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.

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.