Chasing Vermeer Summary

Blue Balliett

Chasing Vermeer

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Chasing Vermeer Summary

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Chasing Vermeer (2004) by Blue Balliett, an American children’s author, follows two Chicago-area teenagers as they fight to recover a stolen, famous painting by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Brett Helquist, who also illustrated A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, illustrated Chasing Vermeer. In addition to becoming a bestseller, the novel won the 2005 Edgar Award, the top honor for a children’s mystery book. Balliett, a sixth grader teacher, wrote the book to present her students with an entertaining text that took on substantial and current issues in the art world. These issues reflect the work’s themes, which include the nature of art, the essence of fabrication, the arbitrary nature of power, and the work involved with truly understanding art.

The book opens with the mysterious arrival of three letters to the homes of three different people. The letter is not signed and has no return address. It informs the recipients that “a great injustice” has been done to a famous painter, and this person – with the help of the three people who have received the letter – wants to right the wrong. All three people, one man and two women, react ambivalently to this letter; they don’t know if they can trust this person, and it’s possible that this is some prank, but their curiosity and sense of right and wrong is on high alert. Calder Pillay is twelve. His name is inspired by the American artist Alexander Calder. Calder is an ambitious kid and, along with his friend Tommy Segovia (who has recently moved to New York City to live with his new stepfather), decide that they’re going to do great things, such as become so smart that they can skip a grade. His ambition has a supportive environment, as he lives in Hyde Park, Chicago, near the renowned University of Chicago; he is surrounded by curious and educated people.

Calder observes that his peer, fellow 12-year-old Petra Andalee, is not just weird like him, but “exceptionally” weird. She rarely speaks and has few, if any, friends. Petra dreams of becoming a writer. In interviews, Balliett said that her name comes from the sand temples in Petra, Jordan. During his first week of sixth grade with Ms. Hussey, a teacher based off of Balliett, Calder finds himself enjoying the class. Unlike most of his previous teachers, Ms. Hussey is open to changing the curriculum toward whatever interests them, or “what gets interested in us.”  Ms. Hussey is a major art fan and introduces them to several works by Johannes Vermeer. The one that Petra and Calder become intently interested in an oil painting called A Lady Writing (1665). This common interest leads them to become friends. Aspiring writer Petra often hangs out around Powell’s Books, a local bookstore owned by an observant, middle-aged man named Mr. Watch. One day, Petra buys a used book called Lo!, an enigmatic book by Charles Fort that will assist her in her future trials. Petra and Calder also strike up a friendship with an elderly woman named Mrs. Sharpe. She is a fan of Charles Fort and tells Petra all about him. She’s also a major fan of Vermeer.

One day, the children learn that A Lady Writing disappeared while being transporting from its permanent home at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. to a temporary exhibit in Chicago. Soon after, the local paper publishes an anonymous letter by the thief. The thief states that he will not return the painting until someone can prove which paintings are authentic Vermeers. Most people are outraged by this, but Calder and Petra decide to track down the painting themselves. As the duo begin rounding up information to help their investigation, Helquist, the illustrator of Chasing Vermeer, draws clues on every page that help the reader find the painting along with Calder and Petra. As Calder and Petra chase the lost Vermeer, their friendship grows stronger. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sharpe, who has been noticing suspicious activity in her neighborhood, requests police protection. The children discover that Mrs. Sharpe, as well as Ms. Hussey, were the two female recipients of the mysterious letter.

Following the clues, Calder and Petra realize that the hidden painting is in Delia Dell Hall at the University of Chicago. They find the painting in an alcove and take it. They trigger the alarm, and run to escape. Eventually, they are able to thwart the thief’s clutches and escape with the painting.

Later, they learn that the thief, Xavier Glitts, had a massive heart attack on a train and died. They also learn that Glitts was a notorious art thief whose nickname was Glitter Man. Furthering deepening the mystery is the revelation that Xavier Glitts was the alter ego of Tommy’s mean stepfather, Fred Steadman. Toward the end of the book, Petra and Calder discover that the third person who received the enigmatic letter was Mr. Watch. The sender of these letters remains a mystery. A Lady Writing is restored back into the protective hands of a museum. All of the children are safe from Glitter Man, and Tommy Segovia will be returning to Chicago to join them in future adventures.