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, 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.