Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Girls of Summer

Two Girls Reading
by Robert Lewis Reid, 1862 – 1929
American Impressionist painter and muralist

"I was the youngest, shiest, most self-conscious adolescent
that -- I believe -- ever lived. In addition, I have to confess
that my adolescence lasted a phenomenally long time.
Dare I say I have outgrown that period even now?

"But if one eliminates adolescence from life and records,
how much is suppressed: youth, hope, dreams, impractical ideals,
falling in love with 'countless not impossible He's,'
gaiety that spurts up for no reason,
despair that is gone the next morning,
and a foretaste of the inevitable tragedies of life along with
one's early confused attempts to understand or meet them. . . .

"Besides, I have a certain respect
for the early efforts of this struggling adolescent,
who now seems so many lives removed from the self of today.
I can laugh at her and am often embarrassed by her,
but I do not want to betray her.
Let her speak for herself."

from the 1972 introduction to
Bring Me a Unicorn:
Diaries & Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh 1922 - 1928

by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1906 - 2001

I read Lindberg's early autobiography not long after it was written, during the fall of my Senior year in highschool, an intense time for any girl, bookish or otherwise. At the time, I had to think twice about her generous inclination to forgive her adolescent self. Already, by age seventeen, my tendency -- when it came to dealing with the embarrassing mistake - making me -- was toward suppression and betrayal. Did I really have to acknowledge the unbearable stupidity of that foolish girl? Lindbergh is right of course; you'd best come to terms with your past naivete. Author Joan Didion also urges against self - betrayal:
"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with
the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not.
Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering
on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know
who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends."

from "On Keeping a Notebook,"
found in Slouching Toward Bethlehem

Earlier this summer I read Beverly Cleary's Fifteen (1956) and Maureen Daly's Seventeenth Summer (1942), forerunners in the genre of adolescent lit. I'm usually the first to say that it's never too late to pick up a book that you meant to read back when you were fifteen or sixteen, but perhaps I waited too late in life for these two. While both novels deal quite honestly with the confusing emotions listed by Lindbergh -- "youth, hope, dreams, impractical ideals, falling in love" -- I'm cannot say that they have stood the test of time. I cringed more than once. Still, I must concede that they have been and continue to be loved by many. So, heeding Lindbergh's advice, I suppose I can find Jane and Angie laughable or embarrassing if I want to, but it's not for me to betray them; they can speak for themselves!

To my great delight, I felt quite the opposite last month when at long last I opened A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith. As with Fifteen and Seventeenth Summer, I can't explain why I waited so long to read this classic that is often recommended for middle - schoolers, age ten and up. It seems like something I would have read when I was younger but somehow never did.Thankfully, however, I finally made up for lost time. I took it along to Las Vegas for airplane reading and, honestly, could not put it down, something that has not been happening often enough lately! I can say it no better than my niece - in - law Annie (much younger than I), who wrote: "I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn just this year. I was drawn in by the way she described her surroundings and the rise and fall of her hopes. I loved it."

Indeed, Francie's historically accurate and heartfelt narrative has lost no relevance whatsoever. As I was reading, I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to go to Brooklyn and take a walking tour of the street corners, schools, and neighborhoods described by Smith; but then I gradually realized that most of those spots don't even exist any more, although it was not all that long ago. I think that's part of what made me like the book so much -- the way Smith captures both the exterior and the interior of this vanishing time in American history.

Favorite summer vacation picture,
in case you missed it on my daily blog:

"As she read, at peace with the world and happy
as only a little girl could be with a fine book
and a little bowl of candy, and all alone in the house,
the leaf shadows shifted and the afternoon passed."

from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith

Should you care to devote the remainder of your summer to reading some great girl narratives, here are a few more recent titles that I've read this year. These novels honor the "struggling adolescent," whom Anne Morrow Lindbergh so eloquently urges us to respect. They feature girls who are filled with a "gaiety that spurts up for no reason," a "despair that is gone the next morning, and a foretaste of the inevitable tragedies of life along with one's early confused attempts to understand or meet them."

Annie John (1985) by Jamaica Kincaid

You just have to love Annie's exuberance for school: "It was the first day of the new term, Miss Nelson said . . . we were to spend the morning in contemplation and reflection and writing something she described as an 'autobiographical essay' . . . I knew quite well about 'autobiography' and 'essay,' but reflection and contemplation! A day at school spent in such a way!" (p 38).

As for the girls who don't catch the excitement as Annie does: ". . . what a dull bunch they were! They had no different ideas of how to be in the world; they certainly didn't think that the world was a strange place to be caught living in. . . . It was if I had grown a new skin over the old skin and the new skin had a completely different set of nerve endings. . . . We no longer lived on the same plane" (p 91 - 92).

[For more from Annie, see my post "Columbus Day"]

The Center of Everything (2004) by Laura Moriarity
Evelyn, a Kansas school girl, is a lot like Francie (in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), growing up in poverty and putting her faith in education; questioning society and religion; coming to understand the facts of life as she sees friends, neighbors, and parents struggle through pregnancy, childbirth, child care, making a living, and making ends meet.

[You can read a few of Evelyn's insights in the end comments on my Fortnightly post: Lot's Wife, Who Gave Her Life For a Single Glance]

In Country (2005) by Bobbie Ann Mason
Samantha age 17

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2008) by Muriel Barbery
Twelve - year - old Paloma seems a little too smart to be credible, as does her fifty - four - year - old co - narrator, the concierge Renee, whose overbearing snobbery -- and I suspect that of the author herself -- nearly ruins the narrative. Yet in some chapters, Paloma lapses into more believable age - appropriate diction; and I admire the concept of her notebook, which reminds me of my own blog intentions of searching for connections:

"I have set my goal to have the greatest number possible of profound thoughts, and to write them down in this notebook: even if nothing has any meaning, the mind, at least, can give it a shot, don't you think?"

and her conclusion:

"I have finally concluded, maybe that's what life is about: there's a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It's as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.

Yes, that's it, an always within never.

. . . from now on, for you,
I'll be searching for those moments of always within never.

Beauty, in this world."
(pp 26, 325)

[More on my daily blog: Bouquet ~ Quotidian ~ Go]

Short Girls (2009) by Bich Nguyen
Not so tall sisters Van and Linny are somewhat of a disappointment after the endearing narrator of Stealing Buddha's Dinner.

The Marriage Plot (2012) by Jeffrey Eugenides
Twenty - two year old Madeline seems not quite as smart as she should be.

Young Girl Reading
by Berthe Morisot, 1841 - 95
Leading French Impressionist

1 comment:

  1. Jan writes: "I keep meaning to write to you. I think I remember reading at some point how much you like the novel _A Tree Grows in Brooklyn_. I tried to read it, but couldn't get into it. But I said to myself, Kitti loves this book, so I should give it another try. I did. I finished it just a few days ago. Francie and Katie and Nealy and their Brooklyn world are all staying with me in wonderful ways. It's such a unique book--so true to itself. Have you read other books by Betty Smith?"