This book was published in 1958. In many ways, it’s really dated, but in other ways it’s completely timeless. Honestly, I went in to this expecting to roll my eyes at the fifties-ishness of the whole thing. But I actually enjoyed reading it, because it was kind of fun to compare what was relatable and what was totally WTF about it.
Shelley Latham is sixteen years old. She’s an only child growing up in Portland, OR, and her mother is her biggest problem. Shelley’s mom had been a teacher, but obviously quit to become a housewife, but she doesn’t really have anything to focus on outside of Shelley. And she just plain doesn’t understand what it’s like to be sixteen!
The mom keeps in contact with her old college roommate (by mail, natch), Mavis, who is quirky and fun and a mom living in a small citriculture community in California. Mavis suggests Shelley come live with them for a year. It seems ridiculous at first, but Shelley’s dad thinks it would be good for her. After all, they are only going to be able to afford to send Shelley to the local State University where she will attend with a lot of her high school classmates and still live at home. He thinks a year away will be good for her.
Shelley is thrilled to go. She’d been going steady with Jack, who is a nice guy but completely boring, and Shelley didn’t know how to break things off with him. She goes to San Sebastian, CA hoping to meet a boy who isn’t dull as dishwater.
Shelley is adorably enthusiastic about everything in California. The orange grove owned by the family she lives with, their weird old house, the stucco buildings, the constant sunshine, the locals who are all suntanned and healthy looking. On her first day of school, Shelley spots a very good looking guy, and immediately wants him. His name is Philip and he’s in her bio lab class. She also meets Hartley, who is not as handsome but is very nice and is in homeroom and journalism with her.
Shelley fits in well at school, and has a lot of fun with the Michie family. She has a date with Hartley, and has a good time. But eventually Philip asks her out and it’s not long before she and Philip are An Item. Philip is super handsome, and Shelley spends a lot of time thinking about his adorable sunburned nose and blond hair, and that he’s the school basketball star. Unfortunately, he’s very shy and has little in common with Shelley, who is outgoing and gets good grades.
Still, they like each other enough that they distract each other during bio lab and for first semester Shelley ends up with a D, while Philip outright flunks the class, meaning he can’t play basketball this season. Shelley feels guilty about ‘making’ Philip get an F, and she’s sure the entire class will hate her for it. (They don’t.) But still, Philip is grounded for the next semester and isn’t allowed to take Shelley on dates.
Shelley works hard to pull up her bio grade, and meanwhile ends up going out on dates with Hartley, and has a great time. And she’s bummed she spent so much of the school year with Philip when they clearly weren’t made for each other. The book ends with the end of the school year, (A final grade of B in her bio lab) and Shelley going back to Oregon with her parents and knowing Hartley was her first love and that she’ll miss him. Sensible Shelley doesn’t have any grand ideas about trying to go to college with Hartley, just understanding he was her first love and they probably won’t see each other again.
The things that are relatable, despite being from the 1950’s:
- Shelley’s relationship with her mother. This is very clearly based on Cleary’s own relationship with her mother, as she wrote about in her biography. Shelley is struggling for independence against a mother who is a little smothering.
- Shelley having to hear about how things were done in ‘the old days,’ by her parents and teachers – most of whom were teenagers during the Depression. The generation gap is absolutely timeless and in just as stupid in every generation as it was in the one before it. (I could go on about how millennials are FINE despite whatever Gen X and the Boomers write about them ad nauseum, but I won’t.)
- But, as part of growing up, Shelley learns about her mother as a person, and not just as a mom. She gets good stories of her mom from Mavis.
- Philip suffers from the same lack of connection with his dad. His dad is pushing college on him, but Philip just isn’t studious. He’s working part-time as a tree-trimmer and honestly loves it and wants to make a career of it.
- At Christmas, Mavis’s mother comes to visit and Shelley gets to see for herself that parents and children can continue to butt heads into adulthood, without loving each other less.
- Shelley is anxious to get out of the city, but her friend Jeannie (who grew up in San Sebastian) is anxious to get out of her small town. The grass is always greener, city mouse vs. country mouse, and all that.
Things that are hopelessly old-fashioned:
- It’s an unbearably white book. Schools in 1958 were still segregated. And obviously I’m not blaming Beverly Clearly for having all white characters in this book. (In her last book, the final Ramona book written in 1999, Ramona has a black friend, so she obviously grew with the times). It’s just really jarring to read a book like this now. I know some people look at the 50’s through rose-colored lenses, but I never do. I always associate the 50’s with the oppression of women and non-whites.
- The Michie family does the weekly ironing together, and the whole scene I was like ‘what the fuck is happening here?’
“Tom lit the gas that heated the old-fashioned mangle and Mavis prepared to iron at the ironing board. “Shelley, you take the other ironing board,” directed Tom. “Katie, you and Luke feed the flat things into the mangle while I run it.” … Obediently, Shelley plugged in the iron and selected a sport shirt while Mavis started to iron one of Katie’s blouses. Tom operated the lever that raised the top of the mangle. “Now!” he ordered, and simultaneously he and his two children fed napkins into the mangle. This was the secret of fresh napkins at every meal. Tom brought the top down on the heated cylinder and the napkins rolled in and came out ironed……”
- Shelley, seeing all the students with tans on the first day of school, calls herself, “a paleface among the natives.” That’s not outright offensive, but is definitely language that wouldn’t fly today.
- Also, the words that are used to describe Philip, are now considered ‘coded gay’ words. He’s “shy and sensitive,” and “doesn’t want to waste his time on girls,” and “is closer with Friz (his male friend) than any girl,”and “pleasant and courteous but in a reserved way.” Also, he never even tries to kiss Shelley, even when they’re a known item. I’m 100% certain that Beverly Cleary’s intention was not to write a coded gay character. It’s just funny that the language she used to describe him is basically the same that was used to describe Ducky in California Diaries, because they needed to make him gay without using the word gay.
- As a new kid, Shelley gets interviewed for the school paper, and she’s described as a “pert miss.” EWWWWW, why are you so gross, 1950’s?
- Luke, the fifteen year old in the house she’s living in, is HUMILIATED in English class. Why? Because they were taking turns reading a story off the board and the sentence Luke had to read was, “Mother! They’ve crowned me Queen of the May.” Scandalous.
- They had to get rid of hay at a barn-dance because the smokers (in a HIGH SCHOOL) might cause it to light on fire.
- Shelley’s mom asks her not to “lose her head,” over Philip. Snerk. More like lose her cherry, amirite?
Despite it all. This was a really fun book to go back and re-read. It’s a charming little book, and it manages to be so charming by having a good balance of being timeless and dated.
Also, Beverly Cleary has four of these books about high school girls finding boyfriends. I don’t think they were intentionally written as a series, but they are currently being sold as a set called First Love. This one is #2, and #4 (Sister of the Bride) was reviewed on this blog by guest reviewer, Alison. The Luckiest Girl is better than Sister of the Bride.