For the past three years, our family has celebrated the end of summer with a week in the mountains at the same off-the grid cabin. Over time, certain features of the place have woven themselves into our memories, like familiar friends with whom we can’t wait to reunite. We all delight in the view of the pond, the panorama of the mountains, and how the peaks deepen to shades of violet and misty blue as the sun sets. My husband relishes the (slim) chance that we might catch our dinner in a lake. Our daughter pines for the rope swing dangling from a tree limb, and I marvel at the dozens of monarch butterflies alighting on thistles outside the cabin. Whatever our unique joys and preferences, however, all of us cherish a newfound family tradition during these trips: Mystery Theater in the Mountains.
My husband started the routine on a whim. When electricity is scarce, the rise and fall of the sun dictates your day. Wondering how to spend the hour or two when the sun sinks too low for activity, but little minds are still snapping with energy, he grabbed an old copy of a mystery book that sat on his own shelf in boyhood. Years later, what began as an impulse has evolved into a beloved component of our vacation, as vital to the experience as hiking gear and roasted marshmallows. The kids snuggle next to me on the couch while the light dwindles behind the trees, and from a rocking chair Dad reads four or five chapters of a whodunnit, replete with haunting owl calls echoing from the woods, hidden trap doors, and mysterious clues littering the tale. As the story unfolds, the kids blurt out their suspicions, gasp at the unexpected, and scream — then laugh — when a sudden twist startles them.
There’s a special delight in these evenings. The suspense kids feel when wandering through a mystery is far removed from the nightmares that elicit tears. They perch on the edge of their seats, their eyes wide, their minds crackling with excitement, on the edge of joy. That joy bubbles up because in a well-written mystery for young people, the detectives always win. Justice will always be done. The good guys will triumph, the stolen jewelry will be returned, and all will be put right. All will be made new. There’s a safety in these stories that allows kids to enjoy the noises in the night, and to wonder at the footsteps on the creaky floors. Even in the shadows, they know the morning will come. The Light will return.
Even more important than the story genre, however, is the tradition of the thing, and its place in our days. Were we to delve into a fantasy, or classics, or any other category by twilight routinely, the kids would reap equal delights. Narnia would breeze into our cabin on the back of a frosty wind. Charlotte would weave her messages in the eaves. The stories would incorporate themselves into our surroundings, and burrow into our kids’ memories for years to come.
As we inch into fall and the busy-ness of work and school crowd out opportunities to steal away, consider how your next vacation might include a Literature Theater for your own family. Or, as the autumn days shorten and nightfall encroaches earlier, see the darkness as an opportunity. Seize the evening as a niche for stories. Create a new tradition. Choose a series, grab a chair, and watch your kids’ wonder unfold as the tales entrance them and chase away the shadows.
Featured photo by Kathryn Butler