First, some housekeeping. I finally got around to making a sidebar widget with each book’s title, publication date, and ghostwriter name. Seeing it all in black and white, it’s hard to believe this series only lasted 6 years. Having started in 1983 and ended in 1989, it really is a quintessential snapshot of the ’80s. It’s also interesting to note which ghostwriters did one book and got the heck out of Dodge, and which ones had a prolonged journey with Canby Hall. For example, Mary Francis Shura, the mystery maven, wrote only one book – #2, Our Roommate Is Missing – and that’s the only thriller-type book in the series (the term “thriller” being used very loosely, of course.) Patricia Aks, who wrote the abysmal #4, Keeping Secrets, actually seemed to experience some growth as a writer since her other contributions, #6 Best Friends Forever and #17 Graduation Day, were progressively less dreadful. And you can also see that very few of the authors who wrote about the New Girls also wrote books about the Old Girls. It’s as if, when the fictional characters graduated and new ones came on the scene, the publishers brought in mostly new writers as well. I’d love to meet someone who worked on this series one day. I would demand that they explain themselves. And then I’d buy them cupcakes.
Anyway, here we are at the very first Canby Hall book I ever read. I got it as a Scholastic mail-order in Grade 2, as part of a two-pack with the next book (The Ghost of Canby Hall) and evidently they made such an indent on my impressionable mind that here I am 30 years later blogging about them. And my daughter Peanut is now the same age I was then! (Though I haven’t yet introduced her to Canby Hall. She’s a voracious reader, but I feel like she has the rest of her life to read about teenagers and adults, so why not enjoy reading about children now? She’s into all the kid books by Enid Blyton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Sarah Mlynowski … so I’ll probably hold off on Canby Hall with her for a few more years. Besides, when she sees the effort devoted to this blog, she’ll need to be old enough to handle a high level of concern about her mother’s mental state.) Since this was the first book in the series I read and I knew nothing about the characters at the time, I thought the girl in the crown on the cover was Princess Allegra, rather than Andy just clowning around, so for the longest time, in my mind Allegra was black. Which does not make a lot of sense in terms of European monarchies, but where I really should have realized my error was the fact that she (**SPOILER ALERT FOR A 30-YEAR OLD BOOK**) got together with Randy, since these ghostwriters would never have dreamed of portraying an interracial relationship. That should have been your first clue, Much! But I’m ahead of myself.
We open on the girls attempting to study for finals but getting distracted by the beautiful spring weather. Andy shows up with yet another care package from home, and announces that the dining hall is serving “Tuna Surprise” for dinner. Jane asks if the surprise is food poisoning. Apropos of nothing, Andy segues into her desperation to get into an advanced-level dance class the following year. She’s working hard on an original dance routine for the audition. Is Canby Hall an arts institute, for heavens’ sake? I have never heard of a regular high school where the students had to put this much effort into getting into a dance class. Or where this many dance performances and/or school plays are put on each year. (Remember how many plays Shelley was in?) Toby is worried about her horse Max, because her dad offhandedly mentioned in a letter that he had a cough. This is why being a person of few words doesn’t pay off, people. Because the one or two words you do choose to utter end up being imbued with tremendous import and THEN WE READERS HAVE TO HEAR ABOUT IT FOR THE REST OF THE BOOK. Meredith the housemother (A.K.A. Alison 2.0) shows up to tell them they’re wanted at headmistress PA’s house. The girls get all nervous and wonder what they’ve done wrong, because PA never summons students “unless they’re in trouble.” Uh, have we forgotten about the Open House just one book ago? Didn’t she summon you then? And, like, a million other times? Anyway, they head over to PA’s house (man, how much easier all of this would have been once e-mail was invented) to find out that there’s another prospective student PA wants them to show around: Her Royal Highness, Princess Allegra of Montavia.
Toby speaks for us all when she asks, “Where is that? What is that?” Jane informs her, and us, that it’s a “small country in Europe. About the size of Monte Carlo but not as flashy. It’s famous for its skiing, its lakes, and its international banking.” So, basically, a fake Monaco. They head over to Pizza Pete’s, where they run into Maggie, Dee and Cary and tell them the news. Cary muses that Allegra is a “beautiful name.” I’m afraid I don’t agree, Mr. Slade. The only thing I can think of when I hear the name Allegra is allergies. Anyway, Cary offers to have his ridiculous band Ambulance play a song for the princess, which will impress her so much that she’ll have to choose Canby Hall. While I am attempting to wrap my mind around this leap of logic, Jane tries to gently tell Cary that she doesn’t think princesses like rock music. Surprisingly, Cary is not the least bit insulted.
Since Princess Allegra will be staying for a week with her bodyguards, they’re going to need rooms. Conveniently, there are two empty rooms in Baker House. Just how many spare rooms are there in this dorm, anyway? First Baker took in all the displaced girls after the storm, and now this? Also, one room is on the fifth floor and one is in the basement. The bodyguards will be five floors away from the person they’re supposed to protect? And in addition, the students are in charge of painting and decorating the rooms — and these students include the boyfriends from Oakley Prep. Do the Oakley Prep guys not have anything to do on their own campus and for their own academic lives? I’m trying to think of what could have possibly convinced me to do free home improvement work for dorms at a school I didn’t go to, and I’m coming up with very little. Anyway, Andy and Toby have a powwow and comment that this royalty stuff is right up Jane’s alley, so they privately hope she will take over hosting duties with Princess Allegra and leave them free and clear.
The gang gets the rooms ready. Jane solicits donations of lamps, plants and towels from the other students. Seriously, the school isn’t providing those, for heaven’s sake? Cary hopes Allegra will be able to give them the inside scoop on other royalty, because he wants to know, “Are Fergie and Andy really happy?” Alas, Cary, as you and the rest of us will find out in about six years … not so much.
Jane is determined to help Canby Hall make a good impression on the princess, who’s on a tour of U.S. schools before deciding which one to attend. Andy is still obsessed with working on her dance routine. Toby is worried because she has no idea how to act around royalty, and she’s still freaking out about her horse’s cough. She could just, you know, call her dad and ask what’s going on, but she claims to be afraid to do that. Also, we would lose about 50 pages of plot, so silly me! She runs into Randy, there’s some exposition about how she still gets butterflies around him even though she’s now sort of seeing Neal, and she asks Randy if they can bring the princess out to his farm to ride sometime. Fatefully, he consents.
Princess Allegra finally arrives at Canby Hall with great fanfare and is greeted by crowds of curious and/or admiring students. Jane takes her turn at entertaining first, by escorting Allegra on a tour of the Canby Hall campus. This kind of thing really lights Jane’s fire, so she blathers on about each of the landmarks, including the building her grandfather donated. But then she looks over and notices Allegra yawning. At that exact moment, awful Gigi Norton happens to be passing by and snarks that Jane is already boring the princess. Allegra sweetly shuts Gigi down on Jane’s behalf. When Jane then suggests lunch at the Greenleaf Inn, Allegra kindly explains that what’s really going on is she’s tired of being treated differently just because she’s a princess. She wants to be treated like any other Canby Hall student. She doesn’t want to be handled with care and given special experiences, she wants to eat in the dining hall and sneak in after curfew like everyone else. Turns out Her Royal Highness of Montavia is just a regular teenaged girl. Jane is flummoxed.
Andy takes her turn entertaining Allegra next. At first Andy is annoyed at the intrusion, since she has her stupid dance routine to work on (plus final exams to study for, but PRIORITIES, people.) But then they walk into town so Andy can practice at the auditorium while her boyfriend Matt offers helpful critiques. Why is Andy practicing at an auditorium in town, instead of the school auditorium? This makes no sense. Anyway, Matt tells her the routine is great but too much. She should cut out a few moves and calm it down a bit. Then Andy and Allegra go to the Greaf Cafe. Andy notes that she didn’t have lunch so she’s starving. Allegra comments that she did have lunch, and the sooner she can get something else in her stomach, the sooner she can forget what it tasted like. Andy realizes that the princess has a sense of humour. Cary waits on them and Allegra jokes around with him too. She and Andy proceed to talk over cheeseburgers, and Andy gets an idea of what the life of a real princess is really like: very regimented, isolated, and boring. And then Allegra drops her bombshell: she’s engaged. To Prince Frederick of Almare, a (fake) principality that borders Montavia. After the wedding, the two countries will be joined. Allegra got her parents to agree to her coming to school in the States for a year by threatening to break her engagement.
Turns out Allegra and Frederick have been groomed for each other forever. She’s 17 and he’s 34. They’re going to get married right after her high school graduation because it will benefit both countries and she can’t delay it too long. Andy is dumbfounded. Allegra says that she and Andy have something in common, because people see Allegra’s royal title first rather than who she really is, in the same way that people probably see Andy’s skin colour first rather than who she really is. So they’re both used to sticking out like sore thumbs. (This discussion confused me to no end back when I thought Allegra was also black.) Andy realizes she and Allegra could be friends.
That night, they throw an impromptu after-hours party in 407 for Allegra, who brings a basket of fresh fruit and a box of French chocolates, cementing her friendship with all the girls. (Except Toby, who’s still brooding over Max.) Jane tells Toby to just call her dad already and Toby is too freaked to do so. She agrees to give it three days and call if she hasn’t heard from him by then.
Next it’s Toby’s turn to take the princess around. She takes Allegra and the bodyguards to the Crowell farm to go riding. Randy and Allegra (who’s beautiful, naturally, in case I forgot to mention that) hit it off. And after an afternoon riding together, Toby realizes that “Randy had fallen – but not from his horse.” DUN DUN DUUUN!!!
Back at the dining hall that evening, Maggie rushes up to the girls with news: She was in town buying batteries for her Walkman (I told you, quintessential ’80s!) when she saw Randy and Princess Allegra going into Pizza Pete’s together. The girls are all excited over a potential real-life fairy-tale romance unfolding before their eyes (though they do wonder how Randy feels with two burly bodyguards watching their every move.) Toby quietly leaves the table without a word. Jane and Andy chalk this up to her being too worried about her horse to care about a budding romance. But it’s really that Toby is bummed about losing Randy to Allegra. Even though she’s kind of been seeing Neal, deep down she’d always hoped that one day Randy would wake up and realize that their 5-year age difference didn’t matter at all. And when Toby gets bummed, what does she do? She shuts down. So she goes back to 407, rolls herself up in her Army blanket, and turns to the wall. Jane and Andy, concerned because she won’t talk to them, wonder why Toby’s father is putting her through so much worry about Max. Why doesn’t he tell her what’s happening? They feel bad for Toby and agree to talk to her about it the following day. Later that night after they’ve all gone to sleep, there’s a tap at the door. It’s Allegra, who needs to talk. She’s in love.
In love? After one afternoon? Mine eyes, they rolleth so hard.
Andy and Jane go up to the princess’s room (nowadays all of this could have been taken care of by text), where she tells them she’s on top of the world because she’s fallen in love with Randy Crowell and he feels the same about her. When Andy tactfully mentions Prince Frederick, Allegra says she doesn’t want to think about her inconvenient fiance just now. She needs the girls’ help. First, with her clothes. Up until now her clothes have been depicted as exquisite, expensive and stylish (I’ve spared you the descriptions) but now she says they’re too boring and conventional. She wants to look hip, like Andy, so she asks if she can borrow Andy’s clothes. Every time Andy is described, she’s wearing some variation of a sweatsuit, so I really don’t understand this. But whatevs. Next, Allegra needs them to help her and Randy get a little privacy by escaping from her bodyguards, Joseph and Rodger. The girls agree.
They sneak back down to their room, which incidentally is messy again. Jane had cleaned her side when Allegra first arrived, but says that once she realized the princess was just a normal girl, she went back to her old ways. Andy muses that perhaps they’ll get lucky and a duchess will visit next. Toby wakes up and asks where they’ve been. When they tell her they’re going to help Allegra get alone time with Randy, Toby rolls back towards the wall. Somehow her roommates don’t put two and two together.
The next day Andy and Jane are standing in the Baker House lobby at Allegra’s instructions. Joseph and Rodger are there too, waiting for her. PA walks by and wonders what the 407 girls are doing, twiddling their thumbs, when finals are coming up. They tell her they’re waiting for the princess. PA immediately asks how Allegra is liking Canby Hall, and with straight faces they tell the headmistress that Allegra has fallen in love. Out the window, they see Randy’s pickup truck drive by. At that minute a piercing scream echoes through the dorm. Everyone, especially the bodyguards who up until now have been in danger of dying from boredom, hurries up to the fifth floor, where Merry’s and Allegra’s rooms are located. Jane and Andy, heeding Allegra’s instructions, are the only ones to stay rooted to the spot, feeling like fools. So they’re the only ones to see Randy’s pickup truck drive by again, this time with two people in it.
Turns out a girl from Addison House who collects autographs had gone up to Allegra’s room to ask for hers. But she glanced at the floor and saw a huge furry spider, so she screamed bloody murder. The spider was, of course, a toy. But after the commotion dies down, Merry wonders why the hullabaloo didn’t wake Allegra. Just then the bodyguards show up, worried because they’ve discovered that Allegra’s not in her room. There’s a page or two of exposition, in which the guards say they were told to wait for her in the lobby, and Jane and Andy say she’s not with them, etc. etc., until finally Merry gets wise and asks Jane and Andy point-blank if they know where Allegra is. They say, why yes they do. She’s at the Crowell farm. Why didn’t anyone ask? The bodyguards dash out the door. Merry asks them how much time this nonsense has bought Allegra. They tell her about half an hour. Merry tells them that if Allegra is going to all this trouble to spend time with a boy, then that boy must be very special. But she advises them not to get on the bodyguards’ bad side.
Thus begins Allegra’s modus operandi, which turns out to be a huge game for the students. The princess plans her outings with Randy, tells one girl where she’s going, and when Joseph and Rodger start asking around, that girl tells them. By the time the bodyguards find Allegra, she and Randy have had half an hour to 45 minutes to themselves. (If the princess and her bodyguards had rooms ON THE SAME FLOOR she might find it slightly more difficult to continuously give them the slip, I can’t help but mention.) In the midst of all the love connection excitement, Jane and Andy remember Toby’s misery again, and finally decide to do something about it. They call her dad in Texas to extract the truth about Max from him, since Toby won’t do it. After being stunned at the fact that Mr. Houston thinks she has an accent, Jane learns that when Toby’s dad wrote that Max had a cough, he wasn’t talking about Max the horse. He was actually talking about Max, her uncle. (On her mother’s side, he adds helpfully.) Both Maxes are now doing great. Why anyone would bother to mention in a handwritten letter that a grown adult coughed is beyond me, but OK. Thrilled to be able to ease Toby’s mind, Jane and Andy rush off to find her. When they do find her looking miserable in the library, they nearly shout the good news, and Toby momentarily smiles. But when they suggest celebrating with a party that includes Allegra, she shuts down again, leaving her roommates disappointed and confused.
Toby is depressed, and normally when she’s feeling down she craves wide-open spaces and seeks refuge at the Crowell farm. But now, of course, she can’t do that. She’s gotten a letter from Neal inviting her to go sailing with his family, but she’s already decided to say no, go home to Texas for the summer, and be depressed there. Girl, you have another, far more age-appropriate guy interested in you – I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot here. But then, no one is paying me for my opinions.
Back at the room, Andy and Jane are racking their brains to figure out what else could be bothering Toby. Allegra shows up with water biscuits because she needs to talk and she knows Jane likes to eat. I never knew what water biscuits were, but because of this book I always thought they sounded so elegant. Now I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, Allegra is weepy because her week at Canby Hall is almost over, and in two days she’ll have to leave Randy. My goodness, all of this has only been less than a week? Andy and Jane try to cheer her up by saying that it’s only three months till the new school year begins, and since Allegra will clearly be choosing Canby Hall, she’ll be back before she knows it. The princess counters that, once her parents find out about Randy (because her bodyguards will be required to provide a report on her activities) they probably won’t let her come back to the States at all. As she smoothes the blanket on Toby’s bed, she suddenly asks, “Toby doesn’t like me, does she?” When Jane and Andy disagree, she muses that since Randy and Toby were as close as siblings, Allegra had thought she and Toby would be close too, but that hasn’t turned out to be the case. After she leaves, Jane and Andy self-flagellate for not seeing WHAT WAS IN FRONT OF THEIR EYES THE ENTIRE TIME, which is that Toby is upset that Randy has fallen for Allegra. They agree they need to talk to Toby. At that moment, a voice from the doorway tells them to go ahead and talk. Toby has arrived. However, when they try to tell her they know why she’s been so down, she wraps herself up in her blanket again, says talking just causes more trouble, and goes to sleep.
The next day Toby gets up and out early and goes to blow off steam on the tennis courts with Dee. She originally started playing tennis to impress Randy, but now she enjoys it of her own volition. She’s beating Dee, but when Randy drives by in his truck, probably to pick up Allegra, and cheers Toby on from his window, she loses the game.
Andy and Matt are practicing her dance routine AGAIN, and then they meet Jane and Cary at the Greaf. Cary informs them that Princess Allegra actually loves rock music and told him that if she could see Ambulance play live, she’d treasure the experience for the rest of her life. (Laying it on a leetle thick, Allegra.) So they decide to throw a big going-away party for her, with Ambulance as the entertainment. Andy and Jane muse between themselves that Toby will never agree to come. But Jane wisely points out that it’s not like things will just magically get better once Allegra leaves. Randy’s already fallen for her, and that’s not going to change back. (Really? They’re in love with each other forever? After five days? And with Allegra’s wedding taking place 7 books from now? **BELATED SPOILER ALERT**)
Back at school, Meredith corners Andy and Jane, saying that PA is concerned because Allegra seems much less happy than she did at the beginning of the week, and Merry herself found Allegra crying in her room. Andy and Jane tell her to let the princess be for now. They then run into Allegra, who apologizes for Meredith’s concern, but says she didn’t want to share her troubles with the housemother because it won’t help. She’s got to marry Frederick no matter what. The 407 girls tell her about the going-away party, and they all become melancholy. As they leave the fourth floor, the broom closet door opens and Toby emerges, having ducked in there to avoid her friends. She heard them talking, and feels a little bad for Allegra, but still worse for herself, so she goes back to the room and rolls herself up in her blanket again. She’s awoken by Andy, who’s determined to finally have an open conversation about this drama. Said conversation ensues, and ends with Toby saying things will go back to normal after Allegra leaves, and Andy saying “that would mean [Randy] didn’t care much about her. Do you really think he doesn’t?”
The next day Andy and Jane are headed to town, the former to practice her dance routine at the auditorium AGAIN, and the latter to buy more yellow highlighters. (That’s Jane’s thing in this book, that she loves to highlight. I can’t make too much fun of this, since all through med school and college far more pages of my textbooks were highlighted than unhighlighted. Seriously, I would highlight entire paragraphs, which sort of defeats the purpose.) They run into Maggie and Dee, who ask if they want to chip in on a goodbye present for Allegra. They hesitate, wondering if it will hurt Toby’s feelings, then decide to do so. Andy gives them a dollar bill and some change. Oh, the days when that amount of cash could actually purchase something.
Andy runs through her entire performance at the auditorium, then startles when she hears a voice. Turns out the teacher of the advanced dance class has been watching the entire routine, because she just happened to be passing by. Who passes by a public auditorium and goes inside just to see people putzing around? Andy is heartened when the teacher offers a piece of advice, which is to not change a thing.
That night the Canby Hall girls and Oakley Prep guys are getting ready for the party. (The boys’ headmaster agreed to let them use the Oakley Prep gym after Cary started talking about saving international relations.) Since the party was on short notice and no one had had time to buy decorations, they were using a mixture of old ones, which meant that pictures of Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny were being taped to the walls. What kind of high schoolers are these, I ask you?
At the party that night, Ambulance is in their element and everyone’s having a great time, but the guest of honour is late. Suddenly Randy bursts in, wild-eyed, and rushes up to the 407 girls, asking if they know where Allegra is. No, they don’t, because she was supposed to be riding with him. Joseph and Rodger are close behind, also looking for their charge. Allegra is missing.
Cut to PA’s house. Randy is explaining that Allegra was supposed to meet him at the Greaf, but she wasn’t there when he arrived. The bodyguards say that she did get there, then went to the restroom, and they later found out that she snuck out through a side door. (This was two hours before, by the way. She’s been pulling these tricks on her bodyguards for a week and they still manage to lose her for over two hours? I say a job performance review is in order!) Everyone tries to brainstorm where Allegra could be. The bodyguards conclude she’s been kidnapped. PA contacts the police and the FBI.
Completely illogically, Andy and Jane are shocked. I quote:
“Greenleaf was such a quiet, peaceful little place. Not that it didn’t have its share of problems, but kidnapping just seemed completely out of place in a town where three parking tickets and a broken-into vending machine were a big day for the police. Could Greenleaf, Massachusetts really be the site of a kidnapping?”
IT ALREADY WAS, YOU FOOLS!!! A girl you personally know, who LIVED IN YOUR DORM ROOM, was kidnapped just a few years before! How soon we forget.
Meredith calls a meeting of the Baker House girls to let them know what’s going on. I have my doubts as to the wisdom of notifying a hundred teenage girls of a possible crime against an international political figure that may or may not have happened, but nevertheless, it’s what she does, in case a ransom call comes into one of their rooms. Uh, OK. Andy, Jane and the others are up most of the night talking and worrying about Allegra.
Meanwhile, Toby has gone off on her own for a walk in the rain. Randy drives by, helping with the search. Though he’s worried sick, he thinks to ask how Max is doing. Toby is touched by his concern. Then, on a hunch, she walks to the Greenleaf bus station, where she finds Princess Allegra.
It turns out that Allegra came up with a spur-of-the-moment plan to escape. She concocted a disguise from the lost-and-found box, slipped out of the Greaf, dodged the policemen she saw on the streets, and hid at the bus station. Her plan was to run (though to where, she didn’t actually know) and then write letters from wherever she ended up. Excellent scheme! She tells Toby that she knows she’ll have to go home, and that what she and Randy have won’t last, and she can’t bear it. Toby tells her that if Randy cares about her now, he’ll always care about her. Famous last words, I say, since, again, we will be reading about Allegra’s wedding in about 7 books, and it ain’t to Randy Crowell. (**BELATED SPOIL — oh, who are we kidding.) But anyway, back in the here and now (the here and now being 1987) Toby realizes that what she’s said is true. While Randy will always care about Allegra, he will also always care about Toby. This revelation heartens her, and she tells Allegra why running away is a bad idea – one Toby tried herself back in the day before being talked out of it. And then, like the hero she is, Toby escorts Allegra back to Canby Hall.
The next day is the day of the princess’s departure. She comes by 407 to return Andy’s clothes. Andy says that the next time Allegra comes, Andy will borrow from her. Allegra says sadly that that’s not going to happen. Once they find out about Randy, her parents will not allow her to return. So she’s going to go home, do what they want, marry Frederick, and cherish her memories of Canby Hall. Andy argues that they are in the twentieth century, not the sixteenth (and even the twentieth sounds so ancient now, doesn’t it?) and modern girls need to fight for what they want instead of just giving up. Allegra realizes that Andy is right and asks her to write periodically to help keep up her courage. Yes, royalty needs plebes like us to buck them up. And with that, the entire school sees Princess Allegra off in her limo – but not before giving her their present first, which is a candle shaped like a cheeseburger. Guess not too many girls chipped in for that gift.
OK, so despite being intensely improbable, this book did not suck, and the ghostwriter Carol Ellis succeeded in making the princess genuinely likable. I do wonder why Gigi Norton didn’t stick her nose into this visiting-royalty business more, but if anyone else was missing her, we won’t have to miss her for long, because up next is the second Canby Hall book I ever read, in which (**SUPER-SUBTLE SPOILER ALERT**) the lovely Gigi figures prominently. Also, there are only 9 books left in the series to recap. We’re into the single digits, baby!