The Man in the Woods
(1984) is a young adult mystery by Rosemary Wells. High-school freshman Helen Curragh witnesses a crime, but when the police arrest the wrong person, Helen and her friend Pinky must find the real culprit before he harms Helen. As Helen follows a trail of clues that leads back to the Civil War, she must overcome chauvinistic and patronizing attitudes from adults who doubt her story. Over the course of the novel, Helen’s self-confidence grows. Rosemary Wells is the author of more than a hundred books for children and young adults. The Man in the Woods
was a Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award nominee in 1986.
Helen is starting her first year at New Bedford Regional High School in Massachusetts, and it is a big change from her old parochial school, St. Teresa’s. Helen doesn’t make friends easily; she is self-conscious about her frizzy hair and the fact that she looks too young to be a freshman. Helen’s mother died when she was just four, and she lives with her Irish father and her fussy and protective Aunt Stella.
Helen’s second day of school is a disaster. She locks her books, lunch, and gym clothes in her locker, then finds the combination doesn’t work. The only bright spot in her day is her history teacher, Mr. Brzostoski (“Mr. Bro”), who, noticing her artistic talent, gets her a position as a staff artist on the school newspaper, the Whaler
. The editor, Jerry, and his friend Barry aren’t enthusiastic about Helen’s political cartoons, worrying they’ll upset their biggest sponsor, Mr. Perry, an important businessman in town. Helen is relegated to drawing a Hummel figurine. Pinky Levy also works on the Whaler
. Helen finds Pinky’s bossy attitude toward girls annoying, but he does get her locker open.
On the way home from school, Helen and Pinky witness a car crash: someone throws a rock through the windshield of a passing car. Pinky and Helen help the injured driver and her young daughter. Helen sees a man walk into the woods and believes it is the rock thrower. She follows him into the woods but does not see his face, just a glimpse of a white t-shirt and sneakers. However, she does hear him whistling. Helen loses her special locket which contains a picture of her late mother.
When the police arrest fellow student Duane “Stubby” Atlas for the crime, Helen knows the police have the wrong person. Stubby is no angel: Helen knows he was kicked out of St. Teresa’s and his father is in prison for drug pushing, but she doesn’t think he was the “Punk Rock Thrower.” Stubby works for the business Perry and Crowe, loading trucks with Hummel figurines and trinkets.
Helen and Pinky become friends. Pinky’s father died years ago, and he lives with his Swedish mother who runs a respectable motel. Aunt Stella is suspicious of Pinky. Together Pinky and Helen search the woods for Helen’s locket. They don’t find it, but they do meet an elderly Wampanoag Indian who lives up in the woods and claims to see everything. Pinky and Helen return to the police and learn that the police were tipped-off to Stubby by a printed note. When they arrested Stubby, he had drugs in his possession. The police warn Helen and Pinky not to get involved. They are searching for a little red book that Stubby’s dad passed on to Stubby, who then lost it. The book contains the names of his drug contacts and other pushers. Stubby signs a confession.
Pinky notices that the tip-off note is printed in an unusual typeface that makes the letters raised. He and Helen take a copy to his Uncle Max, who identifies the printing as coming from a rare, pre-Civil War writing machine called a Thurber. Helen’s friend, Sister Ignatius Paul, observes that while the grammar and spelling on the note are terrible, the punctuation is correct, signifying an educated mind behind the note.
Helen’s locket is returned—but her mother’s eyes are gouged out of the photograph and an eerie red backing set behind them. Helen also receives a tape of someone whistling a Christmas song with the lyrics
, “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” The police don’t take these threats seriously.
Determined to find the old Thurber, Helen asks Mr. Bro for help. He assigns her a paper topic on Civil War-era writing machines. Helen and Pinky visit elderly Asa Roche who tells them about Civil War general Lorenzo Fairchild, a war profiteer and town benefactor, and his mysterious daughter Lucy, whose house burned down and who vanished mysteriously. The Fairchild family says Lucy never existed. Helen thinks she would like to write a story about Lucy for the Whaler
Helen and Pinky learn that Lucy’s husband was a Confederate soldier who went blind. They reason that Lucy owned the Thurber, which, with its raised lettering, acted as a kind of braille writer. They also learn that Lucy was sending ammunition and arms south to supply the Confederate troops. Mrs. Fairchild asks Helen not to write a story about Lucy.
Pinky and Helen discover that Lucy’s old house was at the end of an old rail line in the woods. They find a secret door leading down into the cellar. Inside, they see the Thurber and boxes of old medical supplies, including cans of morphine. The old Indian describes the man in the woods and Helen makes a sketch. Helen and Pinky call the police, but when they search the cellar, the morphine is gone. Helen suddenly recognizes the face in the sketch. She and Pinky go to the Perry and Crowe building and see Barry stuffing Hummel figurines with white powder. He has Stubby’s red book. The police apologize for not believing Helen and Pinky. Helen decides not to write about Lucy, thinking, “Enough wrong has been done, and enough right too.”