New children’s book unfurls life’s mysteries

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Jay Kaufman's debut novel is set in a fictional version of Edgartown.

The Mystery Of The Cliff House by Jay Henry Kaufman, oversize paperback, copyright Sept. 2014 by Jay Kaufman, 81 pages. $7.19. Available now on Amazon.

This week, reading Jay Kaufman’s first novel, a children’s book, I was reminded that the books we read as children have great power and enormous impact on our adult lives.

The Mystery of the Cliff House title rang a bell. I realized that the title was taking me back more than 50 years to the Hardy Boys detective mysteries, specifically to a title in the series with a vaguely similar name: The House on the Cliff. I found myself able to recreate that 12-year-old mind, recall his passion for reading and his life perspective at that time. Reading is a powerful trigger.

Mr. Kaufman, a longtime Edgartown resident, has written a kids’ mystery book that is a complex, more grown-up version of the straightforward adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy. He is to be commended for this work, particularly since he has taken up his pen after 36 years as an eye surgeon, including a stint as chief of the ophthalmology department at Newton-Wellesley Hospital near Boston.

The book is clearly set on Martha’s Vineyard, around Edgartown and Chappaquiddick, and concerns the adventures of Lucy, Eve, and Nate, aged six, eight, and eleven years old.  The kids hear rumors of very old fossils being found on Little Island (Chappaquiddick) at the site of an excavation being carried out near the harbor to move a house that has been endangered by erosion.

Nate, at six years old, is all about prehistoric creatures and successfully lobbies his sisters to check it out. They row across the harbor to investigate and are met by the homeowner who is, by turns, either friendly or churlish.

A subsequent short trip by ferry, where the kids spot a mysterious, long dark shape swimming in the water, and close-up investigation reveals that there are fossils near the house and the homeowner’s shiftiness convinces the kids that something else, something not quite right, is going on.

As you know, we do not disclose the denouement of plots on this page in order to encourage folks to read the book under review. We can say that Mr. Kaufman builds suspense — and some danger — into the story. It’s a good yarn.

What we will say is that this book, like many in the modern children’s genre, incorporates realpolitik situations that were unmentioned in the Hardy Boys generation. The kids, for example, are ministered to by their grandmother, a loving, perspicacious soul, guilty only of a propensity to provide the mini-adventurers with enough snacks to feed a platoon.

She is looking after the kids because their mom is working in Boston while their dad is on military assignment in Afghanistan. The kids learn to deal with parental absence. Interestingly, Mr. Kaufman also provides insights into the kids’ dream lives, offering the lesson that real experiences often show up in dreams.

If the author seems to be channeling the pre-adolescent mind, it’s because he is. The Times caught up with Mr. Kaufman this week by telephone at New York’s Penn Station.

“The children’s characters are inspired by the personalities of my three grandchildren who are the ages of Lucy, Eve and Nate: one is maternal (Lucy), another is more of an in-your-face personality (Eve) and the third is more philosophical and intellectual (Nate),” Mr. Kaufman said.

“I absolutely wanted to create real life situations which called upon their courage, curiosity and the ability to process information,” he said. “I’ve been concerned that the vocabulary might be a little advanced, but I risked it to allow opportunities to inform young sensibilities.”

Mr. Kaufman has a good eye for both the pre-adolescent and adult human condition. He has staged two plays, including Cross Talk, conversations between two ideologically opposite parents with a son in the military in the Middle East. The play ran for two sold-out weeks at The Vineyard Playhouse several seasons ago. Mr. Kaufman has also published a short story based on his own experiences with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War.

“I’m a flag-flyer. My experience in Vietnam was part of the motivation to write this book. In the context of why we write, I want to get my ideas and beliefs on paper. I start with a premise and put a person in a situation, expecting the character to behave rationally. Generally, the character takes over from there.

“There is nothing complex about this book,” he said. “It’s a story of the old virtues: taking responsibility, being brave. I have thought of a sequel. This is a first effort. If it gets any traction, I will do a sequel with the same characters, a mystery that goes back and forth between the Island and Boston.”