Though it does involve a mystery of sorts, with a burglary and the children organizing a hunt for clues, The Alley is written in Estes’ characterisicaly slow and contemplative style. (She also wrote the Moffats series, based on her childhood in small-town Connecticut, and The Hundred Dresses.) Aside from a couple of chance encounters with the suspected burglar, the burglary itself, and the wrapup of the mystery, this is mostly a book about daily life.
What hooked me, though, was the Alley itself. It is an enclosed space between the back yards of the faculty houses on the campus of the fictional Granby College in Brooklyn. Connie Ives, age 10, is one of a few dozen children whose lives revolve around the Alley and its games and routines and rituals. There is Katie Starr the Lawmaker, who organizes games and makes sure the bicycle traffic runs smoothly; the Carroll children who play superman with pillowcase capes or frankenstein with cardboard box heads; Hugsy Goode, who talks a lot and passes along a rumor that there are tunnels under the houses; and Connie’s best friend, the unsociable, quiet, likable Billy Malloon.
The community composed entirely of faculty children probably held some fascination for me as well, being a faculty child myself, though never having heard of faculty housing. (My own daughter, growing up in faculty housing, did not find this aspect of the book noteworthy at all.)
Estes’ was a master at observing what children are really like. For example, when Katie has the exact same idea as Connie — holding a mock-trial of the suspected burglars — moments after Connie suggests it to Billy, Connie thinks this is a kind of synchronicity between herself and Katie. But just moments earlier we learned, casually, that Connie and Billy could overhear Katie in the house next door. This means that likewise Katie could overhear Connie and Billy, and so she is probably just passing off Connie’s idea as her own. The reader is left to either notice this, or not notice it.
Still, Estes’ slow, observational style gets a little out of hand in this book. She developed a technique of repeating things to show what is absorbing a character’s thoughts, but in this book it becomes almost a tic. My daughter doesn’t like to give up on things, but she did say more than once, “When is this awful book going to end?” I myself never felt the urge to re-read it as a child, and I’m not even entirely sure that I finished it, but I have always remembered it fondly.
The Alley draws on Estes’ own adult life in peculiar and interesting ways. She attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she met a fellow student whom she married, and later the couple returned to Pratt when Estes’ husband got a job there. In The Alley Connie’s mother was an art student at the fictional Granby College, and married one of her professors. Estes’ husband was from South Carolina, as is Connie’s father in The Alley.
The row houses on the Pratt campus that are the model for the Alley can still be seen on Google Maps. It is bounded by Steuben Street (“Story Street”), Emerson Place (“Waldo Place”), and Willoughby Avenue (“Larrabee Street”). The central cement alleyway has been replaced by grass, and the turnaround circle at the end is gone (as indeed it already was by the time of the sequel, The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode).
Estes’ only daughter was born in 1948, and a few details suggest the story is set during her daughter’s childhood, and not in 1964; for example, Connie’s mother was already an adult when the Little House books were published, and Dragnet (the original 1950’s series) is popular among the kids. Most tellingly, it is on the news that the Soviets had seen the far side of the moon, an event that happened in 1959.
The Alley has a hidden connection to an earlier Estes’ book. In The Alley we learn that Connie lived in Washington D.C. when she was six, on a street lined with ginko trees, with a best friend Clarissa who was practically her sister. The two would endlessly draw pictures, and Connie had a favorite little red rocking chair. All this is straight from the The Witch Family, though Connie’s parallel character in that book is named Amy. I think Estes put this in as a kind of easter egg, or a bit of authorial self-indulgence. Purely in terms of the plot of The Alley, it makes no sense. It is unexplained why the family was away from Granby college for six years during Connie’s early childhood, if her father was already a Granby professor before she was born. (It actually makes a better fit with the Estes family’s own trajectory.)
The Alley also has a sequel, The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode (1972), another almost-mystery (though not involving crime). Half a generation later, the children of the Alley remember the rumor passed along by Hugsy (now a college student) about tunnels under houses, and two of them create elaborate imaginings of what the tunnels are like, before eventually discovering that they are real. I’m afraid I can’t recommend The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode, though. The main character is a toxic little sociopath, which makes it hard to care about anything he does.