This book opens with Mallory writing in her journal. As usual, her main focus is on how much she hates being eleven and is dying to be thirteen.
So she’s psyched when she gets the chance to bring super cool thirteen-year-old Stacey McGill a tuna casserole. As you probably remember, Stacey and her mom recently moved back to Stoneybrook and live in the house behind the Pikes’. Mallory brings the casserole over and finds Mrs. McGill, Stacey, and Claudia unpacking. She sticks around. The girls bring some boxes up to the attic and find a bunch of stuff left behind by previous occupants, including a cool old trunk. Stacey and her mom don’t want it, so they say Mallory can have it. She’s excited, because she thinks it’s full of mystery.
Unfortunately, the trunk is locked. It takes a week before Mal can break into it (using a hammer, a wrench, a crowbar, and the help of her brothers). When she does, she finds a lot of antique clothes, lacy and handsewn, and then (at the bottom of the trunk) a diary. Inside it says, “This is my book, by Sophie… And this is a year in my life – 1894.” Whoa. That shit old. Mallory can’t wait to read it.
She’s also got a brand-new job as Buddy Barrett’s reading tutor. He isn’t reading at the same level as his classmates and Mrs. Barrett doesn’t have time to help him, so the job falls to Mal. She’s excited, though; she wants to help Buddy learn to love reading like she does. (God, Mallory, don’t make him only read horse stories.) She quickly finds out that it’s a lot harder than expected. Buddy hates flashcards and doesn’t like feeling dumb, so it’s going to be a big job to turn him into a superstar reader.
Mallory doesn’t dwell on it for too long before she gets wrapped up in Sophie’s 1894 diary. She finds out that twelve-year-old Sophie is obsessed with a boy named Paul who finally turns out to like her too, and that Sophie’s mom gives birth to a baby but then dies two days later. A few weeks after Sophie’s mom’s death, a portrait of her disappeared from Sophie’s grandfather’s house. Her grandfather blamed Sophie’s father, and Sophie’s family (her, her family, and her brother) are shunned and disowned, getting no money from her grandfather’s will. Sophie’s dad Jared had a shady past (as a thief) but she didn’t want to believe this about him. Sophie’s last entry says she vows to clear her father’s name so that their spirits don’t haunt their home after they die, instead of moving on to the next world.
Mallory is like OH SHIT, STACEY’S HOUSE IS HAUNTED. That would explain why so many people have moved in and out of Stacey’s house over the past decade or so, and why the McGills got such a big, old house at a decent price. The plot thickens!
The BSC decides they should try to solve the mystery. First, they wonder if Sophie’s grandfather is James Hickman, also known as Old Hickory, who supposedly haunts the Stoneybrook cemetery. (Remember, the girls were lured to his grave in Mary Anne and the Bad Luck Mystery?) Supposedly Old Hickory was very wealthy but also stingy and mean and left all of his money to a long-lost nephew. Seems like he could be the culprit! Then Dawn wonders if Sophie’s dad Jared is Jared Mullray, who supposedly haunts her secret passage. WHAAAAT. She decides she needs to go back and re-read her History of Stoneybrooke book. They all agree on one thing – that Sophie is not a suspect in the portrait theft.
Meanwhile, Mallory finally has a breakthrough with Buddy. She decides to use comic books to help him enjoy reading – and it works! They even take turns making up their own comics (reading and writing go hand in hand, you know) and finally Buddy is having fun learning to read.
Mallory decides the girls should have a séance at Stacey’s house to try to contact the spirits of Sophie and/or Jared. Some of the BSCers (Kristy and Stacey) are skeptical but everyone agrees to do it. Kristy demands to be the channeler, even though Mallory wanted to be. Kristy shows up for the séance dressed as a gypsy and demands to be called Madame Kristin. (Friggin’ weirdo.) She hams it up but the BSC does not make contact with any restless spirits. Stacey baby-sits Charlotte Johanssen and tells her all about the Sophie mystery. Charlotte, who likes mysteries herself, gives Stacey some advice: things aren’t always what they appear to be, sometimes something’s right in front of your nose and you don’t realize it, and that there’s always a culprit – somebody always knows something, even if it’s only the person who did it.
During Mallory’s next tutoring session with Buddy Barrett, she brings some Encyclopedia Brown books and they take turns solving the mysteries. Then she clues Buddy in to the Sophie mystery, and he wants to read the diary. They go to Mal’s house, where he does, but he’s disappointed to not find any clues. Then – genius – he’s like “maybe the clue’s not in the diary, maybe it’s in the trunk.” DUH! He fiddles around in the trunk and his hand gets stuck. Turns out he’s found a secret pocket, and when Mallory pulls his hand out it’s holding a bunch of papers titled “James Hickman: My Confession”. TWIST!
Turns out Old Hickory had been so sad after his daughter’s death that he’d hired someone to paint over her portrait, reframe it, and move it to another room. When people questioned him about where the portrait had gone and they surmised that Jared had stolen it, he let them believe it because of his disapproval of Jared. Buddy and Mal are like WHOA. But Buddy’s also wondering how the trunk ended up at Sophie’s house… and if the trunk ended up there, maybe the painting did too!
Buddy and Mallory race to Stacey’s house, where they all search the attic and finally find a painting. It’s a painting of ships, but the paint has chipped away in one corner and there’s a finger with a ring on it! Mrs. McGill agrees to take the painting to an art restorer to see what’s what. When Mallory drops Buddy off at home, Mrs. Barrett expresses her thanks for Mallory’s help in getting Buddy to enjoy reading and improve so much. Later in the week he calls Mallory to let her know he got moved from the lowest reading group to the middle reading group in his class, and he read a chapter book all by himself. Her heart practically explodes. Then there’s the good news that Stacey’s mom had the painting restored and it is a portrait of (probably) Sophie’s mom and the McGills are going to hang it above their mantle.
Not to mention… Dawn’s mom and Mary Anne’s dad are celebrating an anniversary – their twenty-fifth date as adults (weird anniversary but whatever). Dawn and Mary Anne think things are getting pretty serious. I’m sure we’ll find out soon…