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, May 18, 2010

Queens of the Genre, Part I: Maud Hart Lovelace

Title: Emily of Deep Valley
Author: Maud Hart Lovelace
Illustrations: Vera Neville
Publisher: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1950
Setting: Deep Valley (a.k.a. Mankato), Minnesota
Fun: Little Syria; frog legs; the Browning Club; the election of Woodrow Wilson
Quote: "I'm through high school, I'm finished with something, but I'm not beginning anything. That's wrong. When you finish something, you always ought to begin something new. But I'm just going to go on doing housework, looking after Grandpa."

I have never counted myself a huge fan of the Betsy-Tacy books. Perhaps it was growing up in the 1970s, but I always felt there was something pallid about the whole series. Betsy never has any problems that can't be solved by going on a picnic and I think there is one recorded instance, in the whole ten books, where she says something not-very-nice about another girl. But one aspect of Betsy-Tacy has always seduced me, and that is the idea that to stand on the verge of adulthood about 1912 or so must have been bliss. Psyche knots, watch bracelets, organdy dresses, the Philomathians, Class Day, the Junior-Senior banquet -- all the girls happy and self-confident, the boys full of mischief and fun -- the entire insular American world at their feet.

Emily is a spin-off of Betsy-Tacy. Set in the same town, and full of off-hand references to Betsy Ray and Tib Mueller, it is also a little darker, as if Lovelace wanted to rework some of her earlier themes in a more realistic way. For Emily Webster, unlike Betsy, has problems that can't be solved by going on a picnic.

Emily has been raised by her grandfather, a Civil War veteran who lives mainly in the past. He sees no sense in sending Emily to college -- he thinks he was generous to let her finish high school. Unlike Emily's high-school friends, who troop happily off to the "U" anticipating sorority rushes and all kinds of fun, Emily knows that college would really mean something to her -- she wants to be a sociologist, like her idol, Jane Addams. Instead she is left in Deep Valley as winter comes on, without a friend, male or female, her own age.

Emily, however, does not repine. She buys a new hat, begins formal study of the works of Robert Browning, and learns to do the "Gaby Glide." And she takes a look at the community around her, including the Syrian immigrants who live on the wrong side of the slough. There's a notable anti-immigrant feeling in Deep Valley, but Emily, with the help of handsome, interesting, Jed Wakeman, organizes a boy's club as well as citizenship and English classes for the adults.

None of this comes easily. Lovelace was good at drawing scenes of adolescent fun and friendship -- sleigh rides, sing-a-longs, skating parties. In this book she inverts the usual: the most painful scene in the book occurs when Emily sits through such a sleigh ride with an unwilling date, knowing she doesn't fit in and detesting the silliness of the girls she has been friends with all through high school:

"[Their] talk would be about their colleges, their new experiences. She had had new experiences, too, she thought with proud resentment, but when she was with the crowd they seemed to be of no importance. It was true even with the girls...She wasn't tired of her friends, but she was tired of pursuing them as though her own life were worthless."

By the end of Emily of Deep Valley, the last tie to her old crowd has been cut when she turns down the patronizing Don for Jed Wakeman. They will stay in Deep Valley, Jed teaching, Emily continuing her work with the Syrians. In the Betsy-Tacy books, "the crowd" is a source of strength -- a rock of friendship in the tumult of life. But Emily creates a satisfying, independent life for herself only by growing beyond the crowd. I never read Emily of Deep Valley as a child -- as it wasn't part of the regular Betsy-Tracy books the Lexington library didn't have it.* But if I had I think it would have redeemed the entire series for me.

*By some miracle, the Henderson Public Library, which does not have most of the upper books of the Betsy-Tacy series, has a 1950 first printing of Emily of Deep Valley. So far they have not cast it off onto the "Pages for Pennies" shelf.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Original: Maureen Daly

Title: Seventeenth Summer
Author: Maureen Daly
Publisher: Dodd, Mead, 1942 (Currently available from Simon and Schuster)
Setting: Pre-Pearl Harbor Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin
Fun: Beers at Pete's; Cokes at McKnight's drugstore; the bakery truck; meeting the train.
Quote: "It's almost like a secret police system -- no one escapes being checked on. At least no one who counts. The checkers keep their eyes open for new prospects among the young sophomore girls who are growing up and showing signs of datable promise. They only watch out for the very pretty or very popular girls, so it is the most serious catastrophe of all not even to be noticed by the checkers...Most of them didn't know my name until I began to date Jack."

In 1941, Maureen Daly, a college student, wrote a novel about a girl who falls in love with a boy just outside her social circle. Published a year later, Seventeenth Summer became the first "young adult" novel -- targeted specifically to girls too old for Nancy Drew but unwilling to read adult literature. More simply put, Maureen Daly established the genre I write about here. But Seventeenth Summer is more than some obscure 1940s novel. It's a classic work -- a beautiful, subtle and haunting story which distills, moment by moment, the suspense of adolescent love, the cross-currents of family life, and brevity of the Wisconsin summer, all against the background of small-town life in the months before World War II.

Nominally, Seventeenth Summer is about the relationship between Angie Morrow and Jack Duluth, who comes into her life because he drives the bakery truck. Although the social gulf between them is not immense, Jack has no prospects beyond the bakery, while Angie is going to college at the end of the summer. In actuality, much of the book is caught up with Angie's observation of her family-centered life. She is poised between the brand-new idea of what independence with Jack might mean and regret at the disruption of everything she knows. She observes other teenagers at roadhouses and keg parties with the distance of an anthropologist, preferring the structured world of her close-knit family. And yet she can't quite turn away from the thrill of Jack. One of the things that marks Seventeenth Summer as "young adult" is that Daly acknowledges Angie's physical attraction to Jack:

His shoulders above the water were smooth and brown, shiny with the wet, and when he moved the muscles in his arms made a barely perceptible ripple. He swam out a short distance, and then signaled me to come in.
Why is there always that self-conscious feeling about looking at a boy in swimming trunks?

I had always thought it was something like voting, that you weren't really supposed to start feeling with your heart till you were at least twenty-one. And here I was looking at him so hard I could almost feel myself seeing the clean, wet look of his crew cut and the familar coarse knit of his football sweater, while my heart was pounding till it made my voice quavery.

Although Angie politely refuses to elope with Jack, at the end of the summer she leaves Fond Du Lac for the outer world he represents.

Maureen Daly never wrote another teen novel. She married a journalist and later wrote about her travels with him, as well as some books for younger children. If Seventeenth Summer was to a large extent drawn from her own life -- and it reads that way -- this is understandable. The teen writers who came after her would be more prolific, and more professional, but also shallower and lighter. But the same themes established by Daly -- the pull between family and independence, the thrill of attraction, and the quest to grow up, would be at the center of them.