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Literature / Much Ado About Grubstake

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Much Ado about Grubstake is a 2006 middle-grade book by Jean Ferris. Grubstake, Colorado is a Dying Town that was once a prominent mining community before the gold and silver began to run low. The town's current population is sixty-two (mostly prospectors who lack the resources to move and still manage to extract just enough gold dust to pay some of their bills), and only one train passes by every month. So when a mysterious man shows up trying to buy mines as a supposed resort attraction, sixteen-year-old boarding house owner Arley, the orphaned daughter of a miner, smells a rat. She and the people she is close to try to figure out what's going on and whether they can or should try to prevent the land sales.


  • A-Cup Angst: Arley feels a bit awkward about her flat chest in one scene.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Wing Lee the Chinese baker is one of the smartest characters in the story, but he sometimes uses broken English. Sometimes he speaks full sentences, only to omit particles and articles in the next sentence.
    Wing Lee: He always hated working for Mr. Lockwood. Why now he change?
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Early on, Arley mentions that the last "visitor" to the town was a train passenger who got off to stretch his legs, didn't get back on in time, and had to wait a month for the next train. It turns out that he was a spy for Lockwood and missed his train on purpose.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Outdoor John's taxidermy, Prairie Martin's harmonica playing and candle-making, and Purvis's embroidered messages are all used for the "Scooby-Doo" Hoax in the climax. Downplayed, though, since they aren't good enough to genuinely fool or frighten the Big Bad.
  • Clothing-Concealed Injury: Lockwood shaves Mickey, the liveryman, bald while he's passed out as an intimidation tactic, and the liveryman is very embarrassed about it and starts wearing a wide-brimmed hat to hide this.
  • Creepy Good: Morgan the geologist is a dark-clad man with a long scar, who is very surly, silent, and secretive. He got the scar as a baby living on the streets, he only wears black because he's color-blind, and he is a compassionate man who supports his orphanage and wants to keep his boss from cheating anyone.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Railroad and mining magnate Sidney Lockwood loves firing people face-to-face to take pleasure in their despair, achieves his goals by blackmail, arson, and other such activities, and is contemptuous of Morgan's refusal to only check the mines that he owns for Osblindium rather than trespassing on holdout claims.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: Discussed but subverted with Lacey Bernaise's status as "the epitome of femininity in Grubstake." Taking in Lacey's frilly wardrobe, Arley observes this "normally wouldn't have been saying all that much, except that in Lacey's case, it was."
  • Dime Novel: Arley loves reading cheap, cheesy adventure novels (or Penny Dreadfuls as she calls them) and frequently compares them to her real-life surroundings.
  • The Ditherer: The remaining prospectors of Grubstake (especially Arley's boarders) are mostly insecure, worn-down men who are easily flustered and take a lot of persuading to make important decisions. Many of them go back-and-forth on whether they want to sell their mines.
    Prairie Martin couldn't make up his own mind about anything and was forever asking Arley what her opinion was, facing her to have one even when she really didn't. In fact, he'd arrived in Grubstake as a result of getting on the first train that pulls into his station since he couldn't decide which one he really wanted'' to take.
  • Dude Magnet: Hotel owner Everdene Hannigan is a shapely middle-aged woman who attracts the amorous attention of almost every resident and visitor to town, most of which she finds annoying.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Morgan arrives at the boarding house scowling in a way that accentuates his scar, dressed all in black, and being stiff and guarded with his words while suspiciously demanding privacy even from Arley's maintenance. However, Arley notes that his intimidating horse is named Millicent instead of something foreboding like Midnight. Morgan also comments that he's at the boarding house because he doesn't like the company at the hotel, revealing that he dislikes his Snake Oil Salesman associate Charles Randall. All of this establishes that Morgan is a guarded person who is working for the unknown shifty person sending Randall to buy land, but that he isn't a bad person deep down.
  • Frontier Doctor:
    • Dr. Bernaise treats people with fevers and bar fight injuries and tends to prescribe alcohol for both himself and his patients. His family claims that they only live in Grubstake for his wife's health, but this is later implied to be untrue, suggesting he can't find work in bigger towns.
    • Wing Lee the bakery owner gives herbal remedies to people who are unsatisfied with Dr. Bernaise's treatment. He has a good record of results, and saves Arley's dogs' lives after Lockwood has them poisoned.
  • Honor Before Reason: Arley sometimes wonders if she's guilty of this by fighting Lockwood's efforts to buy up her beloved town without paying the land's full value. Lockwood is offering more money than anyone's dreamed of making in years, and even if there are minerals worth far more than his offer in anyone's claims, they won't be able to extract it themselves without lots of backbreaking labor and more money than they currently have. Additionally, many townspeople want to sell out and start new lives elsewhere, and she wonders if giving them false hope just to keep the community intact is right. It's ultimately rendered moot when Arley finally goes into her father's old mine and learns the explosion that killed him exposed a vein of osblindium and they can use that as seed money to bring in ore mining equipment and keep the rest of the town in good financial shape.
  • Hufflepuff House: There aren't exactly factions in the Dying Town of Grubstake, but different business and professions. Arley's boarding house owner, Miss Everdene’s saloon and hotel, Wing Lee’s bakery, the newspaper, Mickey’s livery stable, the general store, the doctor's household, and the various prospectors around town (although only one besides Arley's boarders gets both a name and dialogue) all play decent roles in the story. The "pathetic excuse for a restaurant" and its proprietor/s, on the other hand, only get one passing mention in the first chapter, when Arley looks over the remaining buildings on Main Street.
  • The Lad-ette: Dude Magnet Saloon Owner Everdene can "lift a keg of beer over her head, break up a fight between belligerent drunks, and outdraw every man in town[.]"
  • Loving a Shadow: Arley gushes over Duncan, the young newspaperman who inherited the paper from his dad at a young age, but eventually realizes that while he's a good man, her feelings for him are over over-idealized because, for a long time, he was the only man near her age in town.
  • Mail-Order Bride: Bridget, the hotel maid and waitress, came to Grubstake from Ireland (where she was an unhappy servant girl) as a mail order bride for a successful prospector. His claim petered out before she came, and he skipped town without waiting for her. She's rather tranquil about the situation, as she likes her job and doesn't know if she would have loved her husband-to-be.
  • Man of the City: Teenaged boarding house owner Arley Pickett is determined to keep Lockwood's efforts to buy everyone's land from making the Dying Town of Grubstake (which she is attached to) a ghost town without ruining anyone's efforts to get the money they deserve or leave if they want to.
  • Mouth of Sauron: Charles Randall shows up in town to buy mining claims on behalf of an unnamed party who eventually comes to Grubstake himself once his identity as a Corrupt Corporate Executive is ferreted out.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Given the danger and frequency of mining explosions, Arley feels uneasy when visiting Outdoor John's mine, which is named the Powder Keg.
  • Parental Substitute: Saloon Owner Everdene cared for Arley and taught her how to read when her mother died in childbirth and the Schoolmarm left town. She also throws out paying customers whenever they harass Arley.
  • Recurring Extra: Mickey the livery owner shows up in several scenes as a customer at the saloon or part-time paperboy for the newspaper, but his only particularly important scene is when he gets his head shaved offscreen by the Big Bad in an effort to intimidate the locals.
  • Saving the Orphanage: Morgan works for Lockwood to make money for the orphanage he grew up in. He acknowledges that it isn't a great place, but says it's better than the streets.
  • Schoolmarm: Even before the mining town of Grubstake became a Dying Town, it only had one, female, teacher at its school. The teacher married the last prospector to strike it rich and left town with him a few years before the book begins, and the abandoned schoolhouse is now infested with marmots.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: Arley and her friends eventually try to scare the villainous Lockwood out of town with legends about Native American spirits. Surprisingly, it fails miserably, as Lockwood isn't scared at all and points out how suspicious it is that Native American spirits are leaving behind letters in poorly-spelled English. Arley's attempts to pose as a spirit in the dark also don't phase him, and she has to threaten to blow up the mine so no one can have it to make him leave.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Randall, the Mouth of Sauron, spent two years in prison for selling useless medicine in the past. He wants to hide this to maintain his ability to get people to sell him land. Arley grudgingly admits that he manages to sound persuasive even when she's certain that he's lying to her.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: Wing Lee is good at appearing and disappearing quickly in the middle of crowded rooms. Arley is frustrated trying to tell how he does it.
  • Taxidermy Is Creepy: Arley's boarder Outdoor John is too kind-hearted to kill animals (plus he Does Not Like Guns) but he collects and stuffs animals he finds dead, and the results are quite unsettling.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Dr. Bernaise's daughter Lacey is an aloof snob who pursues Arley's crush Duncan, but later starts mocking Arley for being too traumatized to enter the mine her father died in. Despite their earlier passive antagonism, Arley is surprised by this genuine cruelty and wonders whether the influence of Lacey's new beau, Charles Randall, is to blame or Lacey just doesn't feel motivated to hold back anymore for the sake of a relatively civil relationship now that she's about to move away from Grubstake and won't have to interact with Arley on a regular basis.
  • Unobtanium: The priceless fictional multicolored mineral Osblindium is extremely rare outside of Russia, and the promise of a new vein is why Lockwood wants to buy all of the mines around Grubstake. The local miners have looked for it in the past and consider it a coveted prize, but have yet to find any themselves.