Boxcar Children #4 is called "Mystery Ranch". The book begins with an angry Grandfather storming into the house. He has bad news about his sister, Jane.
Yeah, the Boxcar Children have another relative that Grandfather hasn't told them about, in the past two years.
Yeah, he's got a sister who he hasn't mentioned at all in the past two years. She probably should have come up during the orphan custody dispute in the first book.
Aunt Jane is sickly and bedridden. She's very grumpy, and she refuses to let the maid eat any food. Now the maid is slowly starving to death. No, I'm not joking. The maid would rather DIE than break the "no eating food" rule. How is Aunt Jane enforcing this rule, anyway? She literally cannot get out of bed. What stops the maid from having a snack in the kitchen and not telling anyone?
Violet and Jessie go to Aunt Jane's ranch, in order to resolve this ridiculous situation. They're very excited to help take care of their aunt. When they arrive at Aunt Jane's town, a man helps them take their bags off the train, then he leaves. That seems normal to me, but Violet and Jessie insist that he is a MYSTERY MAN! Who is he? What is he doing here? Why should we care about the guy who only said four sentences?
The girls meet Aunt Jane, and things play out just like the Mrs. Snow storyline from Pollyanna, in that the nice young girls cheer up the crabby old lady, and she transforms into a kind, wonderful woman.
How long does it take to reform the murderous Aunt Jane? Two sentences. That's all. The girls talk to her, and she instantly falls in love with them. For a mean old lady, Aunt Jane sure is nice!
Oh, and also the girls make food for the maid, so she doesn't starve.
This is the point in the book where the culprits appear. They are three rough men, and they try to bully Aunt Jane into selling the ranch to them. Sadly, the book completely skips over the part with the culprits, in favor of a chapter about Jessie sending a telegram. Because who cares about mysteries in a mystery book? Telegrams are so much more interesting!
In fact, the Boxcar Children never see the culprits at any point, ever. Whenever the culprits do something, we hear about it second-hand. It's like the entire mystery takes place when nobody's looking.
The boys come to the ranch, and Aunt Jane instantly falls in love with their pet dog. She soon decides to give the ranch to the Boxcar Children. Yes. She hasn't known them for more than two weeks, but she decides to give them a 1,280 acre ranch for free. They're just such nice kids!
Now that the kids own the ranch, they decide to explore it. They find the culprit's hideout, which is a hut and a firepit near some weird rocks. The rocks look just like the rocks in Aunt Jane's chimney!
Offscreen, Henry talks with the neighbors about the hut and the culprits. They decide to take the matter to the local sheriff. By the time the kids arrive, the mystery is over! Offscreen, the sheriff arrested the culprits.
Mystery man is revealed to be Mr. Carter. Grandfather hired him to search this part of the country for uranium. Um...is Grandfather trying to build an atomic bomb? Normally, mill owners don't hire people to search for uranium. Anyway, that explains all the weird rocks on the property! They're uranium!
Hey, maybe that's why Aunt Jane is bedridden. She got uranium poisoning from her chimney.
Grandfather steps in and starts a huge mining operation on the ranch. Grandfather is reunited with his sister, and the kids buy Aunt Jane a puppy.
When I read this series as a kid, I stopped at this book and gave up on the Boxcar Children. It's a bad book in general, and it's an even worse mystery. We never get to meet the culprits! The mystery is solved by the random guy who was nice to the girls on the train! By huge coincidence, Grandfather just HAPPENS to be one of the two people searching the area for uranium!
It would have been so much better if Mystery Man had been the culprit. Sure, he only shows up for half a page before the end, but at least he's a character with a name, unlike the culprits.
I did like seeing the kids make friends with Aunt Jane, but I think it could have been done better, if we ever got to see the mean version of Aunt Jane. The Aunt Jane we get isn't all that mean. At worst, she's kind of picky and impatient, which is understandable, 'cause she's a sick old lady who hasn't left her bed in who knows how long.
Or IS she sick? At one point, Aunt Jane shuts the door to her room by herself, and the girls figure that Aunt Jane is faking her illness for attention. That was surprisingly mean-spirited of them.
Overall, this is a bad book, with no mystery. It's just the kids visiting a relative and being nice to her, while all the interesting things happen offscreen. It's bland and forgetable, and I'd recommend skipping it. I give Boxcar Children 4, Mystery Ranch, a 1 out of 10.