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.

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.

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