Here we go with the next bit!
Chapter five opens with handwriting... and huzzah, it's a Pike-sitting chapter. The Pikes are set up to be a perfectly normal family foil for the Eeeee-vil mustache-sporting Mr. Nicholls, whose only crime we've seen so far is being a neat freak who likes to know where his kids are and once called them a mild (but admittedly cruel) name in front of Claudia when he was very stressed. Contrast this with the saintly Mr. and Mrs. Pike, who have had their eleven-year-old serve as a full time nanny "for years," regularly vacate the house without providing the sitters with so much as a dinner for their children, don't allow Mal to finish her homework before she does the laundry, and won't train their other offspring-- notably the ten-year-old boys-- to do any work whatsoever, not even cleaning up their own spilt milk. Oh, and there was that time when they went out of state and left their children overnight in the care of minors just before a predicted blizzard with no food in the house. God save us from tidy people.
(*And this is an obligatory note to say that I KNOW that Mr. N. is going to reveal himself to be as bad as the Pikes in short order, but for all the narrative has told us now, my statement could be true.)
The journal entry warns us of shenanigans to come and of Mr. Pike no longer having a proper lawn. I have known many large families, some as disorganized (but none as neglectful) as the Pikes and some who had perfectly neat (though crowded) houses. I have never known one of them to have a tidy lawn. It's one of the things you sort of have to give up when you've got a bunch of children playing on it, especially if you're poor like the Pikes supposedly are and can't afford professional lawn care. And this provides an excellent opportunity for me to tell a fun story which is unrelated to the Pikes except that it's about large families and lawns: My mother was the second of seven children. Her mom was a nurse and her father was the only internist in a very small town, which meant he spent most of their childhood working several shifts in row at the hospital. Tommy, the second-youngest child in the family, was the only boy, extremely energetic and rather destructive. My grandmother loved to garden and care for the lawn, but the last time she'd tried to garden with toddler Tommy in the yard, she'd accidentally hit him with the mulch shovel and they'd ended up spending the day in the ER. She could not think of any way to get her gardening done while the older children were at school and couldn't help watch Tommy. Finally, desperate to work on her garden, she hatched a foolproof plan: she made a circular chicken wire enclosure with nothing in it but lawn. Tommy was put inside this to play while she gardened. My grandmother got a day's gardening done in no time. Then she went and got Tommy, who seemed perfectly happy. And then she took one last look at the lawn, noted that it had been raining a lot lately, and that there were unidentified mushrooms all over the lawn... and absolutely none in the enclosure where Tommy had been playing. She ran inside in horror to induce vomiting; sure enough, he'd filled his stomach with mystery mushrooms. Then, because she was frankly too embarrassed to take her child to the emergency room for the second week in a row, she called my grandfather at the hospital and told him to come home to examine Tommy himself. Grandpa rushed home, saw that Tommy looked fine, picked a bag of mushroom specimens and rushed them to the hospital lab. He didn't hear anything from the lab, so he returned to work. He didn't hear anything from the lab all week, and Tommy was still fine, so he nearly forgot about the mushroom incident. Then, a week later, the hospital lab sent him a letter. "Dear Doctor Spencer: do not worry! These mushrooms are harmless to your lawn."
Okay, now back to the Pikes. The Pikes are playing stereotypical Irish-related games, as all nonreligious-but-otherwise-WASP children do in the weeks before Saint Patrick's day. The triplets greet her with "Top o' the mornin' to you," which is of course what Irish people say compulsively at all times. Becca and Charlotte, who've just come over with Jessi, roll their eyes because "girls mature faster than boys." I have a little feminist/responsible parent rage seizure as I realize that this belief is probably WHY the triplets are slovenly apes who can't clean up their own spilt milk; if they'd been Addy, Byronette and Jordina, Ma and Pa Pike might have actually taught them to do housework.
Claire and Margo are playing a game of "I Spy" where everything has to be green, because Ireland is basically the Emerald City and everything there is green at all times. Nicky makes an unfunny jibe about green boogers which sends Claire chasing him all about the yard.
Kristy then comes over with DM, Karen and Andrew. No word on how she got there, but one can imagine it involved Charlie, since the Thomas parents don't take their children anywhere. But at least they're not tidy people.
Kristy asks them how the parade planning is going, and Mal and Jessi are chagrined.
The next time they turn around, all the children are fighting; they'd begun a race to see who could find the first four-leaf-clover, and Adam faked finding one by "holding two clovers together." I can't see how this wouldn't equal a six-leaf clover, or how Adam could hold them so carefully that there'd be any doubt, but then again this is a Pike chapter. I really ought to be grateful that no one has dyed Nicky's hair green or sacrificed him in some kind of Druidic ritual by now.
Then Mal realizes the lawn is missing enormous clumps of grass, where the children ripped it up to find clovers faster. I'm torn between declaiming the Pike brattiness again and repeating my remark that that's how the lawns of large families look anyway.
Claud arrives with the Nicholls children, and Kristy calls the planning meeting to order.
Joey and Nate are careful not to sit on the grass, for fear of stains. If Jenny P. did this, the sitters would have called her a brat. Since it's the Nicholls children, it's another Bad Sign.
Andrew tries to state an idea for the parade, but he speaks too softly to be heard. Joey bellows "Speak up, dummy!" Then he blushes and apologizes.
Andrew's idea is that all the children should march around with bagpipes and large furry hats.
Kristy rolls her eyes because "she hates bagpipes."
Mal meekly points out that they're not going to be able to learn to play the bagpipes before Saint Patrick's Day.
Claud wants a float, but Kristy, perhaps remembering the Giant Uterus-shaped Shoe Incident several books ago, quashes the idea instantly. They decide that the children will all Irish Stepdance in the parade. Jessi in particular thinks this is just swell. No one mentions that stepdancing is if anything MORE difficult than learning to play the bagpipes.
Claudia, who wants to be involved somehow, asks if they can at least make costumes, and everyone agrees.
Then Claire finds a four-leaf clover. Which is a sign of our luck, because the obligatory Pike-sitting chapter is now over.
Chapter six! Claudia carries Lynn around the kitchen on their last day together. She's sad that Russ and Peaches will come back from their vacation, provided that Russ hasn't roasted Peaches to death in that sauna yet.
Claud tells Lynn that they two are lucky to have loving families to grow up in. I snort at the irony. Then she gives Lynn to her mother, and runs to the Nicholls' house.
Mr. Nicholls opens the door and is overly polite to Claud again. I really don't know if it's typical for [spoiler alert] a wife-and-kidbeater to be so sweet to other people's children, or for [spoiler alert] an abusive control freak to leave kids with a babysitter this often. But then again, I can't say that it's not.
Mr. Nicholls calls "Let's move it, slowpoke!" up the stairs to his wife; then rolls his eyes at Claudia and says "women." Which is undeniably extremely douchey, but I don't know that it qualifies as abuse yet.
Claud is shocked: "After all, I am-- or will be soon-- a woman myself." This from someone who mere pages ago was spreading sexist nonsense like "girls mature earlier."
Mrs. N appears, and Claudia compliments her. Mr. N. snaps "She'd better look nice. It took her an hour to pull herself together." Again, mean as a snake and if I were Mrs. Nicholls I'd club him with a high heeled shoe. But it's an awfully vanilla insult for a wifebeater control freak with a short temper. I know they're not going to drop an F bomb in a BSC book, but they could have said, "Mr. N swore under his breath and told his wife she was worthless" if they wanted to make it realistic.
The happy couple leave. Claud asks Nate and Joey if they want to help make dinner, which excites them; Dad never lets them help. I'm sure evil control freak wifebeaters who cook dinner for the family themselves exist, but again it seems pretty strange to throw in that detail when you're trying to establish that Mr. Nicholls is the scum of the earth.
Claudia chats with the boys during dinner. They're surprised; Mr. N. doesn't usually allow talking at the table. And then she spills her grape juice. The boys jump up to clean it, muttering "you're in big trouble." Claudia herself begins to feel afraid about the spill.
The boys get ready for bed and go to lie down. Claud asks if they have stuffed animals to sleep with, and they reply that they don't have any stuffed animals at all. Once their mother bought them a bear and a tiger, but then Mr. N. threw them away because they were "babyish." Okay, now I want to strangle Mr. Nicholls.
Joey begs Claud to tell her father that he fell asleep right away.
Claudia waits nervously downstairs until Mr. and Mrs. Nicholls come home. Mr. Nicholls questions her about the boys' behavior, and she replies that they were very good. Then a sad-looking Mrs. N. drives her home.
Chapter seven! Claud feels like talking to someone about her sitting job, so she quickly greets her parents and runs upstairs to call Stacey. They talk it over, and do so again at the BSC meeting. Everyone agrees that although it's troubling, Mr. Nicholls's parenting isn't any of their business. Which is, strictly speaking, true. It just makes me wonder about all the other times the sitters have meddled in parents' business for so much less than this.
At the next sitting job, Mr. N. bluntly informs Claudia that the boys misbehaved, and that they will not be going to the St. Patrick's Day costume-making session. They can't have TV or a snack either; all they're allowed to do is stay home and clean. Claudia, however, is welcome to a snack if she'd like one.
Claudia, to her credit, resolves not to eat the whole time. "I was beginning to realize I just plain didn't like Mr. Nicholls." And for the record, since I'm keeping track of actual abusive behavior vs. perfectly harmless behavior foisted on the audience as abuse, let me state that I'm pretty much okay with cleaning as punishment, as long as the cleaning job is proportionate to the child's age and the actual offense. But I'm not okay with denying food as a punishment. Denying cookies and saying they can only have peanut butter or something, maybe. But not withholding food altogether.
And then there's the reason they're being punished: Joey informs Claudia that it's because he touched Dad's briefcase. Just touched it, to move it aside so that they could set out a matchbox racetrack. Mr. Nicholls punished both of them for this by making them stay indoors without snacks and clean all day. I pause for a moment to wonder why an unemployed man has a briefcase lying around where his kids can move it, but never mind that for now.
Claud cheerfully proclaims herself great at washing windows, and Nick gets her a bucket. The three clean house all afternoon. Claudia tries to be as "peppy" as she can to take the boys' mind off things, which is unsnarkably sweet and very wise of her. Everything is just fine until Mr. Nicholls comes home and bellows about the mop that's been left out.
Claudia tells the boys to stay back, and goes to talk to Mr. N herself; she explains that the boys were VERY good. Again, this is wise of her. I couldn't have handled it better.
Mr. N gives her a handful of crumpled bills and says "Tell you what. You're off duty. Bye-bye, now!"
Claud hesitates, but realizes that she has to go, and scoots for the door. But then she realizes that she forgot her jacket in the boys' room, and goes to fetch it. While she's upstairs, she hears him calling his sons jerks and screaming for his newspaper.
Joey stammers that it might have accidentally gotten mixed with the recycling.
And then Claud hears the slapping noise. "It was like the sound of a fish hitting the water." When she comes down the stairs, Mr. Nicholls tries to stand in front of Nate and be friendly to her again. Claud can see both the boys crying, and that Nate's cheek is getting red.
Mr. Nicholls offers Claud a ride home, which she coldly rejects.
So, it turns out that Claud's concern has been right from the beginning: Mr. Nicholls is a horrible abusive father. Very well. I'm just so bothered by this whole presentation of the issue, even more bothered than I am by the presentation of anorexia in Jessi and the Awful Secret. Ann mixed up so much perfectly normal or excusably eccentric behavior in with the abuse and presented it all to impressionable young readers without differentiating at all. Being a neat freak who likes his desk kept in order is not abuse. Expecting kids to take their shoes off and keep tidy is not abuse. Making kids clean may not be the most effective punishment, but it's not abuse. Having Claudia act worried and suspicious about this just as she is with throwing out toys, name-calling, snack-denying and hitting is ridiculous. Now every impressionable teen babysitter who takes these books as gospel is going to freak out when they go to sit for children who aren't as sloppy as the Pike brats.
Also, up until now I don't criticize how Claudia has handled witnessing abuse; she's done a good job. That' s all about to unravel, however.
Claud rushes straight home. Does she call the cops? Does she call DCFS? Does she call her mom or dad, or even Janine? Nope. "I ran straight to my room, grabbed the phone and started dialing. It was time for an emergency meeting of the Baby-Sitters' Club." All the sitters are at the parade planning session, however, and for a moment I'm tricked into thinking Claudia is going to get some actual comptetent help. But no: she runs back out the door to meet her friends at the Pike house.
Chapter eight! Just what we need, another Pike-sitting chapter. I'm not sure why this is going into the Notebook, since it's a parade-planning meeting instead of a real sitting job.
The original bunch of kids have now been joined by the Arnolds and the Rodowskys, who of course brought their dog on a leash made of shoelaces. Jackie took the shoelaces, so he and his brothers are wearing unlaced sneakers. They tie the poor dog to the tree, and go to the picnic tables to make costumes. Apparently the aforementioned costumes are more like giant cardboard sandwich signs, which I imagine must be very graceful to stepdance in. Their first idea is that all the sandwich signs will be shamrock-shaped, but then Margo decides to make a leprachaun. Kristy helps her draw a leprachaun that the children claim looks more like a sick pterydactyl. Vanessa wants to make a harp because "the ancient bards used to carry them."
Archie needs to go to the bathroom, and for some reason this requires Mal escorting him inside. They all remind her not to let Pow into the yard.
Claire draws an eye, because she misunderstood the meaning of "Irish."
Shea, Andrew and David Michael have all gotten together to make a large gray rock they call "the blarney stone."
Then Jackie goes to the bathroom by himself, and accidentally lets Pow out. Of course, Pow knocks a jar of green paint onto Bo, and of course Jackie gets blamed for this. The sitters tie Bo up again with a clothes line that just happened to be lying around the yard.
Then Claudia comes tearing in and demands an emergency meeting. Kristy says it will take fifteen minutes to get all the children home before they can go to her house, and Claud agrees despite the fact that for all she knows the Nicholls boys are still getting beaten up back at their house.
Chapter nine! Claud sits on her bed, waiting, with her head spinning, trying to imagine what Nick and Joey's childhood must be like. Kristy lumbers in first and demands to know what's up, but Claud insists on telling the story only once, when everyone is together. Claudia has the presence of mind to offer Kristy some candy while she waits.
Finally, when everyone gathers, Claudia tells them what she witnessed. Mary Anne is incredulous, but Kristy is not. "Do you know how many abused children there are in this country? I did a report on it for Social Studies last fall. It's unbelievable."
Mal mutters "But in Stonybrook?"
Kristy gives our Very Special Lesson to the readers at home: "Everywhere. Rich people, poor people, people of all colors, shapes, and sizes hurt their kids." Then she demands that Claudia tell the story from he beginning.
Claudia does so, with some pointless interruptions.
Stacey asks what they're going to do, and Kristy who wrote a freakin' report on child abuse has no idea. She hesitates to take any action at all because "accusing someone of child abuse is a big deal." Then she tries to make a big deal of the fact that Claudia didn't actually see the moment that Mr. N. hit his son. I think she's just stalling so she won't have to actually do anything, and I'm shocked. These girls constantly meddle in parents' business. Now, here's an actual example of a time in which EVERYONE ought to be meddling, and they're sitting there making excuses.
Jessi finally asks if they should tell the police or a social worker. Claud can't imagine doing something like that.
Abby suggests at least telling Claudia's mother, since she knows Mrs. Nicholls.
Claud realizes for the first time that Mrs. Nicholls might be being abused as well. She agrees to talk to her mother just as Rioko comes home from work; then she asks her to come upstairs.
That's about all I can take in one sitting, folks, but I'll be back soon with the conclusion-- and unlike usual, I can promise that this time it actually WILL be dramatic! And stupid.