“Date with a Career”(a Mid-Century High School Story)

Once again I provide my valuable service to you as the person who blogs about books that nobody else knows about.

My friends Swanson the First and his wife AJ always send me a February care package. AJ is a wizard at finding vintage novels, and included one in my box this year. I could tell by the cover that it was going to be a good romp through the mid-century teenage American landscape:

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I guessed it was from 1961. Actual publication year, 1958. Points for me.

I’ve read a lot of 50s and 60s stories. I think it’s because I started getting books from the library in the mid-80s. Our library was a small-town Southern establishment, so most of the books I pulled from the shelves were easily twenty years old. I’m well-versed in the world of wholesome high school kids who go to the movies, “get a coke” at the local diner afterward, do their best in school, and very earnestly uphold social manners and civic responsibilities.

Date with a Career did not disappoint.

We have all the usual characters:

Lee, the heroine. She’s a newcomer in town . She grew up moving from place to place with her actress mother, most recently in New York City; but now she’s spending her senior year living with her grandmother in the little Massachusetts town of Fairmeadows. Grandmother wants Lee to follow in her late father’s footsteps and become a concert pianist. But Lee doesn’t want to play the piano, she wants to be a dress designer. Thus does conflict cloud her otherwise sunny life in Fairmeadows. (Seriously, could you come up with a more precious name for a town?)

Jock, the boyfriend. He’s tall, blond, and blue-eyed. His name is Jonathan Bradford (good Massachusetts stock; Grandmother approves of him) but goes by Jock, which is kind of giggly because he actually plays saxophone in the school band. He asks Lee to the movies the first weekend. He’s annoyed when somebody else asks her before he does the next weekend. After that, he asks her to go steady. Jock is exactly the kind of boyfriend that every teenage girl dreams about. He buys her a charm bracelet with meaningful charms for Christmas. He’s sympathetic when the Mean Girl steals Lee’s thunder at the Halloween party. He’s on hand when she doesn’t get accepted into the New York art school, firmly refusing to let her give up on her dreams. He’s respectful, funny, and kisses her only three times the whole school year. In short, he acts like a 30-year-old man. Teenage girls always want a 30-year-old man, just in an 18-year-old package.

Janie, the cute BFF. She’s bubbly, a cheerleader, popular with the boys, and has a combative romance with the clownish Win.

Miriam, the somewhat poor, poetic BFF. She’s serious and loyal.

Sid, the off-brand boy. He’s not bad, he’s just not as handsome or courtly as Jock. He drives a hot-rod. Lee expects him to be a wild driver, but no, he’s in a club and they adhere to very careful rules about how to drive and how to behave on the road. He tells her so, sounding like he’s quoting right from the article that the author read about these clubs. Anyway, Sid is manipulated by the Mean Girl because she wants access to his car. But he ends up with the sweet poet, Miriam.

I get the impression that the author doesn’t know a great deal about cars, due to paragraphs like this: Sid seemed glum. No car is improved by being buried in the snow for a couple of days, and besides, there had been a great deal of strain on it, driving through the blizzard, even though the car had plenty of reserve power. Once it had been fed gasoline, however, it had started up without difficulty. No word as to whether it nickered or neighed and tossed its windshield wipers in a spritely manner.

Beverly, the mean girl. In her polished, wealthy way, Beverly loses no chance to squash Lee’s spirit. That notorious Halloween party that she ruined for Lee? Well, Lee had designed her own outfit — her first “original” — and Jock’s mother helped her make it. But the design leaked out beforehand, and when Lee arrived, Beverly had seen to it that the entire party committee was wearing exactly the same outfit. Oh, yes, Beverly was bad news.

Now, the author took pains to explain that Beverly’s mother was divorced and so involved in clubs and committees that she had no time for her daughter. (Never mind that Lee’s own father was dead, and her mother was an actress touring with a company in Australia. Divorce and social preoccupation is what does the damage.) Beverly associated with a “tall, dark boy whose slicked-back hair was too long, his sideburns too prominent. Under his black leather jacket, a pink shirt and splashy tie could be seen.” I guess I don’t even have to say any more, do I? Well, I will. By the end of the story, Beverly elopes with that boy. When Mother finds out, there’s a terrible fight, and Beverly drives off… in Sid’s car. (“Doesn’t Sid lock it?”  “Yes, but he thinks Beverly had another key made.”) She crashes it. So that’s how she ends up — in the hospital and in legal trouble

Not to  mention the fact that she was removed from the rolls of the graduating class because she got married. “That’s the ruling of our School Committee,” Grandmother says. “And I think it’s quite a wise ruling.” I’m not sure why. Maybe to be an example to any other girl who thought she could just buck society and go get married whenever she wanted to? Or maybe because Beverly definitely was having sex now and would somehow contaminate the wholesome virgin girls in her school? The author didn’t feel the need to elaborate.

As for the plot, well, there wasn’t. Just the usual episodes and events. Movie dates, Christmas caroling, cozy dinners with Jock’s family eating roast beef and apple pie, a school play (ruined by a blizzard), a second show (thought up and designed by Lee) that’s a smashing success, ice skating, and even a trip in to New York City. The author was not shy about dropping in moralization when she felt that the reader needed it. Parts of it read like a helpful and instructive “teen-age magazine” of the time.

Through it all, Lee grows to love and belong in Fairmeadows.

Lee knew that wherever she might live in later years, she would always want to be back in Fairmeadows at Christmastime. No other place could celebrate it so well. Everyone entered into the spirit of the season; everyone enjoyed it. Yet it was all very simple and natural. And noncommercial, Lee added, remembering big cities at the holidays.

Exactly. The whole book was basically a tribute to Small-Town 1950s Americana, especially being in Massachusetts where of course America was born. And that makes sense. The writer, judging from her picture, had grown up through two wars and the Depression. Now the 60s approached, with its alarming new ideas. It was still a few years before the world would go completely crazy, but people could see it coming.

It didn’t surprise me that everyone in this story was white. Absolutely no ethnic or black characters appeared at all; even Lee’s grandmother’s longtime servants were white. Of course, that’s partly because it’s the Northeast, where the black population was smaller. But it’s a characteristic of most of the mid-century “teen-age” stories. There just wasn’t really any room in this idyllic American picture for those who didn’t look and behave “right” — that is, middle-class and white.

So I hated the book? Oh, no. I enjoyed it thoroughly, partly because it was so very mediocre. And despite all, the author stayed true to Lee’s dream to be a dress designer. By the end, Lee has plans for her career firmly in place; and her relationship with Jock is only semi-serious. That’s pretty progressive for 1958.

The author bio on the back says, Theater and radio work in Boston followed upon graduation from Radcliffe College. Her subsequent marriage interrupted her career, although her interest in the theater still persists. She never said it, but I ended up with the impression that she might advise a young woman not to rush into marriage, but get some real good out that career first.

 

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