Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fifteen and 1956

Original cover of Fifteen, gray ink wash girl on phone talking to boy in phone booth with truck in backgroundI wrote earlier of my surprise that Beverly Cleary's Jean and Johnny (published in 1959) wasn't a typical girl-gets-the-boy teen romance. Now I know it's probably because her earlier novel Fifteen, published in 1956, had already covered that ground.

The protagonist, Jane Purdy, finds and fascinates a boy named Stan. It's all very sweet without being sickly, moved along by Cleary's gentle observations of teen angst.

Like Jean and Johnny, though, Fifteen is a nice record of social history. From the cars to the clothes to the detailed descriptions of decor in the homes of Jane's babysitting clients, it's an informative look at the world of the mid-1950s in Marin County, California. Here are a few specifics gems.

Clothes, Hair, and Homes

On the night of her first date with Stan, Jane "decided that her hair simply would not do, so she washed it and put it up in pin curls, each one clamped with two bobby pins. 'Why, Jane, I thought you washed your hair day before yesterday,' remarked Mrs. Purdy. 'Did I? I don't remember,' fibbed Jane" (page 55). So the idea of washing your hair every other day was radical enough to remark on.

While anticipating the first date, Jane casts a critical eye on her mother's way of dressing: she wishes "her mother would put on some stockings and wear a dress instead of that striped cotton skirt and red blouse. It was so undignified for a mother who was practically forty and very old-fashioned to go around with bare legs, even if they were tanned, and to wear such gay clothes" (page 60). Leaving aside the now-anachronistic use of the word "gay," I found the description of Jane's mom's wardrobe challenges humorous. These days, a girl would be more likely to wish her mother would stop wearing stockings and go bare-legged, as is the current fashion.

One of Jane's babysitting client families has a toddler daughter still in diapers. Cleary provides a detailed description of what child-proofing a house was like in the 1950s: rope tied around the refrigerator door, yardsticks stuck through drawer handles to keep them closed, and all the knobs removed from the gas stove (page 192). It made me both appreciate and rue the vast selection of plastic gadgetry on sale to American parents these days. Maybe a little more DIY on that front would be good for us.

Race (Just a Bit) and Gender

On a double date, the boy from the other couple whistles when he sees Jane and says "Hey, don't you look nice!" This is followed by the omniscient narrator telling the reader, "It always helped a girl to have a boy whistle at her" (page 110). I almost choked when I read that. While I suppose it's a bit different when a guy you know whistles at you in a context like this, the blanket positive statement about wolf whistles doesn't reflect my assessment of how women feel about being whistled at over the last 35 or so years.

When Jane, Stan and some other couples go into San Francisco's Chinatown for dinner, one of the other boys suggests they have "flied lice" to eat. Jane has never been near a Chinese restaurant (another oddity, now that I think of it) and is alarmed that she might have to sample lice. Stan, who used to live in the city and is the one who suggested going to Chinatown, says: " 'Don't pay any attention to him.... He thinks he's saying fried rice with a Chinese accent, but I have lots of Chinese friends in the city and I never heard anyone talk that way" (page 114). Stan's reproofing of the ignorant friend is an interesting bit of cultural pluralism in the midst of a story from the peak of what some would consider the golden age of white America.

A key part of the book's plot is Jane's agony of never knowing if Stan is truly interested in her. Will he call her or won't he? Some of it is just the back-and-forth of getting to know someone as a potential romantic partner, but when the first school dance rolls around, the gendered rules of engagement become clear. Despite showing every interest in her, Stan doesn't ask Jane to the dance. A few days before the date arrives, she finally gets up the courage ask him if he's going to ask her, and he makes it clear that he wasn't going to (although the reason is withheld for the time being to build the plot). Jane thinks to herself, "Of course Stan had a right to ask anyone he pleased to the dance. But she had thought...she had wanted...she had been so sure" (page 134). Jane has no right to ask anyone she pleases, of course, and that is completely unquestioned. In fact, the omniscient narrator goes on to say: "Stan was so nice to be with and she had been so sure...But she had no right to be sure. She knew that now" (page 148).

The book ends when Stan gives Jane his silver ID bracelet, signaling that they're going steady. Now all of Jane's worries are over. Her role in life is clear because she has been marked as "Stan Crandall's girl."

Grammar and Usage

I read recently (although I can't remember where, or how authoritative a source it was) that the subjunctive in English is to be used when the conditional state is unlikely or unrealistic, such as "If I were you." I can never be you, hence the subjunctive. If the conditional state is realistic, you would instead say "If I was going to the store, I would remember to pick up milk." But on page 86, Cleary writes: "Jane flew to her room, combed her hair, decided to change from her yellow dress into a dress Stan had never seen, decided against changing, because she might not have time, and wished her mother were wearing stockings." Those darn stockings again, but more to the point, she "wished her mother were wearing" them. Over-correction, or did my source get it wrong?

Jane, who is a sophomore, sits through an English class focused on what Cleary calls "squinting modifiers" (pages 149 -150). I don't remember ever hearing that phrase, but here's the example that's given: "Some members of the class I know are not paying attention." So now I have a new term to add to my grammar curmudgeon vocabulary.

Cover Art

In writing up these thoughts on Fifteen, I found  a blog called Secrets and Sharing Soda, which had a nice write up on the book, and also included the cover art from many if not all of its editions over the years. So I thought I would end with those. Each one is its own little time capsule, just as the original cover is:

From a 1970 "problem novel" to a 1990ish romance...

Fifteen cover with teen girl and boy in painted illustration, looking super worried as if the girl might be pregnantFifteen paperback cover from 1980s? light purple covered with red hearts

to a 2000ish "fun" book...

1990s paperback with cartoony ice cream soda illustration and bright colors

...and from a 1980ish "After School Special" drama to someone's attempt to recreate a period look (not sure when this last one is from; possibly it's recent).

1970-era cover of Fifteen with girl looking up at boy adoringly, Cooper Black title type in redFifteen cover with illustration that looks like it could be one of the original ones from inside the book but is not, title type that is trying to look antiquey but fails to look like it's from the 1950s


Barbara said...

I believe that because it is extremely unlikely that her mother is wearing stockings, the subjective is correct.

I was taught that most, but NOT all, sentences using "I wish" or "I hope" or "if" use the subjunctive. William Saffire, in "How Not to Write: the essential misrules of grammar" (2005), gave an example of an exception to the "if" rule.

"If you are examining a real likelihood, then 'if I was' is correct: 'If I was speeding, your Honor, I didn't realize it.'"

Michael Leddy said...

The subjunctive is appropriate with wishes, so “were” is appropriate here. You might be thinking of my blog post, which covers only “if I were” and “if I was.” As I wrote in that post, there’s no consensus on the subjunctive.

I like these details of everyday life in Cleary’s novel. I don’t know Fifteen, but I really like the understanding of family life in the Ramona stories.

Ms Sparrow said...

Wow, I had no idea there were so many layers of controversy to the use of the subjunctive mood.
If I (were/was) writing a book, I think I'd just avoid it altogether!

Having been a teenager in the 50's, I found your comments insightful and interesting!

Daughter Number Three said...

Michael, I thought it might have been a piece from your blog, but I did a search there for "subjunctive" and didn't find it, so I assumed I had misremembered. (I won't pain you with the incorrect way I searched it, but when I used the untrustworthy Blogger search just now, there it is.)

Rereading it, I see that your point isn't quite as I remembered it and paraphrased in my post. And that, as Barbara points out, the fact that Cleary's phrase starts with a wish makes all the difference.

Michael Leddy said...

I couldn’t find subjunctive either. :)

I often end up finding blog things with a Google search site:URL search terms.

Daughter Number Three said...

Michael, I did find it when I searched within your site. I started out doing the site: routine Google, but mistakenly put in your URL as instead of so that's why I didn't find it. (I have you bookmarked so I had forgotten your URL.)

CLM said...

Great review! Such an enjoyable book and vivid depiction of Waiting for the Phone Call; however, my favorite Cleary is The Luckiest Girl. I even have a raincoat with a black velvet collar like that heroine.

My mother is the proper type that won't be seen without her nylons, even on the hottest day.

Daughter Number Three said...

CLM, I just ordered a copy of The Luckiest Girl. Looking forward to it!

Anonymous said...

I loved this book as a pre-teen, and just re-read it after my 12 year old daughter finished it. She loved the story despite (or maybe because of) it's corny nature and use of the word "swell". "The Luckiest Girl" is up next for both of us!