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.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Divided Loyalties

Titles: The Divided Heart; Honor Sands
Authors: Mina Lewiton; Mildred Lee
Publishers: E.M. Hale, 1947 (1965 reprint); Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1966
Provenance: Formerly the property of the Nye County (Nevada) School District
Settings: New York City; Cypress, a small Florida town
Fun: Playing "Greensleeves" on the harp; helping your old man out with a couple of extra bucks; characters named Princess Gault and Mr. Bubber Arrington
"I've been reading up on Child Psychology. What are you going to do, Julie?" "Do?" "For a career, I mean." (The Divided Heart)

I don't deserve Mother or Daddy -- or Grandma, either, Honor thought. I am an evil person. She cut the zinnias as long stemmed as possible. (Honor Sands)

Both these books belonged to the school district of Nye County, Nevada, probably to the school in Tonopah, the town where I bought them.* Both books still had their check-out cards in their back pockets, and I couldn't help peeking to see how popular they might have been. (A dangerous thing for a writer to do, I know.) Honor Sands was checked out a total of 6 times, most recently in October 1972. The Divided Heart, however, was checked out 24 times, mainly in 1968-69, when it seems to have gone through most of the female portion of the eighth grade.
I can't quite say what the attraction of The Divided Heart might have been. It's a wistful little book about divorce, set in post-war New York City. Julie's father is unemployed songwriter who eventually goes off with a rich woman, although Julie, after discovering folk songs and getting a job taking care of neglected babies at a nearby Settlement House, doesn't seem to miss him much. (Mina Lewiton taught at the New School for Social Research, and honestly, it doesn't show a bit.)
Honor Sands would seem to be more contemporary, being a quiet little book about life in a town in Central Florida. Much like Mayberry, there are no African-Americans in this ideal town, presumably because Mildred Lee did not want any controversial civil rights stuff in her book, and if you let this go by you have a nice story about slumber parties, school rivalries, a handsome science teacher and going to the prom. The strangest thing about Honor Sands is a rather sophisticated subplot in which Honor begins to suspect her father of having an affair -- with her aunt. When Honor finds out that her father is simply giving Aunt Cathy advice on her upcoming marriage, Honor is so relieved she throws up, which is a nice, unsentimental touch.
On the other hand, if I were an eighth grader in Tonopah, Nevada in 1968, I might have preferred The Divided Heart too.

*I bought my first two teen girl books, The Paris Hat and The Charmed Circle, in Tonopah last year, selecting them from a table labeled "Books -- $3.00" in the Central Nevada Museum. Alas, the museum no longer has that table, but there is now a used bookstore in town.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Metapost: Ephemera

As I mentioned when I did the post about Junior Miss, I found a postcard tucked in the front cover of the book. It was sent by a soldier named George A. Paris serving "somewhere in Italy" in 1943 to his cousin Eugene back in Manchester, NH. Inside Junior Miss was an owner's name -- Marjorie Tremblay -- with the note that it was a present from Cousin Albert in 1941. The book was extremely clean and I think it probably never had another owner -- just sat on Marjorie Tremblay's bookshelf until her library was sold off to a bookseller in New Hampshire sometime this year. When I saw the postcard my first thought was that I couldn't believe the bookseller missed it. Junior Miss cost me $1.00 and the postcard would probably fetch a little more than that sold separately on ebay. I had no interest in selling it, so I thought about keeping it. It was pretty and kind of a remarkable piece of history. But I also had a gut feeling that it didn't really belong to me. I thought there was probably someone out there to whom the postcard might have real significance. To cut to the chase, I found, via Facebook, Gisele Paris Truedel, George Paris' daughter, and ended up sending the postcard to her. She has very fond memories of her father and was very excited to have something from an era in his life she didn't know much about. The topper is that this week a reporter in New Hampshire wrote a human-interest-type feature column about it.
Well! Famous in New Hampshire! (At least among the shrinking number of people who still read newspapers.) Anyway, I think the universe is playing games with me. Because this weekend I was reading Sunday Dreamer by Bob and Jan Young, and in the middle of the book this fell out:

Could it be that for someone out there a grade school student ticket to a Mary College Marauders athletic event from 1970-71 has untold significance! I must find them! To the Google!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Raisin in the Arizona Sun

Title: Hold Fast to Your Dreams
Author: Catherine Blanton
Jacket: Harper Johnson
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1955
Setting: Blue Mesa (probably Tucson), Arizona
Provenance: formerly the property of Memorial High School, Newark, CA
Fun: the Fiesta of the Arts; a Hollywood producer-type who says "by gad"; tacos
Quote: Dorothea drew back. "Emmy Lou Jefferson, what a thing for you to say! You of all people. Remember this isn't just your battle or mine. It belongs to our generation. We may fail this time and even the next. But that doesn't mean we won't keep fighting."

Hold Fast to Your Dreams has a fairly familiar plot: Emmy Lou wants to dance, and in order to do so she must leave her small town for the wider world. The twist is that Emmy Lou is African-American, and this, too, would seem to make for a familiar plot. But Hold Fast to Your Dreams lacks the typical self-congratulatory tone of the social problem novel. For one thing, it was written in 1955. In 1955 the Montgomery Bus Boycott was still getting going. The Little Rock 9, the March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Act were all well in the future. (Even the play whose title I have ripped off for this post wasn't written until 1959.) In other words, there was no guarantee that segregation and institutional racism were going to disappear anytime soon. Hold Fast to Your Dreams gives us an America where attitudes vary widely and the future of what Blanton calls "the old, old argument" is unclear.
Emmy Lou takes the segregation in her hometown in Alabama, where she is her ballet teacher's only black pupil, for granted. She doesn't seek to challenge it, but to escape it, by moving to Blue Mesa, Arizona to live with her aunt and uncle. The school system in Blue Mesa is not segregated and Emmy Lou is befriended and accepted by a host of other students, both white and Hispanic. But Emmy Lou and her aunt are also turned away from a restaurant in Blue Mesa, and Emmy Lou's guidance counselor there suggests she give up the idea of becoming a professional dancer, telling her "for a Negro, it would be like batting your head against a closed door. Let's be realistic." Emmy Lou's father, aunt and uncle talk of patience as well: "...things are changing for us...we just have to learn to wait." Sit-ins and protest marches are in the future. Emmy Lou learns to swallow insults, including having the lead in the school ballet taken away from her after a parent complains.
In the end, Emmy Lou does fight, but she fights as part of a community. She is chosen for the lead in the Fiesta of the Arts ballet by a famous Hollywood director, but the head of the Fiesta (father of her friend Dorothy) refuses to sign the contract. Emmy Lou, Dorothy, and the other ballet students come together to fight for her, and it is then that Dorothy makes the remark I've quoted above: "This isn't your battle of mine. It belongs to our generation." Kind of prescient for 1955.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

In the Garden

Title: The Organdy Cupcakes
Author: Mary Stolz
Publisher: Harper & Row, 1951
Setting: Pre "Jersey-Shore" New Jersey
Provenance: formerly the property of the Butler Country Traveling Library
Fun: psychoanalysis; hats in the icebox; the daily drama of life and death.
Quote: "It was not an unfamiliar feeling, this one, for Gretchen had been more or less falling in love since she'd been fourteen. But not like this, she thought. Nothing like this at all."

The title and cover make more sense when you learn this book was later republished as Student Nurse.
The Organdy Cupcakes
takes us back to the days when nurses wore little paper caps, lived in residential dormatories with a matron, and dreamed of marrying doctors. Of the three girls -- Gretchen, Nelle and Rosemary -- only Gretchen achieves this, somewhat suddenly, at the very end of the book. Nelle marries a wealthy dilettante obsessed with Ancient Egypt (they don't make 'em like that anymore) while Rosemary dumps her doctor-boyfriend to join the Army nursing corps. (This is probably a wise move, since he has just psychoanalyzed her, which is a poor foundation for any marriage.)
Mary Stolz had a remarkable career, publishing her first YA novel in 1950 and her last in 1988, and negotiating the era of "serious topics" for young adult novels with some ease. She won Newbery Honors in 1966 for The Noonday Friends, which is the title that most rings a bell for someone of my generation. Style-wise, Stolz's novels are lush and dreamy, full of gardens and rain and glittering sunshine as the characters muse about their lives. As a child I found this kind of thing hard to follow, which is probably why I can't recall anything of The Noonday Friends now except the title. But as an adult I found The Organdy Cupcakes a beautiful book to read, particularly for its peaceful setting in small-town New Jersey before it became suburbanized. The details of hospital life are so well drawn that it's hard to believe that Stolz never trained as a nurse. (Stolz did suffer from severe arthritis in the 50s, so perhaps she drew her insights as a patient.) There aren't a lot of serpents in Stolz's gardens, but it's nice to see her characters moving into the adult world, knowing what they want for themselves.