Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Persimmon cake and Jane Austen

Our persimmons are now "well-frosted"--or at least, somewhat frosted--and so I picked some. I've discovered they're best when they turn bright orange, almost the color of a cherry tomato, and are beginning to shrivel.

When I'd gathered enough, I whipped them into a pulp in the food processor and made a persimmon cake from a recipe I found on the Web.

I served it at the Quaker Writing group meeting this evening. It was the color and texture of an English plum pudding, a moist, dense cake. The "tasters" --aka the writing group--liked it. I was glad.

I was informed that you can frost persimmons by picking them and putting them in the freezer. Now why didn't I think of that? I was also told that November and December are more the months for persimmons, but we have had a cold snap recently.

In any case, the golden and orange persimmon globes are colorful and pretty in the tree. People in Barnesville with persimmon experience tell me I should try an actual persimmon pudding. Maybe I will.

This is all the more thrilling for me as I am reading a book now called Jane Austen and Food. After her father died, according to this book, Jane and her mother and her sister Cassandra lived in a "cottage" called Chawton, with a big garden surrounded by high walls. They grew pears and greengages and many other fruits (and vegetables) and made their own jams, jellies and preserves. So as I baked with persimmons, I liked thinking that Jane Austen would have done the same.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ambiguity in Nancy Drew

In Girl Sleuths, Bobby Ann Mason uses the following quote from The Mystery at Lilac Inn to illustrate Nancy's association with the color blue:
“The driver, a pretty girl of perhaps 16, attractive in a frock that either by accident or design, exactly matched the blue of her automobile, smiled whimsically.” (p.1, original version)

The use of blue was interesting but I was stunned by the phrase "either by accident or design." Either/or! From the very first page of this book, we're confronted with mystery, ambiguity, forks in the road. Which is it? Is it accident that Nancy's "frock" matches her car or is "design?" And what are we to make of this mysterious Mona Lisa smile, this whimsical smile, that apparently results from being hungry and reading a sign for chicken dinners?

When I first went looking for this quote, I mistakenly picked up The Password to Larkspur Lane. (Larkspurs, Lilacs ...) I was perplexed I couldn't find the quote I sought. What I did see was the following: "If this were 2,000 years ago ...." Not fact, but supposition, followed by plants "that waved their blue plumes as if saying: 'Choose me! Choose me!'" Three short paragraphs into the book and we read two "ifs:" we are in the world of supposition, possibility and, with the imagined cries of the flowers, choice.

Both openings point to depths and mysteries in Nancy herself that make her a more interesting character. Does Nancy plan her frocks to match her car? What about Nancy we don't know? Is she more calculating than we may believe, more in control of the aesthetics of her environment than she might let on? Or it mere chance that her dress matches her car? Is her "whimisical" smile because of hunger or a nod to the way she's put one over on us? The text leaves us hanging ... or more precisely, puts the burden on us to look for "clues" in the text to tease out our own conclusions.

In the Password to Larkspar Lane, we find Nancy and Hannah Gruen in a domestic, pedestrian and typically female endeavor: cutting flowers from a backyard garden for a flower show. Yet the text lifts it into another, more mysterious realm. Nancy is not just an everyday girl in the midwest. She connects herself to a larger story, a history that goes back 2,000 years to ancient Greece, a place that evokes wisdom and mystery. The text also subverts Nancy's feminine activity. She's the actor, the chooser, the "male" figure in this scene. She has the power over the passive flowers, who can only say "Choose me!" It's she who walks among the contestants in this beauty pageant, making decisions and taking action: "Snip!"

How is this similar to Jane Austen?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Book about children's literature

I've been reading three books on children's literature--with a hat tip to Ellen Moody at WomenWritersoftheWorld for recommending them--Bobby Ann Mason's Girl Sleuth, Good Girl Messages by Deborah O'Keefe and Catching Them Young: Political Ideas in Children's Fiction by Bob Dixon.

In Girl Sleuth: On the Trail of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Cherry Ames, published in 1975, Mason first discusses the classism and sexism inherent in the Honeybunch series and Bobbesey Twin books, then moves on to analyze the mixed messages girls receive from series such as Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton. She points particularly to the classist assumptions in Nancy Drew: Nancy is a well-to-do, blond-haired, blue-eyed WASP girl who expects and receives privileges because of her class. This is obviously true to an extent, but Mason overstates the case and I would like, in a future blog or blogs to examine the intersection of class and sex in Nancy Drew. Do we unfairly tar young female characters who behave assertively and independently with the brush of "class privilege?" Do we use accusations of classist behavior to further oppress women who act boldly? Is Nancy Drew truly unconscious of her class privilege? Unamibivalent about it? Should women who happen belong to an elite class not use their power?

Mason also sees Nancy Drew as dependent on her father, both financially and as the person who "saves" her from danger. Again, I think the waters are much murkier. Of course, Nancy relies on her father's income. But is that all there is to it?

Mason also opened me the amazing ambiguities and possibilities in the Nancy Drew text that are out there in plain sight. She doesn't focus on this at all--or seem to notice it--but she chose a quote that made it all pop out for me. More on this later too ... and it's connection to Jane Austen.

I have a question: two of the three books I'm reading about children's literature were written in the 1970s (O'Keefe's book, however, was published in 2000). Is that because not much analysis has been written since then? Are there other books that standout that we should know about?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Nancy Drew: Unbearable Lightness of being

In Nancy's Mysterious Letter, Nancy rushes to the defense of her loyal postman, Ira Dixon, when his mailbag is stolen from her porch two days from his retirement.

In this time before Social Security, George, Nancy's boyish chum, is amazed that the mailman can retire! "Fancy a letter carrier retiring! I didn't know they were paid enough to save up a fortune!'

Nancy explains that the postman's perfect record has earned him a pension and, plus, he has received a small inheritance.

But when the mailbag is stolen, the mailman's pension is forfeited and Nancy goes with him to visit his superior to plead his case.

She holds her head high and walks into the postal supervisor's office fearlessly, a contrast to Dixon's frightened, bowed shoulders.

Nancy then confronts the angry supervisor, Mr. Cutter, who turns crimson, shouts and bangs his fist on his desk when he hears the news. He also blames Nancy.

Although her cheeks burn "with an angry flush" at Cutter's rudeness, she handles the encounter with hauteur and composure: "Really, you don't have to shout at me. I'm not deaf and I am aware of all you say."

Cutter, however, continues to blast her, castigating her, then jeering at her as "Miss Wise Lady from Know-it-All." Dixon, cowed by Cutter's intimidating tactics, puts up an arm as if to protect Nancy, "but Nancy was fully capable of taking her own part. She was not in the least ruffled by the postmaster's rudeness." She continues to try to get back to the rational point, which is to try to find the thief who stole the mail pouch.

When the police come in, Nancy bestows a "scornful glance" on Cutter before proceeding with her story.

The detectives realize it is THE Nancy Drew they are facing, the daughter of Carson Drew, the respected attorney, and the young woman who has bested them more than once in solving cases. They become more courteous but no less friendly, for "her youth and composure nettled them not a little."

Nancy doesn't care.

At the end of the conference, Nancy pointedly refuses Cutter's outstretched hand as he tries to make amends for having offended the daughter of Carson Drew. As she walks into the "thronged" corridor, clerks and carriers hastily move aside, watching, as Nancy passes "with the composure of a queen."

This remarkable scene reverses gender stereotypes. Here, Nancy stays calm, cool and rational while Cutter, the older male supervisor, reacts emotionally and irrationally to the news of the theft. Here, we meet a Nancy who can be fearless, haughty, relentlessly self-assured and icily angry. The only female in a scene thronged with males, she makes every one of them squirm. She reduces all of them to jellyfish, knows it and doesn't care. She refuses to do anything that might be expected to protect the male ego. She doesn't try to be nice or apologetic or vulnerable. She doesn't need any help. All of Cutter's tactics from shouting and threatening to attempted belittlement--typical male methods of intimidation--fail completely with Nancy. From beginning to end, she dominates.

No wonder girls and women love her. And no wonder she's too hot for Hollywood to handle. No wonder she has to be reduced to the wacky, zany screwball heroine of the 1930s flicks or the postmodern self-parody of the 2007 movie. Can you imagine filming the above scene in Mysterious Letter as written? It would be too blinding, too brilliant, too glaringly assertive for men to handle. Only the bitch to be humiliated could be given such a moment. But that's not Nancy! Nancy behaves as a fully actualized human AND triumphs! Oh we love her, we love her!

Beyond that, we know that it's injustice--glaring, harsh, cruel injustice or the kind of petty, irrational injustice perpetrated against Ira Dixon--that engenders this uncompromising ice goddess Nancy. We know --as the men in this scene do not--that this is not the totality of our heroine, who is also kind and gentle, laughing and fun loving, joyful and generous. With her chums, with us, if not with them. Again, stereotypes are reversed. Nancy is not all sweetness and light with men, savage with other women. Au contraire.

This Nancy stretches back to Jane Fairfax in Jane Austen's Emma and forward to the Donna Parker we saw yesterday, who flames with unbridled fury at being expected to diminish herself to build up a man. But does it stretch to today?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Donna Parker: That Spitfire!

Ah Donna. Our 1950s teenage gal with a flip who stared in seven books, each with a mystery twist, has been characterized on Wikipedia as follows;

"Calm, loyal and understanding, Donna is prone to worry about events outside her control. She is quick to help people and very polite."

Well, yeah, calm and very polite ... sometimes. At other times--fairly frequent times -- she can exhibit a firecracker outrage similar to Nancy Drew's. For example, in Donna Parker: Mystery at Arawak, Donna gives her friend Teddy a dressing down when he accuses her of making him look like a fool with her competency:

“Donna felt the blood rise to her face: ‘So I was supposed to do a poor job to make you look better? I never heard of anything so stupid!’ … She was just furious. Imagine Teddy stopping her for a conversation like that! She hoped she would never see him again.”

That's some calm and polite.

You go girl!

So my question: can you think of other instances when supposed "demure" girl characters show their spirit? I think I'll write about memorable outrage in Nancy Drew tomorrow ....

Friday, September 18, 2009

On Donna


"But the girl who captured my heart completely was -- and always will be -- Donna Parker. Anytime I see one of those brightly painted cardboard covers at yard sales or Salvation Army book collections, I snatch it immediately. Remember good ol' Donna? She never had to face the kind of death-defying mysteries that Nancy or even Trixie confronted, but she had her share of adventures. Pretty, sweet and good-hearted, she nevertheless had killer nerves and lots of courage -- hot stuff for a girl like me, growing up in a single-mom household in the poor part of town. As Jessica Zafra recently wrote in her book Tw7sted, We can never be truly safe; we can only be brave. Donna Parker took that to heart and was among the bravest girl heroines.

I thought of her as I read through Cara Black's latest Aimee Leduc mystery, Murder in the Rue de Paradis. The stylish, hip, and I-eat-nails-for-breakfast Aimee is basically Donna Parker all grown up -- self-assured, witty, smart and a smart ass, a risk-taker (sometimes a reckless one), but with that streak of vulnerability that's both endearing and endlessly frustrating. Yeah, that's my girl."

From myinnerfrenchgirl.blogspot.com/2008/03/book-review-murder-in-rue-de-paradis.html

Monday, September 14, 2009

Childhood Influences: The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes

The entry below was written by my cyber-friend Ted Gossard who has a blog called Jesus Community at www.communityofjesus.blogspot.com.

Mom read us books as little children and the one she read the most and that I remember most vividly is Kenneth Taylor's The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes. The pictures stood out to me and for me as a child were surely iconic, as the simplicity, clarity and power of the spoken word came through clearly for a child in Kenneth Taylor's (the author of the paraphrase Living Bible) words, with simple questions at the end of each short entry.

This book surely was the most formidable of all books for me as a child in influencing and shaping my thought and formation, the fruit of it coming forth in my conversion years later. But before my conversion I rarely if ever doubted the truth of the simple gospel, or of the Bible. It's only now, as I look back on it, that I begin to understand just a little the profound impact this book, and my mother's faithful reading of it to us, had on me.

The picture of Jesus hanging on the cross always stood out to me. Also the first picture of the book of God creating the heavens and the earth, along with a good many others. Each picture was quite important to us, and the words were kept simple and few, with good questions afterwards, just right for a child.

I have many good childhood memories, but this ranks among the best. My guess is that Mom often read several at a time. I can't remember exacly how I felt during such times, but I'm sure it was formational for me and to this day has an impact on what I do in more ways than I can understand. I think what it did tell me is that the Bible is both true and true to life. So that I carried that belief with me, even through my years of rebellion.

There are surely better books out there for children now in expressing the truth of God's word and God's kingdom come in Jesus. But surely there's no better book as to the format that was used and captured me a a child, preparing me for a love for God's word and the story in it, which continues on to this day.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Dorothy Day: Childhood Influences

Late in life, Dorothy Day, the Roman Catholic social activist, ruminated on the powerful influence of some of the books she read as a child. If we want evidence that childhood books have a profound bearing on who we become, Day is exhibit A.

Day writes about being influenced by Queechy and Wide, Wide World, two novels by Susan Bogert Warner (aka Elizabeth Wetherell) written around 1850. I have not read these novels, but http://merrigold.livejournal.com/1342.html offers the following description of Queechy:

"Like her wildly popular first novel, "The Wide Wide World", "Queechy" focuses on the development of a female character from childhood to marriage. Fleda is by nature a girl "of velvet softness; of delicate, downcast beauty; of flitting but abundant smiles, and of even too many and ready tears". It is religion that enables this soft and delicate character to exert all her strength and face adversity, achieving "patient continuance in well-doing". When those around her are found incapable of providing moral, emotional, or practical support, it is Fleda who finds unknown physical and emotional strength. When all others fail you, says Warner, rely on the promises of God, and persevere.

Fleda's experience is in some part, Susan Warner's. In 1834 Susan and Anna Warner moved to Constitution Island with their father, Henry Warner. They intended to live on the island only during the summer but reverses in Henry Warner's fortune forced them to sell their home in New York City. Even after their writing became popular, the sisters continued to live on the island, doing their own gardening and cooking, sometimes spending winters on the mainland at friends' houses. The sisters promoted the somewhat radical idea that young ladies could actually do their own physical work such as gardening -- Fleda finds pleasure in her garden as well as hard work. The Warner sisters were also known for their deep commitment to religious teachings. The beauty of the natural world, and religion, are beloved by Fleda in "Queechy".

The above is almost a blueprint of Day's life: She became a convert to Christianity (in her case, Roman Catholicism), went to live among the poor and strove every day to be patient and help build a world where it was "easier for people to be good." Like Fleda, she was the pillar of strength in her community. She relied on God. She persevered. As in the real life story of the Warners, Day bought a house on an island--Staten Island--and traveled between it and New York City (and other places). Like Fleda, Day embraced physical labor and found it nurtured the soul. She loved the beauty of the natural world and religion.

Day also read Sinclair Lewis's The Jungle with fascination as a child at a time her family was living in Chicago, and as result of the book, would roam the poorer neighborhoods of South Chicago. The poverty did not repel her. In fact, she was drawn to smells: baking bread and garlic, flowers. This prepared her for living among the poor in the lower East side of New York.

In Day's early reading, we find stunning support for the theory that childhood reading helps form who we become as adults.

I have two questions: what books from childhood can you look back at and see that, unwittingly, had a disproportionate influence on the rest of your life? In what ways? Second, if the early books we read have a disproportionate impact on the "tabula rasa" of young minds, should we be concerned about what's out there? Or can we trust that the influence of the less substantial books will fade away?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Childhood influences: Amazons and Swallows

I am starting a series called Childhood Influences, about the lifelong influence of the books or stories we read as children. This opening piece is a slightly different take on the subject from my friend Alice Tracy, whose recent experience of reading of a children's book brought back memories of what it felt like to read a book as a child--and a reminder of what values she took away from childhood readings.

If you would like to contribute a guest blog or thoughts on childhood influences, please e-mail it to me at direynolds@earthlink.net

I first read Arthur Ransome’s Amazons and Swallows two years ago, many moons past childhood. Yet it has continued to resonate with me. The story is familiar in its outlines: a small group of siblings sail off together to camp out alone on a nearby island. An enemy is sighted: a lone man living on a sailboat with a parrot. Surely he’s a pirate! Then clear evidence of another boat encroaching on their island. The crew of the other boat is two sisters – tomboys -- of roughly the same age as the children on the island. A battle ensues but the children end friends. More adventures await, including a real battle with thieves, and a pleasant ending when the man with the parrot proves to be someone’s prickly but good-hearted uncle. All of the elements of a great story. If you haven’t read it, first, allow me to recommend that you do so. Second, let me say that I had the same feelings reading that book at around the half-century mark that I dare say I would have had when I was 12. And you may ask, “What were those feelings?”

I was captured almost immediately by the British nature of the book. Many of the children’s books that have stuck with me (although by no means all) have had that British nature. I mean by that term an independence of spirit, an isolation of the child’s world from that of the parent’s, and a pragmatic outlook that says, “Just get the job done.” I like to think that I am an independent, pragmatic individual, one always up for an adventure (no matter how small, and many of mine have been pretty small) so this British nature resonates with me.

Perhaps I am wrong to assign a “Britishness” to my reading experiences because many American books showcase those traits: Freddy the Pig, Caddie Woodlawn, The Saturdays, all come to mind. It’s just that the British have castles and hidden passageways to islands and sailing boats and all manner of adventurous settings to show off their adventurous spirit. Freddy and Caddie have the farm and the children in The Saturdays have New York City in the 1940s when adventure means finding a lost dog and having a mounted police officer bring you home. It’s not quite the same.

Another commonality though is the readiness of the authors to allow the girls to be as adventurous and as self-reliant as the boys. While there are some nods to femininity, all of the girls in these books seek out action and are largely unafraid of risk. (Of course, for the Freddy books and their almost all-animal cast you have to substitute female animals for female children. Still, in Freddy and the Perilous Adventure, Alice the duck – no relation – is the first to jump from the hot air balloon.) The crew of the Amazon is all female and it is one of the girls from the crew of the Swallow who thwarts the thieves – hiding in the boat in the dark by herself.

While when I was younger I would never have thought consciously about gender stereotyping, I longed for adventure as a child. I wanted to explore what life was like in far away worlds, but more importantly – I wanted to explore what life would be like on my own. If you can take that imaginative leap – and have the reading skills to do so – you can live in another world. I think that is why Amazons and Swallows made such an impression on me – it allowed me to immerse myself in a childhood adventure once again. I hope that I did learn from my childhood reading a lifelong desire for adventure, a willingness to take chances, and the imaginative ability to place myself in another world. I learned a great deal from the books I read as a child, but these may be the most important lessons.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Touring Donna Parker's "Summerfield"

On Friday, I met and lunched with Martin Levin, husband of the late Marcia Martin, author of the Donna Parker series. After lunch, Martin gave me a tour of Rye, New York, the setting of the fictional Summerfield, New Jersey, where Donna lives.

We saw Donna's home--incidentally the Levin's home from 1950-57-- a white frame Dutch colonial with black shutters on a shady street. Here Donna lived with her mother and father, Grace and Sam Parker and her little brother Jimmy. Amazingly, it looked just as I pictured Donna's house! Here too, Marcia Martin penned Donna's story, sitting in bed with a yellow legal pad balanced on her knees.

Martin also showed me the stone high school Donna attended, at least for one book, Donna Parker Takes a Giant Step. I also saw The Sweet Shop, the malt shop that is the backdrop for dates, lunches and conversations--as well as some rowdinesss. Called Poppy's, it's on the main drag in Rye and still boasts a long counter with red leather swivel seats.

Rye is on Long Island Sound, a lovely body of water naturally left out of descriptions of Summerfield, New Jersey. But as Martin Levin pointed out, little has changed in Rye since the 1950s. The town is clearly more upscale than it would have been in Donna's day, but it still has an idyllic, small town flavor, with many streets of modest frame homes, a big public library and a central shopping district.

It was a treat--a thrill--to actually meet Marcia's husband and hear stories about the connections between the Donna Parker series and Marcia's life. I had no idea how autobiographical the books were.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Words, words, words

I love language and so I was grieved to find the following in today's New York TImes column by Maureen Dowd on Hilary Clinton and Sarah Paling: critics were wrong who said that Hilary Clinton "had been disappeared" by Obama and Sarah Palin is on the wrong track if she wants to become one of "women who want to progress this country." Granted, the second was a quote from Sarah Palin, but to repeat "want to progress" twice in the column, was to my mind not progress.

In the first instance, Dowd is countering critics who claimed that Hilary Clinton had been subsumed or overshadowed by Obama. So why not say that? Why say "had been disappeared," as if Hilary were the star of some bad spy flick? As for Palin, and wanting "to progress" the country, why not "progress it" by using proper English? To paraphrase a *slightly* well-known writer, the quality of good English is not strained. Why not discuss women who want "to make progress?"

I know, I know, to stay alive language has to change and evolve. Or does it? What was so bad about Elizabethan English?

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Slowly but surely I am adding to this blog and today I added four links, which you will see down low on the right hand column. One is a link to a site that will give you more information about Donna Parker, one is a review I wrote of the 2007 Nancy Drew movie, and the other two are to two of my cyberfriends Jane Austen blogs. Any other ideas?

Friday, July 24, 2009


I have been thinking lately about why Emily Bronte set Wuthering Heights in the past: the novel begins about 75 years earlier than Emily's time period and ends about 40 years earlier. In other words, she wrote the novel in the mid 1840s and it spans the years from about 1770 to 1803. Translated to today, it would mean starting a book written now in the year 1935 and bringing it up to 1968.

In contrast, series books tend to be set in the present, whenever that present happened to be when they were composed. In Nancy Drew's case, the setting was meant to be timeless, and I remember that one book, written in 1940, had to have its locale changed from England to Mexico because of the outbreak of World War II. Donna Parkers have more of sense of time because Donna does get older in the books and changes and grows.

Carolyn Haywood's Betsy books are set in the present day of their composition (the 1930s and 40s), but apparently reflect Haywood's memories of her own childhood in the very early years of the 20th century.

Since most series literature is written by older people--people in middle age rather than the teen years or childhood--the books would arguably be conservative, grafting the memories and consciousness of a previous generation on to the present. To me, even Donna Parkers that were written in the early 1960s have more the flavor of the 1940s than the 1960s.

All that being said, no book can be timeless, and it's remarkable how much social history is packed into the pages of our favorite books. This is what gives them their texture and appeal, I believe. Often we remember the details more than the plots, which tend to blur. But what doesn't blur is Nancy Drew ordering cinnamon toast! Or Meg in "A Wrinkle Time" under the covers in her attic bedroom with the wind howling all around the house--and then drinking hot chocolate in the kitchen with Charles Wallace.

What details stick with you from your favorite books?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Waxing philosophical: TIme after time

“Time was moving so fast. She [Donna] had a mental picture of Time, like a kite that had broken loose from its string, sailing off into the sky above her. If only she could catch that bit of string and hang onto it, hold it still for a few minutes.” (Donna Parker Takes a Giant Step, 237)

Does Nancy Drew ever wax philosophical this way? I remember she has what border on attacks of nerves and boredom at the beginning of The Hidden Staircase, but does the timeless heroine ever stop for a moment of self-reflection on the passage of time?

What about in other girls' series lit? Or Jane Austen?

I'm struck that there's a part at the end of Little House in the Big Woods, when the young Laura, perhaps five or six, is tucked into her trundle bed in her log cabin in the 1870s with her father playing the fiddle in the next room, wanting to hold on to that moment in time forever.

Any other passages come to mind?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Emma and Donna

I've been thinking about similarities between Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse and Marcia Martin's Donna Parker. One first glance, the two characters don't seem to have much in common-except perhaps looks. Both are dark-haired and pretty.

Donna Parker is a 1950s teenager in Summerfield, N.J., oldest child in a family that includes her mother, father, herself and her younger brother Jimmy. Emma Woodhouse is a 21 year old from early 19th century England. Her mother died when she was very young, and she been raised by her doting hypochondriac father and equally doting governess, Miss Taylor. She has an older sister, who is married and lives in London. Emma is the first lady of her small village of Highbury.

The primary characteristic that jumps to mind about Emma is her snobbery. And indeed she is snobbish, but more profoundly, she misjudges people. The novel turns on the grand hinge that Emma always gets everything wrong. Her perceptions are comically--and potentially tragically--skewed. Yet hers are the main eyes through which we see the action of the novel. The other eyes are a sort of chorus that slides in and out Emma's consciousness and tends to reinforces her misjudgments--the almost equally blinkered set of commonplace attitudes, gossip, lies and half-baked opinions that Austen wickedly places out there as authority by blurring it with her own authorial voice. Beyond Emma and the chorus comes the input of people with agendas: Mrs. Weston, Mr. Knightley, Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill, the Bates, Jane Fairfax. Seldom, if ever, is the reader on safe ground, if by safe we mean "these are the facts, ma'am."

In "Donna Parker Takes a Giant Step," Donna, like Emma, displays a marked tendency to judge and misjudge people. In this book, the last in the Donna Parker series. Donna heads off to high school, which we are initially led to believe is her "giant step". In high school, which starts in the tenth grade, she's flattered to be befriended by senior Janie Ingersoll. Janie is pretty and wealthy and dates the high school football star Rudy Hinckle. Donna, taken in by Janie's status, believes the older girl's story that her parents don't really care about her and oppose her relationship with Rudy only because he's poor. As it happens, we learn that Janie is somewhat spoiled and unpredictable, and that Rudy is objectionable not because he's poor, but because he's irredeemably lazy, spoiled and irresponsible.

At the end of the book, Donna has what we might term a series of epiphanies. She starts coming to terms with ambiguity or shades of gray. On the subject of responsibility—this book’s theme—Donna learns that people, including herself, can be a mix of responsible and irresponsible, and that she can make mistakes in judgment"

“’If you’re too involved in something, I guess you just don’t see the obvious things,’ Donna thought to herself." (276)
Donna "giant step," thus, is actually the discovery of her own limitations: “I guess it’s very hard to know all about anyone, even yourself.” (278) She adds, “it’s hard to get to know what people are really like.” (278) She asks her boyfriend Paul: “Do you think we see only what we want to see?” (278)

Emma does not ask herself such broadly philosophical questions, although, she more than Donna, arguably ought to, but she does reflect on her own misperceptions as the book ends, and resolves, to become "more rational, more acquainted with herself." This being Emma, we can only hope-- this 21 year old doesn't reflect on, as almost-15 year-old Donna does, "that we only see what we want to see"--for some growth of self-awareness. Personally, however, I have little hope that Emma will become more self aware.

What most interests me, however, is the way a book like "Donna Parker Takes a Giant Step" prepares us for reading a much more complex and nuanced novel like Emma. By being taken in, at a young age, by a flawed and limited point of view, we're unconsciously prepared as readers to encounter unreliable narrators in adult books. What do you think?

Friday, July 17, 2009


Welcome to the place where great women literary writers and their creations meet with girls' series books and their authors on level ground, neither one privileged over the other.

For starters, what do you think of my banner of portraits? Donna Parker, square dancing, and Nancy Drew, sleuthing, are such active, dynamic figures compared to the static portraits of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Yet, in Jane and Emily's distant eyes and intelligent faces, we can see that there's a good deal going on.

Perhaps I should have found images of Elizabeth Bennett and Catherine Earnshaw to complement Donna Parker and Nancy Drew. Or perhaps I should have juxtaposed pictures of Lizzy and Cathy with photos of Donna Parker's author "Marica Martin," (Marcia Lauter Obrasky Levin) and Nancy Drew's "Carolyn Keene," (most famously, Mildred Wirt Benson). But the images I chose are iconic and immediately recognizable. They also reflect the reality that a series' protagonist becomes its chief signifier.

I'm not going to (at least not yet) provide lists of books and plot summaries, as these can be found on other sites. I do want however, to jump "in media res" to what's been going on my life with these beloved gals on the banner. First, over the past two days I've had contact with both Marcia Levin's daughter and her husband (Marica, sadly, died a few years ago) in conjunction with an article I'm writing about dining out in Donna Parker. It's been an exciting sleuthing job for me to uncover the "real" restaurants described in the books, and a thrill to speak with and e-mail people related to Marcia Martin. As a child, I never would have dreamed I could get so close to such an exalted personage! To make it all even better, they were both gracious people and delighted to find an interest in the Donna Parker series.

Second, I'm reading a book about Emily Bronte by Katherine Frank called "A Chainless Soul: A life of Emily Bronte." It purports that Emily was anoxeric, a theory that's so far ... just a theory, but I am finding the book a lively and entertaining read all the same.

Anyway, this is a huge question and one that will dance under the whole blog as time goes on: what do these various figures, literary and real, have in common? What links Elizabeth Bennett and Nancy Drew or Jane Austen and Marcia Levin? How did all of these characters, real and created, help to form us?