Review by Keith Robinson (November 1, 2006)
The Hidey-Hole is a very simple tale, more a short story than a novel, all about picking blackberries. Well, there's a little more to it than that, but not much more. In fact, I wish this book had only been about picking blackberries instead of degenerating into a silly tale about foiling burglars!Bobby and Betty are brother and sister, and together with their next-door-neighbor friend, Jocko, they set out to collect blackberries to earn a little money. The proceeds will go towards a new tricycle for their school friend, William – the boy with the "poor, weak legs" who could do with a tricycle to make him strong and sturdy (so says his doctor).
Apparently the whole school is involved in this little fund-raising scheme, and by the time Bobby, Betty and Jocko arrive on the common with their baskets, they realize they're too late – other school kids are already there before them! But even the other kids are unhappy with the pickings; they say that all the good blackberries have already been grabbed, and it transpires that a local band of gypsies has pilfered them all – baskets and baskets full of them, all juicy and gooey and delicious.
A gypsy boy "kindly" offers half his load to the children... but at a price. The children decline the offer. Disgruntled, the three return home and decide to go searching someplace else the next day.
But the next morning Jocko makes a discovery. His small dog, Jiminy, has gone running after a cat, and the frantic chase leads both dog and boy to the back of the garden, through the hedge, and into the garden of the house beyond. This house belongs to a rather cross old man in a wheelchair, and Jocko is not at all happy about trespassing there. But what he finds just beyond the hedges makes him stare in delighted surprise. Blackberries! Hundreds and thousands of them, big and fat and juicy, the biggest, juiciest blackberries he's ever seen – and all tucked away at the bottom of the old man's garden!
Eager to fill basket after basket, Jocko wonders if the old man has any interest in the blackberries. If not, it wouldn't matter if he and his friends claimed them, would it?
Jocko sets off up the garden, nervous about meeting the old man but determined to ask about the delicious blackberries. He bumps into the maid, who is busy hanging washing. She's a bad-tempered sort too, and is cross that Jocko's dog has been chasing her ginger cat again! When Jocko asks her about the blackberries, she says, "Hoo – blackberries! Who wants blackberries, the nasty pippy things! Not me, and not the master either. Let them wither away on the bushes!"
Armed with this indirect permission to pick the blackberries himself, Jocko hurries off to tell his friends. But first he asks his mother if it's okay to pick them on the basis that they're "wild" and "unwanted" (well, they are growing wild, and they are unwanted, so there are no untruths here – it's just that he fails to mention they're growing in someone's back garden). His mother assures him it's fine to pick them if they're not wanted.
Jocko immediately tells Bobby and Betty of his discovery. Excited and armed with baskets, they creep into the neighbor's garden and, under cover of the tangled mass of bushes, begin picking. They eat a lot while they're at it, as you do, and quickly fill their baskets. But there are plenty more left to be picked, and the children dream of the fortunes they'll earn with this hoard of blackberries!
Jiminy abruptly upsets their plans by chasing after the cat again. In the excitement, Jocko upsets his basket and the blackberries spill everywhere, and the children have to hurry away when the old wheelchair-bound man appears, shouting "Who's there? What's happening?"
This is where the nature of the story changes. Jocko creeps back into the garden later to retrieve his basket and blackberries, and in doing so comes across a strange hole in the ground, hidden under a bush. It's a large hole, big enough to stand in with the tangled bushes over his head like a roof. There are various little holes set in the dirt walls, and in these Jocko finds an assortment of objects: a ring with four keys on, a cup, an old newspaper, and a sharp knife.
Jocko decides that this must be some sort of hidey-hole, perhaps for escaped prisoners! (Only a child would come to that conclusion.) He goes to tell his friends at once, but they don't seem very interested and have to hurry off anyway because their aunt has arrived. Jocko, feeling a little cross, decides to keep the hole to himself.
The weekend passes, and Bobby and Betty have been too busy to come and see Jocko's hidey-hole. Then Bobby tells Jocko about a burglary – at the old man's house! Apparently he's a very rich old man and has many beautiful things, and it's these treasures – silver goblets, an old sword, a gold clock, silver candlesticks – that have been stolen. The word is, says Bobby, that the thieves have hidden the goods in Whispering Woods.
It's comical to think that Jocko and his friends have even the slightest hope that they can go to Whispering Woods and find the stolen goods, but they try anyway – because there's a reward being offered. Naturally they find nothing and give it up.
Jocko visits his hidey-hole again, and finds a piece of paper on the floor. It's a note from Bobby and Betty to say they've found his secret place! Laughing, Jocko then finds a silver pencil and assumes it belongs to Bobby. But it doesn't, says Bobby, and it's a bit of a mystery. Then who does it belong to? They decide that someone, perhaps a tramp (a tramp with a silver pencil?), uses the hidey-hole to sleep in, so the children – while having an underground picnic – plot to come out at night and do a bit of spying.
The rest is fairly predictable and more than a little illogical. The children spy on the hole that very night, and immediately find two men in the hole, whispering to each other. They leave, and the children investigate further... And guess what? There are the stolen goods!
I'm well aware that this book is written for younger readers, but still, the idea of burglars breaking into a house, stealing the valuables, taking them away somewhere (to Whispering Woods?), and then bringing them back again to hide in the hidey-hole, is all a little odd. The idea is that one or both of the men kept watch on the old man's house each night prior to the burglary, awaiting their chance, hence the finding of the cup, the knife, the old newspaper, and of course the keys. You might expect, therefore, the men to return to the hidey-hole immediately after the burglary to stash the goods. Or run off into the night and never return. But no, they steal the goods, take them away, then bring them back again.
Bobby later observes that, prior to the stolen goods being stored in the hidey-hole, the burglars must have "put the things in a shed or under a bush for the time being, this silver goblet has some old leaves inside, look!" This sounds very like Blyton trying to cover up a minor plot flaw, but in my opinion only succeeds in making matters even more illogical.
The story ends happily, with the children winning the reward – which they spend on a tricycle for poor William with his weak legs. All in all, though, this story would have been more enjoyable if it had concentrated on a simpler plot, like collecting blackberries and perhaps getting into some sort of trouble in their attempts to make a ton of money. Perhaps they learn that being selfish or greedy is "fruitless" (pun intended) and end up learning a valuable lesson about sharing...
I found the illustrations in this book to be some of the nicest I've seen in a while. Not much is known about the illustrator, Daphine Rowles, but her work is superb – very neat and perfectly suited to the story. I would love to have seen her work in the Secret Seven books! Overall my copy of this book, a 1964 hardback with dustjacket, original text, and excellent illustrations, makes a great little addition to my shelf (even if the story isn't the best in the world).