Tuesday, July 21, 2009
The book that started it all
In 1942, Maureen Daly, just out of high school herself, wrote Seventeenth Summer, the book that is considered to be the first "young adult" novel. Prior to that time there had been simply "children's" and "adult" categories, with some crossover. After WWII, with, obviously, the baby boom, etc. blah, blah, blah (I'm assuming if you read this blog you know your history) the idea of targeting books to adolescent readers took off and an avalanche of books we know and love resulted. Looked at another way, no Seventeenth Summer, no Down a Dark Hall, no Wizard of Earthsea, no Golden Compass.
One of my favorite vices is reading old-fashioned girls' books -- the kind I'm not supposed to like, being level-headed or modern or whatever. I approached Seventeenth Summer, based on the title and the cover illustration, in that fashion. I already knew the plot - boy meets girl, summer love, summer ends, and so on. OK, it might not be good, but it would be enjoyable, like a grilled cheese sandwich. I don't think it took but three pages to disillusion me. I was not reading some throwaway screed of outmoded romance. This was a doorway into a summer night in 1941, waiting for your sister to come home from college on the train, with rain on the station bricks, the two-handled baggage carts standing in a line, the train coming "out of the darkness, feeling its way with the long yellow headlight beam." Each scene took me deeper into a small-town summertime world, a moment in time, just after a depression and just before a world-changing war, perfectly caught by Daly's strong, observant prose which renders people, places and things precisely. (It's something of a revelation to find out that teenagers in 1941 went to keg parties and played drinking games.) The summer gradually slides from the promise of June to the heat of July to the ripeness and decline of August, each day and each scene drawn exactly. This is one of those books you live in, and its probably one of the best-written young adult novels I've ever encountered.
OK, I'm going to restrain myself before I call it "luminous" (my favorite book-reviewer word, along with "compelling.") Just if you have any interest in young adult fiction, or being in love, or even what it was like to be alive in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1941, hunt this one up. (It's still in print!)
Just for a sample of Daly's style, I'm going to quote the next-to-last paragraph of the book:
"Quiet, sleeping houses and gray clapboard taverns slid by the window, lined along the track. I could feel the chug-chug of the train beneath me as the wheels turned. The drab houses at the edge of town straggled past, shabby, sad-eyed houses and sagging sheds, trailing bits of worn fence rail around them. Fond du Lac gathered her shoddy outskirts in about her. Bushes in the fields were russet-leaved, catching the glow of the first light of morning and the treetops rocked with the waking birds. And slowly, slowly out of the grayness, morning was coming."