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.

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.