On a winter excursion the Danas seek shelter in a cave and happen across Josie Sykes, a girl with a hunched back reading a letter. Startled, the girl lets the wind take the letter and a piece of green paper with it - revealed to be a $1000 bill! A fox takes the paper and vanishes.
The Danas do their best to help the distraught Josie find the bill and the letter to no avail. The letter had the only information Josie possessed on her only living family, an uncle. The girls offer to help Josie find a place to stay at Starhurst while she searches for her money and letter and they listen to her tale of woe. Josie has lived most of her life at a home for "crippled children", but was lately accused of theft and ran away because she was afraid they wouldn't believe her explanation for the $1000 bill. She wants to find her uncle, but also a way to live independently.
The language around disabled people has changed a great deal in 85 years, Josie is referred to as crippled mostly without malice, it was the appropriate word at the time. The Danas also endeavor to boost Josie up by not allowing her to define herself by her disability or accept the ridiculous judgements she receives from bullies like Lettie Briggs. There's nothing wrong with that side of Josie character. However, when the owner of the fox farm in broad daylight mistakes the teenage girl for a wild animal because of her hunched back and almost shoots her, we begin to have some difficulty.
Speaking of difficulty, the plot brings the Danas to their cousin's farm for the Christmas holiday, and, coincidentally, a neighbor has found Josie's letter with the money still inside of it! The issue comes when that neighbor's employer, an artist with a tower studio, has a black housekeeper called Mammy Cleo. Mammy Cleo speaks in dialect, but is shown to be knowledgeable of her employer's work and gives the Dana girls a guided tour of the studio, pointing out paintings of interest. A positive stereotype is still a stereotype, however. McFarlane - or the Stratemeyer Syndicate as they often made very specific instructions in their plot outlines - makes matters worse when we get to superstition and the language used to describe Cleo and other black people who come into the story. The reader is meant to sympathize with the rational Danas as they confront the ignorance and fear displayed by black people confronting Josie's "monstrous" silhouette or the sight of her on horseback. What the hell, McFarlane. What the fuck.
The real plot involves art theft and the Danas reuniting Josie with her uncle after Josie runs away. After the worse elements of the book are through, there is some comfort to discover that Josie gets herself a job and makes a career of it on her own, without the help of the Danas.
Context is important when reading books from a different era. Language evolves and its important for writers to attempt to tackle difficult subjects, even if they don't succeed. The problems of 'In the Shadow of the Tower' go beyond outmoded language and "cultureal expectations", however. Despite the efforts of the book to provide readers with a mostly positive depiction of a disabled person and the prejudice they face every day, it is undermined by prejudice of a different kind.
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