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, March 16, 2010

From Surfer Girl to Science Nerd

Title: Run, Sheep, Run
Bob and Jan Young
Jacket illustration: Jon Nielsen
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1959
Setting: The coast of California
Fun: hoodlums on motorcycles; paying for college by selling smoked fish; up close and personal with sea anemones
Quote: Sue had warned the idea would be startling, but Judy was hardly prepared for that murmur of surprised voices. "A party?" Derek looked flabbergasted, "But the Science Society never has parties."

The Youngs often picked important topics for their books -- political corruption in One Small Voice, prejudice against Hispanics in Across the Tracks. Run, Sheep, Run's topic is the social prison that is high school, or, how "society's demands for conformity often crushes the individual's courage."

Judy Cannon starts out as a member of a crowd of young people who hang out on the beach all summer and who consider anyone who gets good grades an "apple-polisher" and teacher's pet. Judy's first error is taking biology and liking it. Then, in a mild setback to her social life, her mother gets sick (the doctor doesn't say exactly what she has, but it has something to do with her working in an underground bank vault all day) and the family moves to a house on an isolated point, the better for sea air and sun. Judy becomes fascinated by tide pools, helps out with her family bait business and, the final straw for her friends, joins the Science Club.
It turns out, however, that the Science Club members are just as set in their ways as her former friends. Tall, blond Derek, who had seemed so friendly on that field trip to the marine biology lab, now tells Judy, "the student who is seriously interested in science hasn't time for other interests." Hmm. Were this a B-movie, Derek would end up rescuing Judy from a Giant Crab Monster and would indeed discover that he has other interests. Instead, Derek skulks off, aloof scientist to the end, and Judy's old crowd gradually comes back into the picture. They've grown, too, and they kind of admire Judy's independence.
Is it a little odd to write about social conformity by setting a novel amid bait shacks and marine biology labs? Yes, but it's the kind of thing the Youngs were good at. There's something grandly optimistic about Run, Sheep,Run, and like One Small Voice, it belongs very much to its time. I sometimes wonder if along about 1970 or so the Youngs weren't wishing they could put the non-conformity genie back in the bottle.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Title: The Hundred Steps
Author: Holly Wilson
Jacket Artist: Albert Orbaan
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1958
Setting: "Clifton" (Marquette), Michigan
Provenance: Unknown
Fun: Pyromania; sea chanteys; berry-picking interrupted by a bear
Quote: "Flannelmouth!" said Susan, and she went off into a burst of giggles that infected the group around her. They laughed heartily and slapped each other on the back, repeating, "Flannelmouth! You're all a bunch of flannelmouths!"

One of the nice things about many of these 1960s teen novels is that instead of being set in the bland suburbia we associate with that era, they are actually grounded in specific places -- like the California desert town of One Small Voice -- and so draw a nicely detailed picture of particular American regions. The Hundred Steps is dominated from page one by its setting in Clifton (evidently based on Marquette), Michigan. The steps of the title lead from the Lower Town, home of the fisherfolk, to the Upper Town, home of the iron ore millionaires. Marcy McKay lives in the Lower Town, naturally, and her father works on an ore carrier, shipping cargo across Lake Superior. The lake is as important as any other character in the book, and the climax of the novel is a shipwreck and rescue in Clifton Harbor. This event brings together the Upper and Lower Towns and smooths out the class divisions that form the major theme of The Hundred Steps. Marcy has begun hanging out with Upper Town girls, although she's not sure they really accept her. The Upper Town is epitomized by wealthy pyromaniac Walt Hamilton*, who tops off a date with Marcy by setting fire to the town's ski slide. The police investigation of this provides the drama of the first part of the book, though the eventual court case is anti-climactic. Then, after a couple of filler chapters, a big storm blows through, Marcy's father's ship runs aground and Walt proves a decent person after all. (Walt is not actually the hero of the novel, safe and less interesting Bill Carlson is.) And if you don't want to go on vacation to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan after reading this novel, something is wrong with you.

*Walt seems to be the name of choice for male characters. Other books with Walts: One Small Voice, The Paris Hat. Perhaps it was the Disney influence?

Monday, March 1, 2010

There's Something about Casey

Title: Concerning Casey
Eve Bennett
Cover Art: Georgeann Helms
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1958
Setting: Mountain View, a small mining town in Colorado
Provenance: formerly the property of the Grand Forks ND Public Library
Fun: a mayoral election; the state speech contest; a shotgun wedding
Quote: "What am I?" she asked, "I wish I knew. Maybe something has been left out of me. Maybe I'm not all there. Maybe I'm - sexless. Maybe I'm that horrid creature, an ambitious woman. But ambitious for what? What am I besides a girl with a beastly temper and a tongue she can't control very well?"

There's a lot of old-fashioned fun in Concerning Casey. Our heroine is the oldest of a large family. Her father is a crusading newspaper editor, who in the course of the book runs for mayor of their small town. His particular issue is the clean-up of the local slum; his rival is the evil developer who owns the slum. This subplot, threaded through Ladies' Aid meetings, town gossip and schoolyard fights, perks along in the background, while Casey studies for exams, goes to basketball games, enters a speech contest, votes on where to hold the school dance, dates, breaks up, listens to her friends' problems, buys Christmas presents and quotes poetry.
Concerning Casey, is, in fact, less a teen novel and more like Irene Hunt's Up a Road Slowly or the Anne of Green Gables/Betsy-Tacy books. Like these books, it focuses less on a specific plot and more on overall coming of age, and like these books there is a vivid background of small town characters and the bustle of family life. (Eve Bennett based this book on her own adolescence in Yankton, South Dakota.) Casey's family is lively and passionate, fond of debating politics at the dinner table; there's a wise town doctor, a sharp-tongued aunt and a run-down general store where everyone buys Christmas presents.
And yet...nostalgia can only take you so far. Up a Road Slowly looks at alcoholism, mental instability and death. Anne of Green Gables also has a major character die, and even the Betsy/Tacy books glance in that direction. The great theme is that difficult as these experiences are, the heroines gain something from them which is essential to their growth and their art. Concerning Casey, on the other hand, brushes by anything too serious. Tom Town, the local slum, is given only scant mention, as is the reason for her brother Rick's sudden marriage.
And then there's quote above, late in the book, pegging Casey as unlikeable, which is something of a surprise. After all, Casey's envious little sister describes her as "the most popular girl in town." She has two ever-faithful swains named Bob and Butch. She comes in second place in the state speech contest and is asked out by the first place winner. All in all, there's only the vaguest hint she thinks of life beyond high school. Bennett seems to want to have it both ways: to create a independent, thoughtful, lone-wolf heroine and at the same time make her a popular girl, blithe and feminine.
In the end, the independent girl wins, but it's a strange victory. Watching her younger brother battle meningitis, Casey decides she wants to go to medical school. The town doctor agrees to pay her way, in the name of the son he never had. She also agrees to marry Bob (who's going to medical school, too) even though she's not really in love with him. There's no pretense, in these last pages, that Casey's necessarily going to be happy, only that she's going out to experience life. If all of Concerning Casey were as daring as the final chapter, it might be better known today.