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.

Friday, January 29, 2010

In which Cotton Mather writes a teen novel

Title: Destination: Success!
Author: Jan Nickerson
Publisher: Funk and Wagnalls, 1959
Jacket artist: Ernie Bauth
Setting: A velvet reform school in Hillside, Pennsylvania
Provenance: Given to a J. Russell or T. Russell in August 1962
Fun: Kleptomania; a picnic ruined by a thunderstorm; eavesdropping solves everything; lost in a maze
Quote: "I can't be something that I'm not!" snapped Coralee.
"But that is just what you're trying to be!" returned Aunt Jane with a little smile. "You aren't really a sharp-tongued, disagreeable girl. I'm sure of that. You've made that a defense because you're afraid of being hurt. It's just like a false mask. Take it off, Coralee. Be yourself. Then I know you'll have lots of friends and you'll have a good time, too."

"Everyone deserves congratulations because we're all winners in one way or another. We've each succeeded at something." Coralee pondered this a moment, as though she were thinking of each girl in turn, and of what the summer had done for her. "You're right, Lissa!" she said, her brown eyes bright with happiness. "What a wonderful curtain line for our summer!" "But only a prologue to our future," declared Lissa.
As might be obvious from the above, Destination Success is not really a work of fiction, if you define fiction as being "similar to the real world but perhaps a little more mind-blowing." Destination Success is not interested in reproducing the conversations, speech or thoughts of actual people. Destination Success is a Message. It's about Discovering Who You Are and Learning to Be Your Best. There are some boys, but they are kept strictly in the background. A lot of teen novels of this era are, believe it or not, more about self-realization than meeting Mr. Right -- possibly because a serious relationship with Mr. Right might derail self-realization -- but in this book the boys are particularly stick-like. Consider that Lissa, our heroine, starts out with Tom, the boy she has dated all through high school. Tom has joined the Navy. At the end of the book Lissa is dating Eric. Do we blame her for writing Tom a Dear John letter? No, we don't -- not because of the many rationalizations that Lissa puts up (Tom's letters are distant, her best friend Kate wants him, etc.) but because we never really get to know either character.
Lissa, whose plans for the summer are ruined by Tom's enlistment, instead goes to a mansion in Pennsylvania which is being run as a "social-service project" for troubled girls by Aunt Jane. How exactly these girls are troubled is not specifically disclosed because it wouldn't be fair, says Aunt Jane, who has apparently forgotten she is a character in a novel and not a HIPPA official. None of them does anything especially "troubled" in the novel, although the shy one is, of course, a kleptomaniac. There's also Coralee, who provides a little excitement by scowling and stealing someone's boyfriend. Coralee, we eventually learn, is the unwanted daughter of a famous actress. Her parents are divorced.
The subplots in Destination Success never jibe and the dialogue thunks like a stroll across a covered bridge, but that's not the real problem here. The real problem is that Destination Success is awash in the self-empowerment talk that I'd always thought was a modern phenomenon. (As evidenced above, the "we're all winners" line is not a recent invention.) Lissa works as a waitress in a tearoom and isn't very good, but Aunt Jane won't let her quit, nor will her dragon-lady boss. Why? At the end of the story we learn that the dragon lady had a sister who looked like Lissa.

"She was clever, and most things came to her so easily that she didn't want to stick to anything that required work...She married rather unwisely and died while she was still a young woman."
"You must have felt very sad," said Lissa sympathetically.
"We did, but in time we got over it to some extent."

Yes, that's right, if you don't stick things out you'll die. And go unmourned by your smug relatives.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Mayberry Underground

Title: One Small Voice
Authors: Bob and Jan Young
Julian Messner, 1961
Cover Art: Georgeann Helms
Setting: Granada, a small California town
Provenance: Formerly the property of the Western Kentucky University library
Fun: High school production of HMS Pinafore; fiery Iron Curtain refugee; protest march stopped by the cops; bribery, corruption, intimidation and voter apathy.

Quote: "It seems to us there are a lot of people who don't show any interest in local politics," Walt observed.
"I suppose there are a few," Mayor Keally admitted, "but then people are busy. It appears to me that's a sign of a good administration. There's no need for busy people to vote when they know their city is in good hands, now is there?"

"It is our hope that other young people reading this book will also discover that the study of American Government is not all dreary memorization, politics is not just a field for the isolated few -- but put into practice good citizenship can be a lively, exciting and rewarding experience" -- from the back cover of One Small Voice.

Bob and Jan Young co-wrote a number of popular teen novels which feature ordinary heroines involved in somewhat serious subjects. Reviewers of the day liked them. "In abandoning pat solutions and stereotypes they have sought truth in human reactions and situations, and the result is an inspiration to teenagers of both sections," -- so said Virginia Kirkus.* Their first novel, Across the Tracks, is about Hispanic/Anglo relations in a California town. One Small Voice, takes up, surprisingly enough, small-town political corruption. Gina Morgan goes out on an awkward date with Walt Kennedy. On the way home he hits a parked car. Parked car, which has a scratch on its fender, belongs to a cop, who says for $20 he'll forget the whole thing. When Walt refuses, the situation escalates, Walt is arrested and Walt's father ends up paying $30** to the police chief to forget the whole thing. Encountering apathy and "but-it's-always-been-this-way" among the adults, Walt, Gina and some other high school kids begin a civics project to encourage voter participation and end machine politics in their town. There are ups and downs, mixed in with tryouts for HMS Pinafore (Gina gets Hebe, not Josephine), some baking, having to go to the Spring Formal with sarcastic Tom Peebles, little sister's bicycle accident...but throughout it are some sinister undertones. The driver who hits little sister's bicycle is the brother in law of a cop, who drops by to hint at negligence and a frame-up. Gina's father's boss comes by, too, to hint that her father might lose his job if his daughter continues to stir things up. And their "get-out-the vote" march is abruptly canceled for lack of a permit. But everyone, good guys and bad, keeps their heads in the end, and the election not only has a record voter turn out but results in some (limited) political change, which Gina reasons is about as much as might be expected.

One Small Voice is not completely a civics text, however. Gina's relationship with Walt builds from its bad start into steady dating and her role in Pinafore brings her into the current of high school affairs and gives her confidence. Also, like The Charmed Circle, One Small Voice has a character who is a refugee from the Iron Curtain -- Paul Marchek, a "tall, good-looking Hungarian boy." Paul is there partly to remind everyone of the importance of freedom, but he's also a realistic character, given to losing his temper and making fiery suggestions. ("Let's start an underground movement!") Paul is a reminder that One Small Voice is balanced, in a very prescient way, squarely between the previous decade and the oncoming one. It captures the we're-going-to-change-things feeling of Gina's generation (I can just picture Paul, at any rate, sitting-in at Berkeley) while keeping its feet firmly in Americanism, citizenship and democracy:

Only someone who was very frightened, like Mayor Keally, had to resort to dirty politics. Next Tuesday everyone would have a chance to show his personal feelings at the polls.

*Founder of the Kirkus Reviews and the children's book reviewer of her era.
**More money than it sounds. Gas in 1961 was 30 cents a gallon and you could get a burger in a fast-food restaurant for 15 cents. Another good measurement might be that in Run, Sheep, Run the heroine contemplates spending $35 on a formal dress.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Alone in the Suburbs

Title: The Charmed Circle
Author: Dorothea J. Snow
Publisher: Whitman, 1961
Cover and endpapers: Mimi Korach
Setting: "Suburban Elm Park" (near Chicago)
Provenance: "This book belongs to Eva Hoffman" in marker on the inside front cover.
Fun: little brother named Binky; kipferdln; pizza and Cokes in the rec room
Quote: "And remember," Mamma said, "a vanilla bean must be in the canister of powdered sugar!"
Lauralee nodded. She knew how such little things could add to the unique flavor of different foods.

Whitman, publisher of the Big Little Books, was evidently known for a fairly cheap product often sold in dime stores. There's no dust jacket -- just a picture glued to the hardback cover. This was part of Whitman's Teen Novel series and Dorothea J. Snow was a prolific writer and, particularly an illustrator, of picture books. According to her author bio, The Charmed Circle was her first teen novel, and was based on actual events in the life of her son, Don.

I fell for this book because of the endpaper, which is shown at the head of this post. There was a just the faintest edge of melancholy to the girl being all alone on that empty suburban street, although after reading the book, I can say that this was probably not the artist's intention. The Charmed Circle is about high school -- being popular and making friends. Eventually, Lauralee Larkin learns that if you go out of your way to be nice to people -- even unpopular foreigners who make you cringe -- you will make your own "charmed circle" and being popular won't matter.

I'm still not quite clear what planet this book is supposed to take place on. Perhaps it's one of those alternate history novels one hears so much about.

The one touch of originality in The Charmed Circle is Elena Sloshek. Described as a refugee from "invading forces,"* (even Lauralee has heard about that fuss in Czechoslovakia), her mother bakes things from scratch, while Lauralee's mother makes refrigerator pies out of instant pudding and crushed vanilla wafers. Although Elena suffers from slow-talking-foreigner syndrome, is rigorously honest, and is just grateful for the crumbs an American girl throws at her, she gives the book a little flair. At the end of the book she rides a float in the "Hands-Across-the-Sea" parade, dressed as a Moravian goose girl. This is a nice place to leave The Charmed Circle -- Elena proud of her cultural heritage, Binky cleared of all bicycle theft charges, and Lauralee sure that high school is just going to be wonderful. A charmed circle indeed.

*One of the odd things about the Cold War was that books, tv shows, and so on always used euphemisms for the Russians -- "the enemy," "the other side," "the bad guys." Sure, we had all our missiles pointing at their major cities but we didn't want to hurt the Russians' feelings by naming them out loud on "Mission Impossible." That would have been rude.

The Career Romance

Title: The Paris Hat
Author: Mary Cunningham aka Mary Pierce Cunningham.
Publisher: Funk and Wagnalls, 1958
Setting: Bucolic San Francisco
Provenance: "Pat Arnold" inside front cover
Fun: "You see," she explained,"his real love is dressage."; making marzipan out of prune pits; Mysterious Footprints in the Bushes; a big heart-shaped hatbox labeled Chapeaux de Paris.
Quote: "Gerry sat down with a plunk and twiddled her thumbs in mock gravity. "I am a lady," she said demurely. "If you don't believe it, just look in my top drawer and you'll see three and a half pairs of the purest white gloves a lady ever -- "

Apparently there was a recognized genre in the 1950s publishing trade called "career romance." Basically, the heroine was going to choose between a man and a career. The Paris Hat is right square in the middle of this genre. In fact, everyone in The Paris Hat, male and female, is on the horns of some decision about what they really want out of life. The central character is 17-year-old Cathy, lifelong big sister to a mess of motherless children, who has been invited by handsome Rex to be his ballet partner. The other member of the triangle is boy-next-door Walt, who invents things in his spare time and likes fishin'. In the background, Aunt Faith dithers over the Paris hatbox, symbol of the world she has turned her back on when she let her husband go on a two-year business trip to Africa alone. (What business is there in Africa? Sparkling, uncorrupted, blood-free diamonds. A girl's best friend.) And there's Aunt Gerry, an artist who works happily at an ad agency, has plenty of dates and has no wish to get married anytime soon. And finally, there's Rick, with his aforementioned love of dressage, who must work in a bank. There is much discussion of what makes people really happy and general agreement that there are no easy answers. Cathy meets Rachel, Rex's married sister, who says, "If only I could stop being a mother for just a week. Or maybe for just three days." [I will repeat -- this novel was written in 1958. Yes, that 1958.] On page 180, having realized that she is probably not talented enough to be a professional ballerina, Cathy accepts the offer of a job teaching dance to children while continuing her studies. And walks home with Walt, who hopes she'll come over to the workshop if she has a minute.
The Paris Hat is the kind of book where everyone has a housekeeper and there's a grandmother who says "Land's sakes!" But it's a little more than that. All of the characters have a realistic edge and certain liveliness. Consider Grandma:

Grandma was in bed with a book. She always said that she was so old that if she wanted to read in bed around the clock, she guessed she could without her family saying boo.

I'd be willing to be that some of them were based, at least a little, on the writer's family. There's that kind of cosiness to The Paris Hat. And the basic theme of this old-fashioned career romance is that the right choice for you is the one that makes you happy.