Saturday, February 18, 2017

The most subversive moment in teen literature

I suspect I'm repeating myself but I love this:
A red-billed cap pulled at a jaunty angle over her blonde curls. Penny made a striking figure in a well tailored suit of dark wool. Her eyes sparkled with the joy of youth and it was easy for her to smile. She was an only child, the daughter of Anthony Parker, editor and publisher of the Riverview Star, and her mother had died when she was very young. (Behind the Green Door, 1940)
The red-billed cap makes it seem particularly appropriate right now.

That's called esoteric writing. There is lots of plausible deniability. There is a period and lots of parenthetical statements between "it was easy for her to smile" and "her mother had died".  There is even a plausible counter reading that she was very young when her mother had died and therefore being without a mother is not a barrier to Penny's finding it easy to smile. And that was probably enough to fool the mothers of readers of the Penny Parker books. They might have been briefly troubled by that paragraph had they read it but would have reassured themselves that it was just an accident of an accidental juxtaposition of ideas and that it didn't mean what it appeared to mean.  That won't hold if you think about it though: the text implies that it was easy for her to smile because her mother was dead and not despite her being so.

I suspect that very few of the girls who read the Penny Parker books missed the point. They eagerly grasped the chance to imagine what it would be like not to have a mother and they did so because it's liberating to think that*. And healthy. Blowing up your relationship with your mother is an essential part of growing up for both girls and boys. If you didn't do it as a teenager, do it now. (And also with any other members of your family determined to carry on in your mother's spirit.)

The Penny Parker books were the work of Mildred Wirt Benson, more famously known as the creator of the Nancy Drew series. She wrote the first four books of that series and quit when the women controlling the syndicate decided they wanted to make Nancy Drew more lady-like and obedient. You'll notice that Nancy's mother was also deceased. Wirt Benson created four heroines whose mothers were dead. That's a bit too many to be a coincidence.

* I should add that only a girl whose mother was still alive would think that. This is fantasy—actually having your mother die when you are young is nothing fun. But the fantasy is very appealing and the proof of this can be found in any one of hundreds of teen adventure stories where the hero is an orphan.

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