It’s always fascinating to read vintage books aimed at the youth market. The terms “literary snapshots” and “period pieces” apply particularly well to this widely varied genre, though more serious themes tend to be handled in a gentle way, obviously in order to cushion young minds from the harsher realities of the world they live in.
I recently read these two American “juveniles” from the many which have accumulated on our shelves in the past nineteen years of buying books for the younger members of the family, and while neither is an outstanding piece of fiction in any sense of the word, they are both rather interesting in what they have to say about the eras they were written in and about. Footnotes to the period, as it were, which is why I’m including them among the Century of Books fellowship.
My rating: 6/10
Surprisingly likeable was this rather hard to classify light novel, comprised as it was of equal parts college caper, highly contrived mystery, and blossoming romance. All right, maybe not that hard to classify! But the mixture works quite nicely, and the characters are highly appealing, and the whole thing is completely adorable. Decidedly a book aimed at the feminine readership of the junior high schools of its time.
Look, I even found an approving Kirkus review, from October of 1949:
When Laurel went off to the small coeducational college in Michigan which had been her great-great-grandmother’s alma mater, she expected it to be fun — and it was. What she didn’t know was that she would find herself up to the neck in a century old, unsolved murder mystery which was to give her the thrill of establishing the identity of the murdered man and his killer. The mystery theme is well-integrated and companions a satisfying modern college story of dates, term papers and strict house-mothers. There is not only the sinister black opal which Laurel unearths but also the exciting and sparkling diamond with which her One And Only ends the story. Maybe her solution will seem a trifle glib and maybe everything falls in place too smoothly, but no one will care for it is a nice, light entertaining tale with the virtue, highly to be prized, of not following an exact formula.
Laurel Stanwood has decided to do something a bit out of the norm. Instead of going with her high school friends to a college in her native Vermont, Laurel has chosen to attend a school, Colbert College, in far-off Michigan, a decision inspired by the fact that her Great-great-grandmother Caroline Hayes was a student of the precursor to the now co-educational facility, the Colbert Female Seminary, in 1846.
What follows is an absolutely typical account of lively college life. Laurel immediately makes two best friends, and immerses herself in a whirl of activity, where some serious studying is livened up by dramatic football games, campus socials, the ongoing “campus war” between the freshmen/juniors and sophomores/seniors, and some serious battling of the sexes via the two campus newspapers, the Colbert Feminist, under the editorial control of Laurel’s new friend Rue, and the Colbert Iconoclast, presided over by the woman-despising J. Swinton Towne. As an aspiring journalist, Laurel is immediately put to work gathering material for the Feminist; she has high hopes of finding a stunning “scoop” which will allow the Feminist to grind the Iconoclast‘s annoying pretensions to male superiority under its well-clad foot.
Lovely period details abound throughout this book, such as here where the girls are opening their mail at dinner time.
Laurel slit them open with her fork. The first, a circular, ordered her to make reservations at once for that Round-the-World Cruise she’d been eagerly awaiting since before the war. “Lapping waves,” it promised, “soft winds to caress your brow, nights full of wonder.” The second assured her that she could borrow up to three hundred dollars without embarrassing investigation and could pay it back in easy monthly installments. “Why be short?” it demanded. The third looked more hopeful, an expensive ivory envelope addressed in a feminine hand and postmarked Detroit. But the letter inside merely stated that if she planned to invest five hundred and fifty dollars in a genuine blue muskrat coat, she would do well to visit Compere’s Fur Salon first.
“Here’s a card from Mother,” Stacy giggled, “reminding me that if I want my duds to get into the Monday wash I can’t wait till Monday to mail them, and here’s a letter from Kent. Even if I didn’t recognize the scrawl, nobody else would have the nerve to start out ‘Dear Horseface.’”
Laundry sent home by mail for washing, stocking boxes to protect one’s cherished “nylons”, beau parlors to entertain your male guests in, telegrams sent with gay abandon in the same way teens today fire off texts to arrange their dates, having one’s hair washed once a week at the beauty parlor, Sadie Hawkin’s Day dances with both sexes in drag, apple cider socials, and a continual description of the most lovely-sounding clothes are happy period details. Laurel is continually sporting such gems as a “cherry flannel robe”(while filling out her college application form), “white wool gabardine suit” with a white chrysanthemum corsage (to attend a football game), “green silk raincoat” (actually that was Stacy’s, but it sounds quite sharp), “red cambric bolero edged in gold furniture braid” (for dressing up as a Spanish courtier on Sadie Hawkin’s Day), dungarees and sheepskin lined stadium boot (for winter hiking in the snow), a plaid gingham dress giving way to a “heliotrope spun rayon” (dressing for dinner, a must-do in the girl’s dormitory house), a beau’s “electric-blue loafer coat”, a friend’s “magenta taffeta with the bustle” prom dress, and Laurel’s own costume for the high point of the story, prom night topped off by discovery of the “Black Opal” mystery: mist-gray tulle with silver slippers and handbag, and a corsage of forget-me-nots, rosebuds and silver ribbon. Oh, swoon!
The girls, despite their life of strict midnight curfews and beau parlors, are given a wonderful amount of freedom; in most ways they are treated as completely competent adults and are left to sink or swim and make their own decisions in a way that many of the sheltered-but-socially-sophisticated teens of today would be most miffed to asked to do. Failed your Biology exam? Oh, well, guess you should have studied harder! No helicopter-parenting mom or dad in this 1940s’ world is about to confront the Biology prof to demand their pampered offspring’s mark be altered!
The historical murder mystery/mysterious gemstone plot, though prominent in the title and constantly referenced, is a very minor part of this happy little novel, though it forms a uniting thread throughout. It is the least well handled aspect of the book, being utterly predictable, totally fabricated out of unlikely coincidences, and not particularly believable even at its most detailed point. But this I completely forgave, because the rest of the story charmed me completely.
Dorothy Maywood Bird wrote two other similar novels, Granite Harbor and Mystery at Laughing Water, and I would be quietly pleased to get my hands on these at some point, for a little more travelling gently back in time.
My rating: 4.5/10
This one is aimed at a younger set, the elementary school ages. Another very predictable plot, with rather more cardboardish characters, but again an interesting period piece with some redeeming features.
A middle-class family of five – mother at home baking cookies, father a teacher, thirteen-year-old Dick, twelve-year-old Wendy and younger brother Beanie – have been summering at a lakeside cottage and messing about with rowboats for years. But this year it somehow doesn’t quite satisfy – “If only we had a boat of our own…!” And not just a rowboat, but a proper boat. A cabin cruiser, so Mom can come along and not miss her kitchen(!) – bright red flag, here – first hint of era-correct gender stereotype, but far from the last.
Anyway, it’s decided that this is just a dream, as Dad isn’t exactly wealthy, and even a cheap cabin cruiser would cost thousands to buy. Then a chance conversation puts the family on the track of a derelict boat to be sold as part of an estate settlement. For two thousand dollars they can have it. Lots of work would be needed, but the boat is essentially sound. But where to find the money?
Everyone chips in and the year progresses as the pennies and dollars start to flow into the boat fund. The family decides to holiday at home and put their vacation money in the fund. Dad quits smoking and takes on an evening job, Wendy gives up her riding lessons and takes on babysitting jobs, Dick decides to raise rats to sell for science experiments, and Beanie roams the neighbourhood with his wagon collecting old newspapers to sell for salvage prices – 75 cents per 100 pounds. Even Mom finds something to do – she goes back to work in a law office part time, asking Wendy to step up and help out more at home.
Domestic details of the early sixties include a gee-whiz!-isn’t-it-great! reliance on cake mixes, instant pudding, canned everything, and casseroles of frankfurters and beans. Mom pores over a book called Shipboard Menus, leaving the mechanical and construction details of boat refurbishment up to the menfolk.
The only person not thrilled with the family’s common goal and their pursuit of their dream is Mom’s older sister, Aunt Louise. Louise had raised her younger sister after they were orphaned, and has settled into a prudently conservative spinsterhood. She lives in an apartment above the card and gift shop she has established with persistent self-sacrifice and dogged determination, and though she is the epitome of a self-sufficient woman she is, paradoxically, absolutely livid with Dad for “allowing” Mom to work. Mom, on the other hand, decidedly blossoms as she goes back out into the world, which inspires an interesting line of thought in twelve-year-old Wendy, about who “Mother” really is, and how she appears to herself and to each individual in her family, and what her mother’s own dreams might be, the ones she calmly has put aside to dedicate herself to her family. Inklings of the consciousness-raising going on in the greater world of the 1950s and 60s.
The dream – the cabin cruiser – is tantalizingly close to becoming a reality when catastrophe strikes, as young Beanie is struck and severely injured by a hit-and-run driver as he plods along with a wagonload of newspapers. Everything turns upside down as priorities are instantly re-assessed, with the two older children readjusting their personal ambitions for the boat without a murmur, much to the surprise of the adults in their lives, who have rather assumed that there would be resistance to the idea of letting the dream die.
Expectedly clichéd is the ending, with everyone rallying around and “family comes first” the slogan of the day; my greatest disappointment (from an adult point of view) was the sudden windfall that allowed the dream a new life. Artistically speaking, the sacrifice would have made for a stronger ending, but thinking back to my own juvenile reading days, the happy ending would have been appreciated by my young self, so I’ll let it go.
These sorts of books were a dime a dozen back in my elementary school years, mild dramas with some sort of a message attached, and The Year of the Dream is neither exceptionally good nor dreadfully bad. It’s a very average example of the middle range of juvenile literature of its era, and as such is worthy of a nod of appreciation as it helps to embellish the background against which “better” and more “mature” and “literary” books are set.
I wouldn’t say that Jane Collier’s The Year of the Dream is worth looking for - it’s very much a nonentity of a thing - but for those of you who enjoy “teen girl’s fiction” of the 1940s and early 50s, precursors to the “malt shop” genre, Dorothy Maywood Bird’s three novels may be of some interest.