband needed a place closer to the hospital so they can rest. It’s the main reason why they weren’t asked to take care of Lucy, Jasmine, and Wonton even though they are staying in the same house. The Shackleys are currently staying in the Lings’ living room and they tend to keep to themselves.
If Julie’s first day after arriving at her father’s home isn’t exciting enough, her Aunt Maia arrives at the house. Aunt Maia is in the process of moving to San Francisco and Julie’s dad had told Aunt Maia that she could stay with him until she finds a place of her own. Aunt Maia has recently been hired as an assistant chef at a new vegetarian restaurant and she’s been gung-ho about fixing vegetarian meals for Julie and her father with mixed results.
Julie’s first day on her new job as pet sitter doesn’t turn out real well. Lucy is less friendly towards Julie than she had been the day before. Julie’s attempt at feeding the cats resulted in her accidentally spilling cat food everywhere on the floor in Ivy’s bedroom and she had to clean that mess up. If that weren’t enough, Mr. Shackley scolds Julie for being too noisy when she spilled the cat food and he tells her that she walks too much like a lumberjack. He also complains about how much he hates the city because it’s too noisy and if he had had his own way he would’ve driven the long distance back to their quiet town immediately after his wife’s surgery.
That afternoon Julie sits on the front steps of her dad’s house while pondering what happened this morning. Gordon walks by and Julie invites him to come with her so he can see Lucy. When they arrive in Andrew’s bedroom, they see that a white sheet had been placed over Lucy’s cage even though Julie had removed it this morning. When Lucy sees Gordon, the bird begins to perk up while talking and performing tricks. Julie realizes that the bird had really liked Gordon and not her the first time they met Lucy before the Ling family left for the wedding.
The following morning Julie makes a horrifying discovery when she walks over to the Lings’ house so she can feed the animals. Lucy’s cage has been opened and the bird is gone! Julie manages to locate Wonton and Jasmine but Lucy is nowhere to be found anywhere in the house. Julie’s spring break vacation is suddenly getting way busier than she originally expected as she searches for the bird while pondering what could have happened.
Julie comes up with a list of suspects in Lucy’s disappearance. First, there is her former classmate Gordon. Both Lucy and Gordon seemed to like each other and Gordon had expressed a wish that he could own a pet so could he have taken her? Her Aunt Maia seems to be gone much of the time while claiming that it’s due to the demands of her new job. She also disapproves of pets being kept in cages for long stretches of time so could she be a suspect in Lucy’s disappearance as well? Let’s not forget the Shackleys, especially Mr. Shackley the noise-hater, because they are currently staying in the Lings’ household. Did Lucy somehow managed her own escape in a way that is just as creative as a prison convict’s escape from a maximum security prison? Or did the two cats, Jasmine and Wonton, decide to take advantage of the family being away by hatching some nefarious plan to get into Andrew’s room, break into Lucy’s cage, and treat themselves to a lovely parrot dinner for two?
Julie only has until the end of the week to resolve this whole thing before the Lings return from Long Beach and she has to return to her mother’s apartment. Can Lucy be found alive on the streets of San Francisco before it’s too late?
The last chapter, Looking Back, focuses on the intelligence of African Grey parrots, why many groups like the Humane Society currently don’t recommend keeping parrots as pets, how it’s now illegal to import parrots that were captured in the wild, and the wild parrots living in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill who were descended from pets that were released into the wild. There’s a brief focus on the founding of the Animal Switchboard by a mother and daughter named Grace and Virginia Handley. The chapter closes with a discussion on the increasing popularity of vegetarianism in the United States since the trend began in the 1970’s.
Music Mentioned in This Book
“Boogie Fever” by The Sylvers
“Dancing Queen” by Abba
Roto-Rooter advertising jingle
Movies, Books, and Television Shows Mentioned in This Book:
Real-Life People Mentioned in This Book:
News and Other Stuff From the Era Mentioned in This Book:
My Own Impressions Based on My Own Experience With the 1970’s:
I chuckled when the bird kept on singing the Roto-Rooter advertising jingle because I remember that one really well when I was growing up. Roto-Rooter advertised heavily on both the radio and daytime television so I learned that jingle really well. These days it seems like the Roto-Rooter ads have been replaced by the ones for Len the Plumber (at least that’s the case in the Baltimore-Washington, DC area). I not only hear that ad jingle (“The only way to get a plumber today. Just call Len the Plumber.”), I also see billboard signs and ads on the sides of the Metrobuses in the Washington, DC area.
The scene at the beginning of the book where Julie is thrilled that “Dancing Queen” is playing on the radio while she’s riding in her father’s car definitely brought back memories for me. That song was so heavily played on the radio back in the 1970’s that it began to drive me crazy after a while. I was so relieved when that song finally sank below the charts because I was so tired of that song.
I also have memories when I read about the possibility of Lucy being an escape artist who managed to find a way to get out of her own cage. I had a pet hedgehog named Spike, who passed away last year. I read in a book that hedgehogs are notorious escape artists and I got a taste of that once when it came time for the weekly cage cleaning. Whenever the weather was warm, I would put Spike outdoors in a small pets playpen (which was a fenced-in enclosure for animals ranging from guinea pigs to rabbits). A day or so before I put Spike in the playpen, I had to temporarily dismantle it so I could mow the backyard then I put it back up. I had apparently didn’t secure the pegs tight enough because when I went back outside to retrieve Spike after I finished with cleaning his cage, I found that he was gone. Luckily for me, I found him just a couple of feet away sniffing among the grass and fallen leaves so I was able to quickly recapture him.
Two months after that escape attempt, I found Spike dead in his cage. He lived with me for a year and a half.
I laughed at the scenes where Aunt Maia tried to cook vegetarian meals for Julie and her father with mixed results. I’ve tried recipes (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian) that have gone wrong on me in the past. I especially remembered the time when I attempted this Weight Watchers recipe where I had to cook then chop an eggplant then puree it in a blender while I mixed in nutmeg. It was supposed to be a non-tomato sauce for pasta. Except my then-husband and I found it to be so bland that we ended up going to the nearby pizza parlor for dinner. (Needless to say, I never tried that recipe again. LOL!)
As for Lucy, I remember seeing a talking parrot in a shop when I was growing up and my family was on vacation. (It was probably in Ocean City, Maryland since we took a lot of trips there when I was growing up.) The sign on the cage said something like “Hello, I Can Talk!” So I said “Hello” to the parrot a couple of times and the parrot responded with “Hello, Popeye.” Except the parrot said it in a slow drawn-out fashion so it sounded like “Hel—-Lo——Pop——eye” and he kept on repeating that phrase very slowly as he crawled around in his cage. I remember the parrot was a really pretty red color. The bird wasn’t for sale. In fact, I don’t think we were in a pet store. I think we were in one of the many souvenir shops in Ocean City and the owner only had the parrot in his store as a way of attracting potential customers to the store.
I had a parakeet as a teenager named Baby but she never learned to talk. I remember she had this tendency to bite, especially whenever I had to clean her cage and she wanted to attack my hand while I was replacing her food and water. (Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!) I had to get a spoon, use one hand to put the spoon in the cage so Baby would attack it and divert her attention while I used the other hand to put her food and water in her cage so I wouldn’t get bitten.
Like I wrote earlier, Lost in the City is the last of the Julie Mysteries that have been published. I have to admit that the Julie Mysteries are pretty solid in terms of story. Even though I was very nitpicking regarding the last book, The Silver Guitar, it was because the Julie books are supposed to be historical novels and the writer of that book decided to make up a fake oil spill in 1977 San Francisco that never happened while giving short shrift to Julie’s school’s sports program had gone through budget cuts (which actually happened in real life and that is what prompted music promoter Bill Graham to create his fundraising SNACK concert that included appearances by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez). But the mystery of who stole that silver guitar (which was once owned by a deceased rock star) and replaced it with a lookalike fake made up for dealing with frequent graphic descriptions of oil-soaked seabirds. Even at its worst, The Silver Guitar is still way better than the worst books in the original Central Series. (I’m looking at you, Happy New Year, Julie and Julie’s Journey.)
I think the best of the Julie Mysteries is The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter because it provided such a fascinating history lesson on the legacy of the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As I was reading it I kept on thinking that American Girl could easily create a historical character doll who would be a Chinese girl immigrating to the U.S. during the years affected by that law and it could write in more detail about what it was like for her to be detained on Angel Island for several weeks while waiting to see whether she could enter the U.S. or not. What’s more, The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter provided lots of twists and turns as Julie and Ivy wonder if any adults were following them while they were investigating this mystery.
Where to Buy Lost in the City:
The American Girl Julie Albright Books List
The Original Central Series
The Best Friend Book
The Julie Mysteries
The BeForever Books
Other Media Featuring Julie
And the Tiara Goes to…—A film short based on the Julie books.