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for the girls at school, who’ve begun to leave her out of their chatty world, which causes her to become even more withdrawn.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. Thankful 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.
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.