Three Knocks on the Wall

“Evelyn Sibley Lampman has a natural interest in the story of the American West. Her great-grandparents went out West in a covered wagon as pioneers. Her father was a small-town lawyer, and her mother a schoolteacher there. Mrs. Lampman was born and raised in a small Oregon town, close to an Indian reservation. She studied at Oregon State College . . . ”

(From the dust jacket of Once Upon the Little Big Horn, quoted at biblioguides.com)

Given the above information, and the fact that Lampman was born in 1907, Three Knocks on the Wall seems to have several autobiographical elements. Perhaps the “three knocks” incident never happened, but Marty, the main character, lives in Oregon, she is twelve years old in the first year of World War I, close to the age Lampman would have been in 1917, and her father is a judge. A significant incident in the story involves the way Marty and her family treat a Chinook Indian girl who comes into town from the reservation.   

Judging by the three Lampman novels I have read, Lampman was intent on drawing attention to many forms of discrimination. Bargain Bride deals with the treatment of the Indians who live near the main character. In Three Knocks, Lampman outdoes herself. Not only does Marty observe discrimination against the local Indians, but of  the man who does the family’s laundry, the stereotypical Chinese laundryman, a neighbor says about him, “He’s an Oriental. You can’t trust any of them.” One young man in the neighborhood is looked down upon for not immediately going off to war with the other young men of the town. The central theme, however, is prejudice against children of unwed mothers.

Marty first hears the three knocks when she is in her backyard having a funeral for her cat. She doesn’t know what to think, because she knows the two women who live next door, and can’t imagine one of them playing games with her. Marty swears (“Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a finger in my eye”) not to tell a single living soul if the knocker will talk to her. Once she has the secret of the person on the other side of the wall, she has to decide what to do with it. She wants to help, but she has sworn not to tell. 

Marty’s parents have taught her by their excellent example to operate according to their ethics. Her mother and father are kind to everyone without regard to their race or status. Her father often offers his services free of charge to those who wouldn’t be able to afford a lawyer.

“When he wasn’t being a judge, Papa was a lawyer, and some of his clients paid their bills with loads of manure. It happened every year and we probably had the richest soil of anyone in Maple Glen. For a few days, after Henry Riggs spread it around, we had the smelliest, too.”

One day an Indian man comes to town to see Marty’s father on business, and he has his daughter with him. The little girl has never been to town before. Marty’s mother gives each girl a penny, and Marty walks downtown to the candy store with the girl. The next day at school, the other children stare and laugh at Marty. Her friends can’t believe she actually walked down the main street with a barefoot Indian. Marty pretends she doesn’t care, and she truly isn’t sorry she gave the girl a bit of fun. 

Three Knocks is told in first person by Marty as she observes the people around her and learns to function in her small town society. Though Marty is twelve years old, I suggest that parents pre-read this book before handing it to a child twelve or younger. Marty is quite matter-of-fact in her observations. She says of one of her neighbors, “I didn’t like Ralph because he shot one of my cats once for killing their baby chickens.” Another of her cats dies, evidently from poison. She comments that she has heard a lot about German soldiers running Belgian babies through with their bayonets. In passing, Marty mentions Uncle Ned who hanged himself in the barn. 

There are no gory details, but if this sort of suggestion would disturb your child, you may want to reserve this book till later. 

Marty is also aware of things not all children might have been in 1917. Or, at least, she reports things she hears adults talking about that she may or may not understand.

“Mama has what Aunt Gertrude calls “female trouble” and once a month she has to stay off her feet. I knew it was my fault because once I had heard Aunt Gertrude tell her that if she hadn’t had me when she was so old it never would have happened.”

Papa, Mama, and Marthy read to each other most evenings. “We read the classics, because Mama said we couldn’t depend on the schools to give them to me.” Mama thinks they need to read an American author, so she brings The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Papa thinks it might be a little old for Marty because it is about adultery. This leads to a discussion about what adultery is. Mama says adultery is still a disgrace, but we’re too civilized now to sew a scarlet A on an adultress’s dress and make her stand in a pillory. Marty wants to know what they do instead. Mama supposes most people try to hide it. This leads to questions about what happens to the babies. What has happened to two such babies is revealed as the plot unfolds, and Marty and her parents have a hand in helping them.

I’m particularly fascinated by the time period of the last couple of decades of the19th century through the first two decades of the 20th century. Life changed so drastically during this time, and WWI was particularly transformative. Though this story takes place in the safety of a small Oregon town, far from the fighting, the war eventually touches everyone. Marty saves her money for thrift stamps which help provide soldiers with necessary supplies. Civil War soldiers are still alive and able to march in the Decoration Day parade. The foxtrot is “the very newest thing.” The Spanish Influenza becomes a factor in the story, yet there are still people who don’t believe in germs. Novels in which we can look into the lives of people living in past time periods are an excellent way to learn history. 

This book is available at Purple House Press in their always-high-quality edition.