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, 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.

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