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November 2016

Quiet Girls Will Bloom

For my first “books from childhood” reminiscent post, I read Bright Island on Tuesday, and Going on Sixteen the day before. These two books feel so essential to my past, though I couldn’t have said why before, other than a vague “I related to the characters and found romance in their situations.”

This is 1513 words and an 8 minute read, according to wordcounttools.com. I read recently that the best length for a blog post is 1500 words, but I figure I'll hold future ones on this topic to 1200 or less, and they won't be as serious and "instructional," for sure.

These two books greatly differ from each other, though both are about teen girls in a past time I know mainly from watching classic films. In fact, realizing that for the first time as I read them again this week gave me pause. Bright Island is set in Maine in the late 1930s and Going On Sixteen, set in Pennsylvania, was written just after World War Two. No hint of world concerns flavor either story, but it’s impossible to read Bright Island now without wondering about it all.

In Going On Sixteen, Julie is a quiet, but well-adjusted high school freshman who lives alone with her widower father on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. She has a few friends and a fairly content life, but as she enters high school, she realizes the other girls are ready to grow up, and seem to have gained miles on her in confidence, interest in dress, and the desire to think of boys as something other than “part of the gang.” Julie’s friend Dick, who helped her father on the farm, is suddenly seen as a desirable date by her friends, and Julie feels confused and left out of their new social whirl.

In the meantime, she and her father are raising pedigreed pups destined to become show dogs, and Julie soothes her days by drawing them at play. She’s inherited her mother’s artistic talent, but it goes unnoticed by her busy hard-working father, and holds no interest for the girls at school, who’ve begun to leave her out of their chatty world, which causes her to become even more withdrawn. You know, that whole story.

We follow Julie through three years of high school and watch her develop into someone who can stand up for herself, take more ease in social situations, and share her talents with others who’ve learned to appreciate them, including her father. There’s a secret trip to the City, which in this case is Philadelphia, a school musical, dances, and several interesting events at home on the farm along the way.  In the end, Julie knows who she is and how she wants to make a start in life, and has learned more about what motivates her friends as they are also maturing to varying degrees. It’s fun to watch them all emerge as people, and it’s fun for me now to imagine how the author envisioned them taking their place in the broader world. I love the casually good-mannered world they inhabit, and details such as the kind of wall paint they’d use and how they behave at the school dance.

Bright Island is another take on the high school story altogether. First, the protagonist Thankful has grown up on an island with her parents, grandfather, and four brothers. She’s never been to school and hasn’t spent much time on the mainland. She also has a longtime male friend, Dave, who helps out on the family farm, but knows almost nothing of the world outside her home except through her mother’s excellent home school instruction. Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 10.43.30 AMThankful learns she is to attend school on the mainland and rebels against it, as it will mean being under the thumb of her supercilious sisters-in-law. And she just doesn’t want to leave the island. She has a sailboat her grandfather made for her, she works hard to prove her value to the family in the hard work she does, and she wants nothing more from her life. But to school she must go; and through a surprising circumstance, it is a school for highly privileged students.

She’s so awkward, at first no one is certain she’s up to the work, but her mother’s teaching proves itself and she earns a place in the upper class with relative ease compared to earning a comfortable place with her peers. She seeks out the sea and finds a companion there. And, inadvertently almost, she begins to make friends. The story takes place over only about ten months of Thankful’s life, but there’s a lot packed into it.

The biggest difference between this book and Going On Sixteen is the prose. Bright Island is filled with rich literary descriptions, while the other relies more on the everyday thoughts of a shy but otherwise fairly typical teenage girl. That’s not to say it’s a lesser effort. It’s a different effort. You leave Going On Sixteen feeling you’ve just walked away for a little while, and the characters’ll still be there when you get back. Bright Island has a vigor and an atmosphere to it which is harder to place in our own context, but as I said, realizing the great changes in store for the world as it stood in 1937 makes for a lot of reflection.

Both books are about isolated girls who learn to find a place for themselves in broader society. Happily, neither is forced to become something unnatural to herself, instead, she’s given the opportunity to learn how to grow in a community, fitting in and reaping the benefits of it without losing her individuality.

In this respect they are very, very of and for their time. The unique 1950s culture we’ve grown up looking back on in TV, music and films has lead many people to believe in an ideal that did not exist before the war. Pre-war culture was progressive and aggressive in attempts to shape society by smoothing the edges of the rugged individual, and giving him or her a place in a forward-thinking culture that would depend on each member doing their bit for the whole. The essential component was community. After the war, though, easy prosperity lead to a different kind of thinking; each man was the product of his own success, standing alone with his loving family crowded around with smiles and gratitude for his efforts. It would be useless to tell him he was not in fact an 1880s cowboy settling the west purely by his own grit and wit, but the product of an economy shaped by wartime innovation and military and defense contracts.

So I think about that now while reading books like Bright Island, wondering how the characters’ lives would have continued if war and sacrifice and so much abrupt change did not intervene. I wonder that too, because these authors were part of what I’m learning was a marvelous new cultural wave; women with educations and the means to do something with them. Women in this culture who wrote books for girls wanted to show their readers the choices open to them. Yes, marriage and family and a steady home when desired, but with eyes open, with an understanding of what else could be gained through education and finding your place in the community at-large. You can be yourself, but your self is so much more than you realize.

Of course, I thought about almost none of this when I was reading these books as a girl. I just loved reading about Girls of Other Eras, what they did and wore and ate and said, and I was also generally envious of their simpler quieter cultures. I still am.

This took a far different direction than I’d originally intended, so here are some notes I took while reading Going On Sixteen, which probably make no sense now. I didn’t save any from Bright Island, because I got to just reading. 20161020_100435
And I realize I wrote the descriptions somewhat obliquely, as though you intend to rush right out to find copies of your own. Well, you might do worse than trying to. Bright Island is a book I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys slice of life fiction set in the not-too-distant past. Going On Sixteen is more of a “girl book,” but it’s not remotely girly, and might be entertaining for someone interested in looking back at high school days. For the kids, ten and up.

PS: here's something I read while looking into the teen books written in this time period. It's another angle on the whole thing. But while I remember reading Seventeenth Summer, I don't remember it making the impression on me that others did. For what it's worth. I do remember reading and enjoying another Betty Cavanna book with more "teen romance," called The Boy Next Door. If I run across it, I'll read it again.
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“In reading we must become creators.”

Madeleine L'Engle said that.

And I'm off on a new project.

The first thing to understand is that my mother bought nothing new. Nearly nothing. At some point in my school career, new books were necessary to my existence, and I was allowed to own many of them, but always there were very old ones as well, from garage sales and what used to be called junk shops.

Mom went “junking,” in the early 70s, and we had a lot of interesting things around our house. 18th century farm implements, old school desks, old baskets, Depression glass, a few very old pieces of furniture, etc. A few years later, junking became known as “antiquing,” and all the prices were raised, plus, people began trying to pass off junk as antique; an absurd irony. It changed the landscape and cut out a lot of the long time participants, including my mom.

But throughout my childhood she brought me lovely little pieces of china from several areas of the world, which I collected in an antique metal trunk. I used an antique metal lunchbox in 6th grade, til other kids made fun of it. I had old dolls and other toys. And I had all those books. Besides a fairly complete collection of the 60s/70s versions of the Bobbsey Twins, I had all the Trixie Beldens, most of the Nancy Drews, Encyclopedia Brown, and lots of books from the 40s onward from the Scholastic Book Service and other low cost paperback lines from the big publishers. These books were about girls learning to navigate school and friendships, and finding out who they were. Most of them were what you’d now call “progressive,” because they showed girls figuring out how to think for themselves while still fitting into the big picture around them.

That was important for me, because I didn’t fit in anywhere. I still don’t, but I’m generally okay with that now. It’s confusing when you’re a kid, though. But these were not exactly girls like me; they were just in circumstances they had to negotiate in order to move along in their lives. And I admired them for how they did it.

The second thing to know is that while I was a highly precocious reader, alternating between Agatha Christie and Caroline Keene, and following Watergate intently all while I was in third grade, I never stopped reading kids’ books at all, just picked up more adult ones. So I can’t say if I was 7 or 11 or 14 or 38 when I read many of my favorites, though for a few, there are concrete memories to go along with them, which indicate the likely year. Also, and this sounds like a humble brag, but it isn’t, I got to reading well over 100 pages in an hour, I don’t know how much more, and so I’d just consume books like potato chips and thus have read far too many to have any idea of the scope of it all. These days, I do not let myself read so fast, though it’s still easy to get going at a ridiculous clip. Savoring is so much better than just consuming.

Today I’ve chosen five of my favorites in this narrow category to reread and share thoughts on here. I still own two of them, in ragged condition having been bought used and read many times over the years, and have ordered two of the others. I’m hoping to find the fifth one at the library, but I might order it, as well.

A Girl Called Chris by Marg Nelson, 1962
Bright Island by Mabel L Robinson, 1937 (Mabel Robinson sounds like some kind of literary hero)
Mary Jane by Dorothy Sterling, 1959 (Here is an obituary for Ms Sterling; she sounds entirely awesome.)
Going on Sixteen by Betty Cavanna, 1946 (Such interesting women these are!)
Just the Beginning by Betty Miles, 1976
Oldbooks
Oh, but there are just so many more! So many favorites. Thus, I’m also going to start talking about other books I read as a child and teenager, and I think it will be a good way to talk about me as a young person, which I believe will be enjoyable or interesting to most of the people who know me online.


A broad variety of pleasuring

1. notes on stuff I've either partially written or still haven't gotten to:

Sharing more reading and music and etc this year. How did mother never read Betsy-Tacy?

"Criminals flourish when no credible system exists to adjudicate the claims of their victims." (I no longer have any idea where I was going with this.)

Code switching v. the dog whistle 20161008_132001
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Toradora!
Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions

la goutte qui fait déborder le vase...

Exquisite Timing: Perimenopause and the Bee Gees

mittelschmirtz Livvy ovaries overlapping Medium 1977 letting it happen as it happens  

3 oz gin
1/2 oz maple syrup
3/4 oz lime juice

“Fully functional. I am programmed in multiple techniques. A broad variety of pleasuring.”
Shadow
2. My daughter said my blog has been depressing lately:

For some reason, I apologized. I mean, in my head I was thinking I’m probably going to do a lot of light-hearted little posts soon, and then she followed up saying the posts are also too long…

I like to vary the length. But the online blog thing keeps changing. People like pictures with a bit of text stamped onto them, and they like short pithy essays, and for some reason, they like, or at least like to create, very very long recipe posts with endless repetitive photos of eggs in a bowl, and then eventually a list of ingredients and instructions.
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But it seems that they get scared if you get beneath their skin about really personal stuff they can’t do anything about. Well, sure, I get that. And it’s never been my intention to expose myself all that much online in that manner, anyway. Yet I can’t apologize for it and feel very good about what that means. So I kind of take back the apology. At the same time, if I have any more cruel depths to share; elements which occasionally rise above my shallow, superficial mien, I’ll just go paint or bake a lot of cookies and see if it sinks back down into the belly of the beast in which it usually resides. The world has enough to be going on with this season. DSC_0054

3. I liked writing better when the screens were larger. The keyboard on this 11-inch MacBook Air suits me perfectly, but I'd rather be typing beneath a much larger page. I don't see how that can be really just me. 030
Stay tuned, if you want to. I'm in the mood to fool around.