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, April 23, 2010

Behind the Scenes at the Card Shop

Title: A Valentine for Vinnie
Author: Marjory Hall
Publisher: Funk & Wagnalls, 1965
Cover art: unknown
Setting: a unnamed state with fogs, long winters and towns with names like Rock Harbor and Pine Bay
Provenance: formerly the property of the West Bend Public Library
Fun: inside knowledge of the retail card biz; college weekends; queer old maids
Quote: "Halloween!" she said aloud. "Who ever heard of a such a thing? I never sent a Halloween card, and I never got one either."

Vinnie works in a card shop. After a slow beginning, she discovers that she likes the card shop. She has ideas about the card shop. A new window display, for instance, and better inventory procedures. And the aforementioned Halloween cards. Then there's the good looking salesman (alas, married) who stops by and befriends her. And Ted -- her crush since high school, who comes in to buy a card as well.

Marjory Hall began her writing career in the 1940s, with maltshop romances, and A Valentine for Vinnie seems closer to that era, and genre, than its 1965 publication date would indicate. There is a college weekend -- driving up to meet a date for the big game and a dance -- and a subplot about building the new country club. Vinnie, though not terribly insightful, is pure-hearted and hopeful. But maybe Hall was, by 1965, a little tired. Certainly by about half-way through Valentine she has lost interest in Vinnie. You hear less about the card shop, and more about new characters. And then Ted invites Vinnie to a college dance, and, the day before the dance, uninvites her -- not even in person, but by letter. This could have been the book's emotional core. Instead, Vinnie just has a good cry and decides it's all for the best:

"Her great devotion to Ted had put blinders on her. She hadn't enjoyed the good things, or the right people, all this time. Hal, for example."

Exactly 22 pages later Hal is giving her his pin.

Monday, April 12, 2010

So You've Ruined Your Life

Title: April Wedding
Author: Eve Bennett
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1959
Cover art: unknown
Provenance: formerly the property of the Grand Forks (ND) Public Library
Setting: Adolescent Denver
Fun: Teen Times radio show; selling insurance door to door, teenage motherhood
Quote: "Bill's somber eyes stared straight ahead. 'They might feel that their trust is betrayed if we go on like this. Jeannie, you know as well as I do what ails us. We either ought to give each other up, or we ought to get married.' "

You've probably seen this after-school special. High school seniors, deeply in love, decide to get married. A year later they're broke, living in a squalid apartment with a screaming baby. Boy begins to drift away, hanging out night after night with the guys. Girl turns into a nag with hair curlers and a rolling pin. Divorce, and a lesson for us all, are just around the corner.

It could be that Eve Bennett is just a little too independent-minded to accept this script. Or possibly she just doesn't want such bad things to happen to two nice characters like Jeannie and Bill. Certainly the major plot points are there, portrayed with Bennett's usual wit and realism. A courthouse wedding, a run-down apartment, Bill selling insurance door to door to pay the bills, followed by Bill quitting several jobs and being jealous of Jeannie working, topped off by Jeannie becoming pregnant and hating it. Bennett doesn't skimp on the reality of morning sickness, mood swings and the uncertainty of taking care of a first baby.

But Bennett is not trying to scare her audience straight. Sure, babies cry and pregnancy makes you feel unattractive, but there's always the possibility that your husband will come home on your birthday with a new dress ("smoke-gray pleated nylon skirt spangled with velvety black flowers and sparkle dust") and take you out to dinner. And that, after a year of ups and downs, your father-in-law, impressed by your commitment, will offer to pay for college for both of you. As Bennett comments on the back of the book, she is not "usually in favor of teen-age marriages...[but] I think most marriages could be worked out if both parties really tried, and the one thing on the side of young marriages is that youth is more resilient."

Is Bennett painting an over-optimistic picture? If the after-school-special version of the tale is grimmer than it needs to be, in order to sell the lesson of the story, is Bennett, working in the confines of popular fiction, bound to put a happy ending on things for the same reason? The answer is probably yes. But all any writer can do is try to describe the world as they know it, and that's something Bennett does very well.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Right Sort

Titles: Then Came November; When Debbie Dared
Authors: Nan Gilbert; Kathleen Robinson
Publisher: Whitman, 1963
Cover art: Olindo Giancomini; Jim Tadych
Settings: Fairhills, a small town turned suburb; Karidale, a suburb of St. Louis
Provenance: "Helen Snyder" written inside front cover, raised seal on first page "Library of Ernestine L. Snyder."
Fun: homegrown watercress, fear of heights, going deeply into debt for the perfect coat.
Quote: "This is authentic Fraser plaid, woven in Scotland especially for our clan. I believe the firm now offers it for general sale, if your mother is interested in ordering, but whether they maintained the quality of the wool, I couldn't say--" (Then Came November)
"[Merry] was the only girl in Karidale to have ridden to hounds." (When Debbie Dared)

This was an era when class struck terror into the hearts of millions. In book after book, heroines are acutely aware of their social position, marked by such things as Chinese salad bowls, pedigreed dogs, and where they summer, as well as proximity to horses and booze.
In these two Whitman teen novels, Then Came November, and When Debbie Dared, Dulcy Rolff and Debbie Robyne both run up against snaky girls who, while pretending to be their friends, are secretly snobs. In Dulcy's case the motivation is Dulcy's superior social position. Dulcy is not wealthy, but her family bears a pioneer name in the town and gets frequent mention in the society column. As Elaine, the snake, puts it:

"Rolffs don't have to be rich. They don't have to butter people up and pull strings and -- don't you think I get sick, sick of watching Mother do it, every new town we go to?"

Dulcy, previously shy, and not blessed with a lot of foresight (she nearly kills her dog by giving him sleeping pills so he won't bark when she sneaks out) is completely suckered by Elaine, who shows her how to open a charge account ("just give them your father's name") and then, when she is in trouble at home and school, steals her boyfriend.

Debbie, on the other hand, is an ordinary soul taken up by Carlotta, a "New York girl" whose father has been transferred to Debbie's hometown. " 'Personally,' " Carlotta says, "with a twist of golden bare shoulders, 'I think it's gauche to dine early.' " Fortunately, Carlotta mispronounces gauche, and Debbie becomes disillusioned with her. Carlotta is also driven to a jealous fit when another senior girl drops out to marry her fiance, a West Point cadet. (The lucky thing -- she gets to start her married life on an army base in West Germany!) It turns out that she only cultivated Debbie to get her help on her French homework. Carlotta ends up alone and unloved, while Debbie rides the ferris wheel at the state fair with her new boyfriend -- the son of an orthopedic surgeon.
While it might seem that the common folks prevail, in fact neither Dulcy nor Debbie questions that there are certain things one ought to have or aspire to. When Debbie looks over her mother's dinner table before a party, she sees her grandmother's silver candlesticks, Calyx dinner ware, a linen tablecloth and "unmatched flat silver, all old and much of it worn thin." Dulcy, for her part, is comforted by her family's loyalty to anyone in trouble.
As for poor familyless Elaine, she and her Mother will evidently have to once again move to a new town and start pushing their way in among the right people.