It's all about...popular girls...rec rooms...summers at the lake...dates with wealthy, thrill-crazy antiques...small town political corruption...and finding your true path in life. The Paris Hat considers the sometimes frothy, sometimes serious world of novels for teenage girls from the 1950s and 60s.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ask Any Mermaid

Title: Minnow Vail
Author: Winifred E. Wise
Publisher: Whitman Teen, 1962
Jacket: Mimi Kovach
Provenance: Formerly the property of Mary Astley
Setting: Cliffside [Laguna Beach?], California
Fun: Being a mermaid, not a grunion; diving for abalone; The Carnival of the Sea
Quote: "Here and there lay the surfboards, looking rather like great white fish left stranded on the sand.  Some were being used as card tables and some for picnic lunches, but most owners frowned upon such desecration.  Boys who were really serious about surfing spent hours putting various waxes and resins upon them, rubbing them down as tenderly as if they had been thoroughbred horses; a surfboard was a highly personal possession to be stood carefully against some rock until the right time came to launch it."

Minnow Vail is also deeply imbued with the local color and regionalism often found in books from this era: to wit, Cliffside is, at least partly, I think, based on Laguna Beach,* home of "The Hills," which it would seem to otherwise have nothing in common with.  Cliffside is described as small beach town, living off fishing, seashell collecting and a certain amount of tourism, with the highlight of the season being "The Carnival of the Sea," a pageant in which locals dress up as sea creatures and parade through the streets.  It is Minna Vail's ambition to no longer be a grunion in the carnival, but a full-fledged Mermaid, one of several elected by vote of the citizens.  (The male equivalent is an Octopus.)

Most of Minnow Vail is episodic:  a foreign exchange students teaches her to tango, she goes skin diving for abalone with Bob Jones, long-time best friend and possible boyfriend.  The tone is gently satiric, often devoting itself to describing such rituals as small-town movie night.  A more serious subplot has Minna's best friend Laura developing polio (her father somewhat lamely explains that she put off getting a Salk vaccine) and having to recuperate in an LA hospital.  In the end, Minna, though younger than the other Mermaids, becomes one by virtue of an unusual song and dance number.

Like When Debbie Dared and Then Came November, Minnow Vail was a Whitman Teen novel;  these books, I think, were aimed at a slightly younger audience, somewhere in the 14-15 year old range.  Romance is there, but not a priority; growing up is.

*According to the book jacket, Winifred Wise lived in Laguna Beach, moreover, from internal references Cliffside seems to be in Orange County.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Code Name Rette

Title: A Girl Can Dream
Author: Betty Cavanna
Publisher: Scholastic reprint, 1961 (original publication date, 1948)
Setting: Avondale, a small town in Pennsylvania
Fun: Stalls, Spins, reading Seventeenth Summer
Quote: "Reluctant as Rette was to admit it, she recognized that Elise was looking at flying through more mature eyes than she was.  Rette had to accord her a certain admiration.  Elise was learning to handle a plane as smoothly as she handled boys, and without undue fuss."

"Everyone at school wondered who was going to win the free flying lessons," is as nice a tagline as I've read for a book in a long time.  A Girl Can Dream is set in 1948.  Loretta (Rette) Larkin idolizes her older brother, Tony, who flew for the 82nd Airborne.  Meanwhile, some farmland has been converted to a new airport, and the owner of the airport shows up at the high school and announces an essay contest, with the prize to be 10 free flying lessons.  There's some question as to whether girls should enter at all, but in the end Lorette (Rette) Larkin and popular girl Elise Wynn, do, and Rette wins.

This sets the stage for a rivalry between the girls, though it never grows very heated.  Elise's wealthy father pays for her to have lessons, and the girls share an instructor, also a woman (Mrs. Larkin notes that the instructor flew for the WASPs.)  In a climatic scene, Elise's plane disappears from view, and Rette and the other rescuers find her worried about a bull in the field where she has nonchalantly landed her Cessna.  Some of Elise's sophistication rubs off on Rette, too, although the narrative never strays far from flying.

One of the more interesting aspects of A Girl Can Dream is that it contains a tribute to Maureen Daly's Seventeenth Summer.  The book is recommended to Rette by a salesgirl in a bookstore and she's gets totally caught up in it:  "The amazing part of it was that Angie Morrow and Jack Duluth didn't seem like book characters at all.  They were just like any girl and boy that Rette might be going to school with, except that she knew more about them, about the way they thought and felt, than she did any of her friends."

A Girl Can Dream is one of Cavanna's earlier books and not one of her more sparkling, but it stands as something of a rebuke to anyone who thinks that girls' books of this era were not very adventurous.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Title: A Girl Called Hank
Author: Amelia Elizabeth Walden
Publisher: William Morrow, 1951
Jacket: Not credited
Setting: Basketball-crazy New England
Provenance: Formerly the property of "Sue Greanne, 14A"
Fun: Square dances in the barn; Scottie dogs; buzzer beaters
Quote: "I can never go back now, she thought.  I can never go back to this afternoon.  Something is happening to me.  Something I can't stop or control.  I'll never be the same again."

It's not as well known as the Newbery or the Printz, but each year since 2008 the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN) has given out the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award for a YA novel which is "most relevant to adolescents and having enjoyed a wide and appreciative teenage audience” and "possess[es] a positive approach to life, widespread teen appeal, and literary merit."  Past winners/honorees include Kristin Cashore, Rick Yancey and Jacqueline Woodson, although I have to admit I haven't heard of this year's winner, Francisco X. Stork's The Last Summer of the Death Warriors.  The ALAN cites Walden as a pioneer of writing for teens, starting with the novel Gateway, in 1946.  Although Walden wrote for adults as well, and frequently dabbled in the mystery genre, any survey of her teen  books will turn up a major motif:  sports, and in particular, basketball.  Of those, A Girl Called Hank is probably her best known title.

Recently I was looking through some local high school yearbooks from the early 60s.  The sports pages were very basic:  baseball, football, basketball and track.  There were no girls' sports at all.  I was well aware that the growth of girls' sports dates to the implementation of Title IX in the 1970s, but I was still taken aback.  Perhaps Las Vegas was just too fledgling a community to support more than a couple of sports, because in the world of A Girl Called Hank, set on the East Coast, girls' basketball is HUGE.  Brighthaven High School, champions several years running, plays to wildly cheering crowds and the boys' team, if there is one, doesn't even rate a mention.

Hank (Henrietta) Baxter, a tomboy who's grown up playing basketball with four brothers, is the star of the team.  Two plots develop:  the attentions of Greg, who is on the school newspaper (he's on the college track, the book notes, while Hank, who wants to run her father's lumber company someday, nevertheless doesn't plan on anything beyond secretarial school) and the hiring of a new coach, Miss Dorn, a former tennis star from California.  Hank gives Greg short shrift for awhile, but eventually succumbs to the attentions of her mother and sister-in-law and gets dressed up for a  date with him.  Miss Dorn, who has been hired in spite of the fact she seems to have no experience as a coach, lost her tennis career to a hand injury and is now a "bitter, twisted" person.  She takes a dislike to Hank, and the feud between them divides the team.

The two plots resolve in satisfactory, if predictable, manners.  Hank adds the ability to consider her own appearance to her formidable basketball skills, and, after grudging truce with Miss Dorn, learns the importance of zone defense and set plays.  And in the final few pages, now that basketball season is over, the prospect of going to the prom is raised, as well as, yes, a wedding.  Hank's love of basketball and her interest in being a businesswoman are so solidly established, however, that these seem more like tentative pipings than real indications of her future.

It's sort of hard to know what to make of A Girl Called Hank.  Walden wrote enough of these books that there must have been a market for them, although, if the Las Vegas was more typical than Walden's Brighthaven, there couldn't have been that many girls seriously seeking athletic stardom.  It's concerned far more with Hank's relationships with the girls on the team and Miss Dorn than it is with Greg.  (It's possible to read something into that, but it seems a little far-fetched to me.)  Perhaps the best thing to do is chalk it up to a writer writing, and building a world around, something she truly loves.  It's nice that Walden found the audience she did, and it's even nicer that her name is used to continue the tradition today.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fast Times at Central High

Title: Cross My Heart
Author: Naomi John Sellers
Publisher: Doubleday, 1953
Jacket: not credited
Setting: Midland,a small city in an unnamed Southern state
Fun: cherry Cokes; gossip; nightclub singers who sing "songs with double meanings"; the pursuit of Mammon
Quote: "'Kathy!" he said, and he pressed his cheek against mine, and I could feel the beat of his heart intermingled with mine. "Why don't you stop being such a little fool?  What are you trying to do -- change the world?""

Kathy Barnum is a senior, new to a high school which is dominated by sorority-like clubs.  These clubs are not quite the same as the ever-shifting cliques popular in contemporary YA; they are formal organizations, with officers, pledges and initiations.  The text points out a couple of times that sororities and fraternities are "against state law," but the clubs dominate the school, choosing candidates for school elections, running the newspaper, picking the Football Queen and even arranging the lead in the school play, all apparently without the knowledge of the administration.  Kathy feels like an outsider until she is asked to pledge the GCs, or Golden Circle, although her main interest is in handsome Chuck Taylor, editor of the school newspaper and a member of the Owls, the male version of the GCs. 

Life with the GCs takes us through a mildly decadent world of roadhouses, idle, invisible parents and slightly risque nightclubs.  Consciously or unconsciously, Cross My Heart is strongly imitative of Maureen Daly's classic Seventeenth Summer:  the same breathless inner narration, ("I stood there a moment, the paper in my hand, listening to the little sighing sound the wind made through the bare branches of the trees, and I thought how sad everything seemed, almost as if the whole world were sick and dying") with particular attention to descriptions of scenery ("I remember thinking how beautiful the night was with the moon coming up, big and orange-colored through the bare branches of the trees that were so interwoven they looked like black lace,") clothes, and houses. It even has the subplot of an older sibling whose unhappy love affair shadows that of the heroine.  I'd read about half-way though, thinking that the reason Cross My Heart is less satisfying than Seventeenth Summer is because Kathy is less sure of herself, when the book takes a turn, and Kathy begins to stand up to the GCs.

It's interesting that the issues on which Kathy asserts herself are very small ones:   a nasty article submitted to the school gossip column, an attempt by the GCs to boot out a legitimately-elected class president.  Yet they carry the air of life and death.  Sellers brings off wonderfully the intricacies involved in what might be seen as minor teenage dramatics.  Kathy loses the GCs, of course, and comes to understand that Chuck is little more than a overgrown boy.

The title of Cross My Heart comes from a deal between Kathy and her father.  She wants to be a journalist, a career he considers "too rough for a woman."  He wants her to go a women's college instead of the state university.  The deal is that if she stays on the Honor Roll, she can go to the college of her choice.  Kathy, in fact, fails to keep her end of the deal:  she is accused of cheating by the GC members and (somewhat mysteriously to the reader) doesn't act to clear her name, and is dropped from the Honor Roll.  But all is forgiven once her father finds out the truth, and Kathy ends the novel certain of herself, whatever she chooses.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Walk in the Dark

Title: A Walk in the Moonlight
Author: Eve Bennett
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1959
Setting: Bennett's trademark Denver
Provenance: ILL, currently the property of St. Francis University Library, Loretto, Pennsylvania
Fun: nosy neighbors; waitressing in a diner; quitting school
Quote: "The clothes, smelling clean and fresh, blew lazily in the breeze, and Mary was conscious of a job well done. Suddenly her eye caught a movement at the dining room window of the house next door. That meant that old Mrs. McDrey was peering from behind the lace curtain, looking for tattletale gray in Mary's wash, counting the towels and sheets, spying out every worn spot in every piece."

Sorry for the long gap. I got the bright idea of asking for some books through inter-library loan instead of pursuing them on Ebay and other sites. The first book I asked for came through quickly, but the next two didn't show at all, and when I asked at the library I was told my order had been cancelled, for no apparent reason. They put the request through again and this week I got A Walk In the Moonlight.

Eve Bennett also wrote Concerning Casey, I, Judy and April Wedding, all books set in Colorado (mainly Denver) and all about girls going through unexpected turmoil -- sometimes with a hint of sexual scandal -- and emerging stronger. A Walk in the Moonlight's starting point is a variation of the 19th century shibboleth in which a couple who stay out all night when their buggy breaks down have to get married because the woman's reputation is ruined. Mary Munday and faithful, if not very passionate, boyfriend Andy blow a carburetor on a mountain road and have to hike home. Nosy neighbor Mrs. McDrey sees Mary strolling in at six a.m. and tells another nosy neighbor and before you know it, Mary's friend, Tessie, is forbidden to associate with her. The girls at school talk, too, and soon Andy stops coming around.

This incident -- which is made believable, even for the 1950s -- is really just a small part of the story. Mary has a supportive family and plenty of friends and the reader can't help but think that the gossip doesn't amount to much. But Mary, like a lot of Bennett's heroines, is angry at the basic unfairness of life. She quits school and goes to work as a waitress in a grease-pit diner, and that's where the drama of the book unfolds.

The rest of A Walk in the Moonlight is Mary working through her emotions, with the help of her father and a new boyfriend, Mike Aldo. Here, the era in which is was written begins to tell. Mike has a tendency to grab Mary while subjecting her to "supportive" tirades which are supposed to bring her out of her self-pity. As a result of the speeches, Mary does indeed go back to school and makes plans for college. But in the final scene, after Mike tells Mary he's going to marry her someday, he suggests they stop seeing each other because in the meantime they might know...tempted. (The words "clean" and "fine" are used a great deal in this scene.)

I can't help think this was a little old-fashioned, even for 1959, and it introduces a note of conflict to what is supposed to be an uplifting ending. I guess ten years later, when Mary gets a divorce from Mike (and she will), she'll have her waitressing experience to fall back on.

Now this sounds sort of bitter. It's always been my aim in this blog not to criticize books merely for demonstrating the values of their time. I don't believe the current era is inherently superior to the 50s; in some ways we're worse off. But I do object to a book like A Walk in the Moonlight, a book in which much care has been taken to create a realistic world with realistic conflicts, crushes itself down at the end into something "clean" and "fine."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

...After They've Seen Par-ee?

Title: Princess in Denim
Author: Zoa Sherburne
Publisher: William Morrow, 1958
Provenance: ILL, currently the property of the Wichita State University Library
Setting: Rural Washington State
Fun: Miss Tulip contest; owning your own horse; the wiles of the big city

Zoa Sherburne is best remembered for Why Have the Birds Stopped Singing? a 1974 novel about epilepsy and time travel. To my mind, she's one of those writers who came into their own in the 1960s and 70s, when subject matter shifted and broadened. (Too Bad About the Haines Girl (1967) was a groundbreaking "problem novel" about teen pregnancy.) Sherburne began publishing in the mid-fifties, however, and her earlier novels, while lighter in tone, are never silly and take pains to present realistic, if not terribly dramatic, dilemmas for her characters.

Eden lives in a small town in Washington State, where her father is a farmer. She allows her would-be boyfriend, Steve, to take a picture of her as a farmgirl -- blue jeans, straw hat -- which he then enters in a local beauty contest. Struck by something refreshing in the shot, the judges award Eden the title of Miss Tulip.

Up to this point, Eden has been happy with her life, with little interest in glamor. But news of her win brings to town a charming newspaperman, Johnny Halloran. He offers to manage her in the Miss Washington contest, perhaps even taking her all the way to Miss America. It's one of Princess in Denim's strengths that the reader believes in Eden's fascination with Johnny and all he promises. Eden is content with her life, but, naturally enough, she wonders if there could be more out there than she knows about. And, naturally enough, she doesn't want to turn her back on it before she finds out. And so Eden, over the protests and guarded warnings of Steve, her father and several other adults, goes to Seattle under Johnny Halloran's wing.

It's not difficult to guess that Eden is eventually going to choose to return to life on the farm. But Sherburne manages it so that this choice does not seemed forced or leave the reader with sense of disappointment. One of the reasons for this is that the farm Eden comes back to is not the one she left; the life she resumes has undergone some major changes. Princess in Denim is not the most exciting novel Sherburne wrote, but Eden is a winning heroine of a worthy story.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Foggy Island

Title: Halfpenny Linda
Author: Jean Nielsen
Publisher: Funk & Wagnalls, 1963
Setting: chilly England
Fun: dancing with girls, American boys, Welsh history, Cornish history, Scottish history
Quote: Kathyrn nudged her and laughed. "Oh, there're other ways if you really want to see [the boys.] But why, actually? It's such a nuisance -- all those party manners and pretending to be interested in their dull cricket scores and always giving them the best cakes and so on. It's much jollier just to run around with the girls."

The above quote tells me more about the history of gender relations in England than I ever wanted to know. I really can't imagine an American novel in which a character would feel that, as mere girl, she doesn't deserve the best piece of cake. However, autres temps, autres moeurs.

Halfpenny Linda is the scene of many such culture clashes, almost all of them about boys and girls. The premise is that Linda, an American, is sent to live with her mother's family in England and go to school for a year there. This is not a reward, but a last-ditch effort to save her from failure, since -- because of her social life -- she is flunking high school in Southern California. This is also where the title comes from, as Linda's father, in a kind of "tough love" scene, tells her she's only worth a halfpenny unless she shapes up.

Linda goes to London, and is depressed by the damp and cold and also depressed by a girls-only school and a general attitude that boys and girls shouldn't mix. At a night at the local Youth Centre, for instance, the girls dance with each other, because asking the boys might put them (the boys) on the spot. "What if they don't want to?" asks Icy, Linda's cousin. Linda plunges in and does ask a boy to dance with Icy and the result is tears, anger and complete abandonment of the Youth Centre.

I'm not really sure how accurate a guide Halfpenny Linda is to the lives of English teenagers of that time. I keep reminding myself that the Beatles came out of this era -- and even the "innocent" Beatles aren't really as innocent as they seem -- and then there was Swinging London, etc. As an outsider it's probably something I can't really understand. The intent of a book like this, however, is for the stranger to eventually accept the local customs and begin to appreciate the good things of life in a strange land. This Linda does -- and she neatly elides the boy problem by meeting two American exchange students who aren't at all shy around girls. She also travels, during the vacations -- sorry, holidays -- and learns about Roman Britain, King Arthur and other historical figures. By the end of Halfpenny, Linda has finally cracked maths, pulled up her grades and learned that there is more to life than surfing.