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.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Girl Interrupted

Title: A Girl Like Me
Author: Jeannette Eyerly
Publisher: Lippincott, 1966
Jacket: Ellen Raskin (yes, that Ellen Raskin)
Provenance: Formerly the property of the Burnsville branch of the Dakota County (MN) Library System
Fun: Less than Zero, circa 1966
Setting: An unidentified town on/near the Mississippi River
Quote: If it was a baby, what would Cass do? She'd said her father would kill her. Of course, he would not. But Robin shivered, remembering the one time she'd seen him.

In magazine stories of the "True Confessions" type, up until the 1950s, giving a baby up for adoption was almost always portrayed as morally suspect -- an attempt to disown one's responsibility and erase one's past. In the 1950s, for various economic, social and psychological reasons*, the wind swung around suddenly. Adoption was now presented as the best solution for all parties -- the baby could go to a good home and the unwed mother could start a new and better life, her secret forever protected.

This second attitude forms the core of A Girl Like Me, which is partly set in a home for unwed mothers. Eyerly wants to write about her subject in a clean, unemotional and unsensational way, and she creates two typical characters -- Robin, a studious good girl, and Cass, a more popular type. Cass fixes up Robin with Randy, best friend of her boyfriend, Brew, and they make the rounds of decadent suburbia -- necking spots, beer joints and parties with loud "thumpy" music and no parents. Robin's own parents eventually intercede, forbidding her to see Randy, but it's too late for Cass, who turns up sick in the ladies' room in the middle section of the book.

From this point much of the book is standard -- a humilating visit to the doctor, Cass' banishment to a maternity home, rumors at school -- but Eyerly continues her crisp style at least until the last section, when Robin, who knows that she's adopted, attempts to find out something about her own parents.

A Girl Like Me is clearly a well-meant attempt to treat an important topic in a realistic, non-sleazy way, explore a complex issue facing teens today, etc, etc. The problem is that it probably wasn't possible, in 1966, for a reputable writer like Eyerly to plunge fully into the sticky business of adolescent desire. Unlike the books that Judy Blume would be writing 10 years in the future, Cass and Robin don't seem to have bodies or feelings. Randy and Brew are basically bullies and the reader has to wonder why the girls go out with them at all. And yet in some ways the book still holds up. It has the ring of the modern world: a character drives a Volkswagen, ESP is mentioned, and even the P word -- period -- is flung out casually. Robin, who defies both Cass' parents and her own to visit her in the maternity home, is an appealing character. Maternity homes are gone, and with them the unquestioning acceptance of adoption as the best thing an unwed mother can do, but I can see girls today still identifying with Robin and Cass.

*Detailed in Rickie Solinger's book Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Love the One You're With

Title: River At Her Feet

Author: Zoa Sherburne
Jacket: Joseph Cellini

Publisher: William Morrow, 1965
Provenance: Formerly the property of Thelma C. Holden of Roanoke

Setting: Clarksburg, USA
Fun: being a bridesmaid; a musical prodigy
Quote: "The flowers came," Francine announced in reverent tones. "They smell simply beautiful and Mother cried when she saw them."
"Mother," Elizabeth reminded her younger sister glumly, "has been known to cry at pep rallies. What else is new?"

Although I had heard of Zoa Sherburne, I read this book partly because I saw her name on Peter Sireuta's Collecting Children's Books blog, where, along with Jean Nielsen and Amelia Walden, she was mentioned as YA writer from what he calls a "lost generation." After reading River at her Feet, I would describe Sherburne as a transitional writer, looking ahead to the kinds of books I often read growing up in the 70s: "problem novels," yes, but ones that focused on emotional situations rather than divorce, alcoholism or some of the more "angsty" issues.

River at Her Feet takes its theme from the once-familar Longfellow poem Maidenhood: "Standing with reluctant feet/Where brook and river meet." Interestingly, I've read some criticism that these lines, which are also quoted in Anne of Green Gables, are a coded reference to physical maturation of adolescence. (Oh, those literary critics and their filthy minds!) In any case, Sherburne focuses strictly on the emotional growth of her heroine, Elizabeth Stacy. At loose ends after her older sister's wedding, Elizabeth, 16, develops a crush on Eric Killian, piano prodigy and visiting celebrity, who happens to be 24.

What follows is a little shocking to tender modern sensibilities. Eric and Elizabeth date, though very chastely. They take long walks and go boating and once even go to a formal dance. Elizabeth's parents frown but take a hands-off approach. (We eventually learn that this is because they know that Eric has a steady girlfriend his own age in his hometown.) Sherburne handles this so well the reader doesn't ask some rather obvious questions about how damaging these emotional cross-currents might be. And River ends cheerfully, with Elizabeth turning down a last date with Eric to spend time with her family. If River at Her Feet is a transitional novel, looking ahead to some of the tougher subjects that will be tackled later in the decade, emotionally it's still back in the past -- with Longfellow -- viewing adolescence as a time of rapture, growth and innocence.