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, September 1, 2011

A Walk in the Dark

Title: A Walk in the Moonlight
Author: Eve Bennett
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1959
Setting: Bennett's trademark Denver
Provenance: ILL, currently the property of St. Francis University Library, Loretto, Pennsylvania
Fun: nosy neighbors; waitressing in a diner; quitting school
Quote: "The clothes, smelling clean and fresh, blew lazily in the breeze, and Mary was conscious of a job well done. Suddenly her eye caught a movement at the dining room window of the house next door. That meant that old Mrs. McDrey was peering from behind the lace curtain, looking for tattletale gray in Mary's wash, counting the towels and sheets, spying out every worn spot in every piece."

Sorry for the long gap. I got the bright idea of asking for some books through inter-library loan instead of pursuing them on Ebay and other sites. The first book I asked for came through quickly, but the next two didn't show at all, and when I asked at the library I was told my order had been cancelled, for no apparent reason. They put the request through again and this week I got A Walk In the Moonlight.

Eve Bennett also wrote Concerning Casey, I, Judy and April Wedding, all books set in Colorado (mainly Denver) and all about girls going through unexpected turmoil -- sometimes with a hint of sexual scandal -- and emerging stronger. A Walk in the Moonlight's starting point is a variation of the 19th century shibboleth in which a couple who stay out all night when their buggy breaks down have to get married because the woman's reputation is ruined. Mary Munday and faithful, if not very passionate, boyfriend Andy blow a carburetor on a mountain road and have to hike home. Nosy neighbor Mrs. McDrey sees Mary strolling in at six a.m. and tells another nosy neighbor and before you know it, Mary's friend, Tessie, is forbidden to associate with her. The girls at school talk, too, and soon Andy stops coming around.

This incident -- which is made believable, even for the 1950s -- is really just a small part of the story. Mary has a supportive family and plenty of friends and the reader can't help but think that the gossip doesn't amount to much. But Mary, like a lot of Bennett's heroines, is angry at the basic unfairness of life. She quits school and goes to work as a waitress in a grease-pit diner, and that's where the drama of the book unfolds.

The rest of A Walk in the Moonlight is Mary working through her emotions, with the help of her father and a new boyfriend, Mike Aldo. Here, the era in which is was written begins to tell. Mike has a tendency to grab Mary while subjecting her to "supportive" tirades which are supposed to bring her out of her self-pity. As a result of the speeches, Mary does indeed go back to school and makes plans for college. But in the final scene, after Mike tells Mary he's going to marry her someday, he suggests they stop seeing each other because in the meantime they might know...tempted. (The words "clean" and "fine" are used a great deal in this scene.)

I can't help think this was a little old-fashioned, even for 1959, and it introduces a note of conflict to what is supposed to be an uplifting ending. I guess ten years later, when Mary gets a divorce from Mike (and she will), she'll have her waitressing experience to fall back on.

Now this sounds sort of bitter. It's always been my aim in this blog not to criticize books merely for demonstrating the values of their time. I don't believe the current era is inherently superior to the 50s; in some ways we're worse off. But I do object to a book like A Walk in the Moonlight, a book in which much care has been taken to create a realistic world with realistic conflicts, crushes itself down at the end into something "clean" and "fine."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

...After They've Seen Par-ee?

Title: Princess in Denim
Author: Zoa Sherburne
Publisher: William Morrow, 1958
Provenance: ILL, currently the property of the Wichita State University Library
Setting: Rural Washington State
Fun: Miss Tulip contest; owning your own horse; the wiles of the big city

Zoa Sherburne is best remembered for Why Have the Birds Stopped Singing? a 1974 novel about epilepsy and time travel. To my mind, she's one of those writers who came into their own in the 1960s and 70s, when subject matter shifted and broadened. (Too Bad About the Haines Girl (1967) was a groundbreaking "problem novel" about teen pregnancy.) Sherburne began publishing in the mid-fifties, however, and her earlier novels, while lighter in tone, are never silly and take pains to present realistic, if not terribly dramatic, dilemmas for her characters.

Eden lives in a small town in Washington State, where her father is a farmer. She allows her would-be boyfriend, Steve, to take a picture of her as a farmgirl -- blue jeans, straw hat -- which he then enters in a local beauty contest. Struck by something refreshing in the shot, the judges award Eden the title of Miss Tulip.

Up to this point, Eden has been happy with her life, with little interest in glamor. But news of her win brings to town a charming newspaperman, Johnny Halloran. He offers to manage her in the Miss Washington contest, perhaps even taking her all the way to Miss America. It's one of Princess in Denim's strengths that the reader believes in Eden's fascination with Johnny and all he promises. Eden is content with her life, but, naturally enough, she wonders if there could be more out there than she knows about. And, naturally enough, she doesn't want to turn her back on it before she finds out. And so Eden, over the protests and guarded warnings of Steve, her father and several other adults, goes to Seattle under Johnny Halloran's wing.

It's not difficult to guess that Eden is eventually going to choose to return to life on the farm. But Sherburne manages it so that this choice does not seemed forced or leave the reader with sense of disappointment. One of the reasons for this is that the farm Eden comes back to is not the one she left; the life she resumes has undergone some major changes. Princess in Denim is not the most exciting novel Sherburne wrote, but Eden is a winning heroine of a worthy story.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Foggy Island

Title: Halfpenny Linda
Author: Jean Nielsen
Publisher: Funk & Wagnalls, 1963
Setting: chilly England
Fun: dancing with girls, American boys, Welsh history, Cornish history, Scottish history
Quote: Kathyrn nudged her and laughed. "Oh, there're other ways if you really want to see [the boys.] But why, actually? It's such a nuisance -- all those party manners and pretending to be interested in their dull cricket scores and always giving them the best cakes and so on. It's much jollier just to run around with the girls."

The above quote tells me more about the history of gender relations in England than I ever wanted to know. I really can't imagine an American novel in which a character would feel that, as mere girl, she doesn't deserve the best piece of cake. However, autres temps, autres moeurs.

Halfpenny Linda is the scene of many such culture clashes, almost all of them about boys and girls. The premise is that Linda, an American, is sent to live with her mother's family in England and go to school for a year there. This is not a reward, but a last-ditch effort to save her from failure, since -- because of her social life -- she is flunking high school in Southern California. This is also where the title comes from, as Linda's father, in a kind of "tough love" scene, tells her she's only worth a halfpenny unless she shapes up.

Linda goes to London, and is depressed by the damp and cold and also depressed by a girls-only school and a general attitude that boys and girls shouldn't mix. At a night at the local Youth Centre, for instance, the girls dance with each other, because asking the boys might put them (the boys) on the spot. "What if they don't want to?" asks Icy, Linda's cousin. Linda plunges in and does ask a boy to dance with Icy and the result is tears, anger and complete abandonment of the Youth Centre.

I'm not really sure how accurate a guide Halfpenny Linda is to the lives of English teenagers of that time. I keep reminding myself that the Beatles came out of this era -- and even the "innocent" Beatles aren't really as innocent as they seem -- and then there was Swinging London, etc. As an outsider it's probably something I can't really understand. The intent of a book like this, however, is for the stranger to eventually accept the local customs and begin to appreciate the good things of life in a strange land. This Linda does -- and she neatly elides the boy problem by meeting two American exchange students who aren't at all shy around girls. She also travels, during the vacations -- sorry, holidays -- and learns about Roman Britain, King Arthur and other historical figures. By the end of Halfpenny, Linda has finally cracked maths, pulled up her grades and learned that there is more to life than surfing.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Green Acres

Title: Fair Exchange

Author: Jean Nielsen

Publisher: Scholastic reprint, 1964, originally Funk & Wagnalls, 1957

Setting: Cottonwood City, Nebraska and Deepcove, Washington

Provenance: formerly the property of Eileen Rairigh

Fun: smorgasboards, salmon bakes, Canada, getting married right out of high school.

Quote: "Steena scooped up a mouthful of water and spat it out again, grimacing at the cold, salt, bitter taste of it. Then she was running again, half in and half out of the water, eyes shining and heart nearly bursting because somehow, half a world away from the place she had been born and lived all her life, she had found her true home."

Fair Exchange begins with three girls in a small Great Plains town. Steena is a farmer's daughter desperate to get off the farm. Terri is a domestic drudge who resents her mother's lack of interest in housework. Then there's Sunny. Sunny is Julie Andrews, with a little bit of Sue Ann Nivens thrown in:

"A tired looking young woman came out on the porch and called to the children...How hard she must work!...Someone should tell her a few things [Sunny thinks.] The clothes the children were wearing took a lot of washing and ironing. She needed quantities of dark, practical, drip-dry play clothes. Something could be done about that ugly house, too. Those silly, limp curtains at the windows for instance. They probably looked that way ten minutes after they'd been starched and ironed. What she needed was bright plastic curtains that could be wiped clean with a damp rag. But probably the poor woman had never read a home-ec article about what color could do to a home..."

It's not only Sunny who's fired up about Home Ec. Terri, in order to win a college scholarship in the subject, participates in a contest which includes making a dress out of a feed sack. In fact, much of Fair Exchange is straight out of the era when Home Ec was not a pastime but a science, meant to bring health, efficiency and sensible color matches to the American home.

But Nielsen also has a wider theme. Steena, Terri and Sunny are part of a high-school exchange group and, along several other seniors, make a journey to the West Coast to learn about life beyond their hometown. Today, the difference between Nebraska and Washington State might not seem that drastic. But the Nebraska of Fair Exchange is a pre-television, pre-convenient air travel world. The students are thrilled by a cross-country train ride, their first sight of an ocean, and an overnight excursion to Canada. And all three girls have their lives utterly changed by the trip. Steena falls in love with the Northwest and, quickly securing a job and a boyfriend, plans to move there as soon as school ends. Terri accepts that her mother will not change and begins to appreciate what she does as a community activist. And Sunny decides if her fiance wants to move her to some remote mining town, she can practice the principles of Home Ec there just as easily as she could in Nebraska.

Yes, Sunny has a fiance. It's one of the weirder aspects of Fair Exchange that two of the girls -- Steena and Sunny -- get engaged in their senior year of school, because they just know that that Ralph and Jim, respectively are the ones.

[Sunny] knew this would not disappear with the moonlight. This was the sun-and-candlelight kind of love -- the love that meant forsaking home and family.

With a few unemotional words, [Steena] and Ralph Forrester, whom she had never met before, had pledged themselves to each other and a particular way of life together. Yet she knew with a quiet certainty that this would last a lifetime.

The adults shake their heads and shrug their shoulders, and everything ends happily, with all three girls looking forward to life.

I worry about poor Sunny's future, though, popping into strangers' houses and advising them to put up bright plastic curtains. I wonder how many times she got punched in the nose.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Long Way

Title: The Long Ride Home
Author: James L. Summers
Publisher: Westminster, 1966
Setting: Paso Verde, a small California town
Fun: not being the child of an alcoholic
Quote: "They wanted to help, they'd said, but what kind of help was it that robbed a guy of the last thing he had -- an image of himself as someone able to see the family through any kind of trouble? Help? There wasn't any help. Nothing that anyone could do would change life for Todd Blair."

As one of the few male writers to have a long career in this genre, Summers often specialized in more hard-hitting teen novels. In The Long Ride Home, we are introduced to Todd Blair and his sister Ann, new kids in town, who deliberately make no friends, and who hurry home every afternoon. In case you haven't guessed by the end of the first chapter, their father, Jack, is an alcoholic.

Except for one chapter, which explores Jack's delusional thinking, most of the The Long Ride Home focuses on Todd and Ann. They have sworn a pact to "stick it out": neither will leave home until they graduate from high school. In the meantime they lead lives of isolation, avoiding social occasions or doing anything that will attract attention. Both are full of rage, though they never express it physically. But Ann and Todd are dogged by a couple of nosy overachievers, Gayle Sutton and Bill Caldwell. It turns out that these sparkling, popular kids have - or had -- the same problem once, and they recognize the signs. In one of the more realistic touches of the book, Todd resists their friendship for a long time and when he does go to an Alateen meeting he leaves in frustration. Only at the very end of the book, as Jack enters a state of terminal decline, does Todd turn to Gayle and Bill for help.

The Long Ride Home does have a slight whiff of "after-school special." It explains Alateen, includes the Serenity Prayer, and introduces minor characters who exemplify various types of alcoholics. (All of the alcoholics in the book are parents, not teens.) But there is a solid, realistic core to the book: Todd's controlling attitude and anger, so similar to his father's; the quick mention of a family history of alcoholism; Todd's conflicted interest in Gayle. Full of topical references (New Math, the Vietnam War), the narrative is written in a loose, hip, style:

Gayle Sutton did sparkle, from her shining hair to the winking little pins on her sweater. She had a soft, full mouth and a white perfection in her smile. But what difference did that make? Every high school in the country had them by the dozens. Perfect, absolute, a standard product.

Ending neither happily nor unhappily, The Long Ride Home is an interesting forerunner of the "problem novels" of the late 60s.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Summer on Nantucket

Title: Six on Easy Street
Author: Betty Cavanna
Publisher: Westminster Press, 1954
Setting: Nantucket
Provenance: formerly the property of Chillicothe High School, Chillicothe, Missouri
Fun: running a boarding house, a French exchange student; finding an old diary
Quote: The house on Easy Street was square, and its shingles were weathered to a soft, dove-colored gray. The door was not in the middle, being flanked by a single window on one side and two on the other. The chimney too was a little off center, but the widow's walk, overlooking the harbor, was planted midway on the backbone of the steep-pitched roof.

Unlike some of Cavanna's other books, Six on Easy Street focuses on an entire family. The Sanfords, academics, have inherited a house in Nantucket and intend to open it to boarders for the summer, hoping to increase the family income. What follows is an exploration, by the entire family, of Nantucket: the whaling museum, bicycle rides, beach parties. There are guests to serve, including penny-pinching old ladies who don't tip, and boys, including a homely French exchange student and a cute grocery delivery boy.

The main female character, 16 year old Deborah, resents Nantucket, since it keeps her from Craig, her hometown boyfriend, who has invited her to visit him at his summer place. Deborah does have Carol, her best friend, on Nantucket with her, however. Carol's parents are divorced, and (as divorced parents always are in this era) wealthy and inattentive. The girls have contrasting views of their own families, and what they want out of life: Deborah thinks Carol's father's friends are grand and exciting, and Carol thinks that Deborah's parents have interesting dinner conversations.

Six on Easy Street is mostly fun. All the kids have adventures, including Johnny, the show-off younger brother, who runs away to find his cat. The history of Nantucket -- including the fate of the Essex -- is mixed in easily with the plot. In the end, Deborah, who has saved all summer to be able to go to Craig, gives the money to her family to pay the medical bills after her brother has a sailing accident, and is rewarded when Craig makes a surprise. Good thing she didn't fall in love with the homely French exchange student.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Trouble with Angels

Title: Angel on Skis
Author: Betty Cavanna
Publisher: William Morrow, 1957
Setting: the locals' side of a Vermont ski town
Provenance: Hazelton Library, Chillicothe, Missouri
Fun: Dartmouth boys, the Snow Carnival, making your own ski boots
Quote: "Let's forget what I said about the Franconia races," he suggested. "As a matter of fact I think you'd better quit racing for the rest of the year, Angie. You're trying too hard. You've lost the fun of skiing, somehow or other. And you're the sort of person who can't ski really well unless you're having fun."

Unlike some of Cavanna's other heroines, who come from middle-class intellectual families, Angela Dodge is a local in Peru, a small Vermont ski town. Her father has recently died and her mother is running a kind of bed and breakfast for the crowds who invade during the winter. Most of the local kids don't care much for skiing -- it's something outsiders do -- but Angela develops a passionate interest in it, in spite of the fact that the even the basic equipment is well beyond her means.

Angela's drive is the core of Angel on Skis. It carries Angela through financial setbacks, broken limbs, losing races and romantic disappointment, and it makes for a fascinating story, for Angel on Skis
turns out to be not so much about skiing, or love, but about the unstable nature of ambition. Angela loves skiing, but she also hates it. She gives up on it and she goes back to it. She dreams of it, especially after being told she has Olympic-caliber talent, but she abandons skiing after her first loss. And she learns, ultimately, that she won't ever do well unless she loves what she's doing, in spite of all the difficulties.

This is not one of those starry-eyed novels in which the heroine magically has enormous talent and wins all her races with ease. Cavanna puts Angela through real difficulties and real disappointments, and her message is clear: if you want to do anything, you have to work hard. But all your hard work won't avail if you don't love what you're doing.

At times I wondered if Cavanna was not writing about skiing, but about writing itself.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Summer of Machu Picchu

Title: Fancy Free
Author: Betty Cavanna
Publisher: William Morrow, 1961
Setting: Peru
Provenance: formerly the property of Hazelton Public School Library, Chillicothe, Missouri
Fun: raising a baby llama, smuggling, Machu Picchu
Quote: "Nine o'clock?" Fancy asked, startled. "Isn't that awfully late?"
Sophistication and nonchalance practically poured from Tom's reply. "It's on the early side for the Lima dinner hour, actually. The only reason they feed us here at eight is that archeologists -- particularly archeologists norteamericanos -- get hungrier earlier."

You have to admire a teen author who sets her novel in a country that in 1961 was probably exotic to her readers. As I mentioned in my bio post, Cavanna travelled a lot, and I can only assume Fancy Free is the result of a visit to Peru and a climb to Machu Picchu.

Cavanna's heroines are often situated in academic families, and this is the case for Francesca (Fancy) Jones, who is brought to Peru by her archeologist father. The downside of an isolated archeological dig, from Fancy's point of view, is no interesting boys. Cavanna's female protagonists come in many varieties, but in Fancy Free she deliberately makes Fancy a pretty girl who, while not stupid, is mainly interested in having fun. She also creates a foil for Fancy in Silence Crawford, a Harvard student who wears slacks and doesn't own a single tube of lipstick. The girls become friends, naturally, and influence each other a little (Silence consents to having her hair done in a Lima beauty parlor, Fancy becomes fascinated by Peru and the Incas) -- but only a little.

As for the uninteresting boys, Fancy Free boasts three -- glamorous Tom Kimball, dull Jack McMahon, and juvenile Chris Barlow. Alas, Tom Kimball, after starring as the hero through three-quarters of the book, turns out to be an smuggler of Inca artifacts. This leaves the field open for Chris Barlow, who helps Fancy get revenge on Tom. But the real pleasure of Fancy Free is in its setting. It appreciates Peru, you might say -- without condescension and without turning it into merely an exotic background. A large section of it is set in a remote area, and the Quecha-speaking natives emerge as secondary characters, while Lima is presented as a sophisticated, modern city. I've never been to Peru, but if I do ever go I hope it will still have something of the untouristed country of Fancy Free.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Welcome to America

Title: Jenny Kimura
Publisher: William Morrow, 1964
Setting: Country-club Kansas City, Cape Cod
Provenance: formerly the property of Hazelton Library, Chillicothe, MO
Fun: strange American customs, beach parties, water-skiing
Quote: "Oh, he is," agreed [Alan's] mother confidently, "I have such high hopes for him!" She turned off the faucet under which she had been rinsing dinner plates and said confidentially, "I just hope he makes a good marriage -- to a girl of his own background and his own class....That's always wisest, don't you think?"

By 1964, most YA authors were aware of the younger generation's interest in the Civil Rights movement, and while the allusions to it in most novels of the era are minimal, the fact that Betty Cavanna chose to tackle racial prejudice in Jenny Kimura must have been something of a landmark, since Cavanna's novels, strong as they are, rarely stray from the mainstream.

Jenny Kimura Smith, the daughter of an American father and a Japanese mother, has grown up in Japan. Cavanna points out that her parents' marriage keeps her from full acceptance in Japan as well, and that her mother's parents have cut off their daughter for marrying an American. But the focus of the book is not Jenny in Japan, but Jenny in America, more specifically, Jenny in the Midwest, with her widowed paternal grandmother, who still mourns the death of a son in World War II. The reader is swept, as if a stranger, into suburban Kansas City, with its large houses, backyard pools, barbeques, informal clothes (Grandmother wears Bermuda shorts!) and easygoing manners (boys and girls date!) Although Jenny makes friends her own age she feels shut out by Mrs. Smith, who has difficulty accepting the Japanese appearance of her granddaughter. When Jenny is invited to a wedding, she decides to wear -- lacking a formal dress -- her best kimono. She is widely, if somewhat patronizingly, complimented by the other guests and the bride, but her grandmother is mortified:

"Gordon should have told you there would be a certain amount of intolerance. He knows perfectly well what a storm he raised." Still Jenny waited, and her grandmother continued, "An interracial marriage is very unusual, Jenny, very unusual in Kansas City. In fact, unheard of among my friends. Our fathers and husbands worked hard to establish not only a business, but social position. It isn't easy to see the next generation tear it to shreds."

Cavanna skims the surface here -- it's not clear if the grandmother's embarrassment is because she thinks Jenny made a display of herself, or because Japanese culture itself, only twenty years after the end of World War II, is still a painful subject. But she allows the hint, like the pictures of Mrs. Smith's dead son, to linger in the background.

Jenny Kimura makes a major shift about half-way through the book, after Jenny is snubbed by the mother of the boy she has been dating. Grandmother takes Jenny off to Cape Cod for the rest of the summer, and Jenny Kimura begins to focus on more on boys and water-skiing. Jenny meets her cousin Dick, as well as George Yamada, an American boy of Japanese descent, and still pines for Alan, who is summering only a few miles away. Jenny Kimura ends without any real resolution of these relationships, but with a definite feeling, on Jenny's part, that prejudice and fear are held by the older generation, not the Dicks, Alans and Georges she knows.

The world was so vast and wonderful, so unexpected and inviting. She wanted to spread her arms and embrace all the people she had grown to love.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Betty Cavanna

The next four or so posts are going to look at books by Betty Cavanna, one of the more prolific and popular teen girl writers of her era, and someone who sort of put YA girls writing on the map. Cavanna's first YA, The Black Spaniel Mystery, was published in 1945, her last in the 1980s, and the Library of Congress lists 84 books for her, all told (some of them picture book collaborations with her second husband, George Russell Harrison,) including several mysteries written under the name Betsy Allen.

Betty Cavanna was born in Haddonfield, New Jersey in 1909. As a child she had polio and, like many sickly children, turned to reading as compensation for the long hours in bed. She went to what was then the New Jersey College for Women and later became part of Rutgers, and following graduation got a job with the Westminster Press in Philadelphia, in those days a major publisher of children's books. She eventually became art director there. From what I can discover about her personal life, Cavanna was married twice, but her first husband died young. I also can't find any record of her having children. But at some point, upon either her first or second marriage, she quit her job at the Westminster Press and turning to writing full time.

From the 1940s on, Cavanna's books were basically mainstream teen novels (Scarlet Sail, Paintbox Summer) with the occasional mystery. Cavanna traveled widely and many of her non-fiction books are about getting to know children from other countries (e.g. Demetrios of Greece.) She also believed in doing what her characters were doing: for A Girl Can Dream (1948), she took flying lessons. By the late 60s, however, Cavanna not suprisingly felt "out of touch" with the current generation of teens, and turned to writing mysteries exclusively. She continued to publish, though at a slower pace, through the early 1980s, when some of her earlier books were reissued. She died in 2001, in Paris.

Cavanna was not a terribly daring writer, but there is nothing fluffy about her books, either. Her travels were put to good use in creating far-flung settings for many of her novels. In spite of fairly conventional plots, her protagonists have an inner toughness and often make difficult decisions on their own. They are also typical teenagers in their resentment of family obligations and their interest in -- and confusion about -- boys. It's hard not to root for them and I imagine they must have appealed to thousands of girls who lived more ordinary lives in the 1940s and 50s.

The four books I read by Cavanna all come from a ten-year period between 1954 and 1964. Jenny Kimura (1964), which brushes up against the topic of racism, is probably one of her most memorable novels. Fancy Free (1961) is set on an archeological expedition to Peru. Angel on Skis (1957) has one of the toughest and most dynamic of Cavanna's heroines, while Six on Easy Street (1954) is a more charming large-family-runs-a-boardinghouse novel. The variety of settings and protagonists -- and the fact that Cavanna pulls them off so effortlessly -- is part of the fascination of her work.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Life in a Northern Town

Title: Green Eyes
: Jean Nielsen
Jacket: Mimi Korach
Publisher: Funk and Wagnalls, 1955
Provenance: Formerly the property of North Augusta (S.C.) Junior High School
Setting: Cascadeville, a lumber town in Washington
Fun: editing the school paper; self pity; rivalry; breaking your leg skiing
Quote: Jan turned on the water taps full force and shook in the soap flakes. She wouldn't always be doing dishes for other people. When fall came and she was editor she would be so busy she wouldn't have time to be home much and when that year was over she would go away. And she would make something of herself, too, because she had brains and willpower. If you didn't have brains all the curly hair and television sets in the world wouldn't give them to you.

Occasionally I'll run across a book that just stumps me. Usually it's because the book is a little dull and generic, but in the case of Green Eyes, it's just the opposite. Green Eyes is almost a perfect book. This is not the same as saying it's a great book or even that it holds up well against some of today's YA titles. But for the type of book I look at here -- girls' books about growing up from a more innocent era -- Green Eyes has got it all right. The heroine is realistic, the setting adds to the story, the writing is unobtrusive, and the story is based on character conflicts rather than a plot contrivance.

As might be guessed, Green Eyes is about jealousy. Jan, who is the new editor of the school paper, feels neglected at home, where her mother favors her spoiled younger brother. Spoiled younger brother had rheumatic fever a few years ago and is slowly being turned into what used to be called a "mama's boy." In a lesser book, the jealousy would be all in Jan's mind, and she would discover that her mother really loves her after all. Instead, as is made clear in a horrible Christmas Eve family argument, her mother feels trapped in a small town and would gladly clear out and leave Jan and her father behind.

Jan is also jealous of the new boy in school, Danny. Danny is from Seattle, and was editor of his high school paper there and the assumption is made that he ought to be editor in Cascadeville as well. Even after Jan fights off this threat and Danny seems to be less a rival than a potential boyfriend, Jan can't quite conquer her competitive feelings.

But even if Jan's reasons for jealousy are quite real, the conflict in Green Eyes is between Jan and herself. Nielsen quietly leads Jan through several experiences -- a school trip to Seattle, an assignment interviewing elderly residents of the community, a difficult winter -- that make her a stronger person and give her the ability to overcome her self-absorption. The one false note is that, at the end of Green Eyes, Jan is unrealistically given a plethora of good things: a college scholarship, a meaningful relationship with Danny, and a part-time job on a Seattle newspaper. But it's hard for the reader to think she doesn't deserve it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Poetry and Iron

Title: Always Anne
Author: Holly Wilson
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1957
Jacket: Georgeann Helms
Setting: Henry's Bend, on the shores of Lake Superior
Provenance: Formerly owned by Sue Greane, 11th grader
Fun: fashion design contest; poetry contest; an accidental dip in the lake; plagiarism; grand larceny
Quote: "Honey Bunny!" warbled an excited voice at her elbow, and there was Glory Hoffman beside her...

Holly Wilson also wrote The Hundred Steps, and like that book, Always Anne is set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in a town dominated by the Great Lakes shipping trade. While The Hundred Steps focused on class divisions (literally), Always Anne is a more conventional high school story, with a best friend, a sneaky girl rival, and a nice-looking boyfriend caught in between.

Always Anne is also an I-want-to-be-a-writer book, with a difference, for Anne is the first heroine of this period I've run across whose secret wish is to be a poet:

That night she went home inspired, and before she went to bed she wrote a poem which she thought was the best she had ever done...the thing that pleased her about it was that, at last, she had managed to convey the feeling she had been searching for -- the change in the middle of the sonnet that had eluded her for so long. Now she understood it. In the first eight lines you said something important, then, in the last six line you came to a conclusion about it. That was the way to do it.

Always Anne moves along quickly and the plot provides a fair amount of drama in the person Glory Hoffman "the femme fatale of Henry's Bend High School," who eventually departs the story in a trail of bad debts and dropped charges. Anne heads off to the University of Michigan -- probably to have her notions about sonnets changed forever -- and Tom, her boyfriend, takes a job on an ore carrier for the summer. As with The Hundred Steps, this is a book to make you fall in love with the Great Lakes.