Margaret (Sunfire Romance #27) By Jane Claypool Miner

Can her worst student teach her the most important lesson of all?

sfmargaret

Back to school! Time to start the year with a good attitude cautionary tale wacky scheme inspirational message epic wish-fulfillment fantasy  slightly anachronistic feminist career romance!

Background: Scholastic’s Sunfire series is a cautionary tale about judging a YA Romance by its cover. Lurking behind the overheated cover art and melodramatic taglines are some of the best stories and most interesting heroines of the genre.

Sort of a historical counterpart to Scholastic’s Wildfire Romances, the series was authored by a handful of Scholastic regulars, such as Vivian Schurfranz and Willo Davis Roberts, and are formulaic, but reliably consistent in quality.

Each volume features a feisty 14-to-17 year old heroine facing an American historical crisis and the choice of two (or more) suitors. Spoilers: she’ll choose the one with the more progressive ideas about women’s rights.

While usually interesting and well-written, Sunfires can be formulaic, and are also noted for the alarming mortality rate for parents: if the heroine isn’t at least a half-orphan when the book opens, you can bet she will be by the end of chapter two.

In general, the longer, earlier books in the series focus on a general historical era,  and the later, skinnier volumes use specific historic events as a backdrop, often dramatic disasters…

The Plot: …and Margaret is the exception to the rule, a “short” Sunfire not grounded in a particular event, but with plenty of historical perils for the young heroine!

Miner packs the details into Margaret Evan’s backstory: the daughter of a Merchant Marine, she was born in Ceylon, and after her parents’ deaths (of course!) she was sent to live with her nouveau-riche aunt and uncle in Chicago; now 15, she has decided to leave her life of luxury to teach school on the Nebraska frontier. Her aunt especially frets about her decision, convinced that Margaret is leaving because her cousin is moving back home after separating from her husband. Margaret tries to calm her aunt’s fears about going to live among “savages”:

“There are many teachers younger than I am,” Margaret said. “You read Mr. Wilson’s letter saying that last year’s teacher was only fourteen.”

Finally receiving her family’s blessing, Margaret travels by train to the remote outpost of Clarktown, where despite her sturdy constitution and cheerful attitude, she immediately faces a number of challenges.

She had arranged to board with the Wilsons, the president of the local schoolboard and his wife, who turn out to be an uptight, stingy couple who immediately raise the cost of her board a full dollar after she eats too many string beans at dinner.

She is also put into sole charge of her 32 students, ranging in age from 4 years old up to 16 year old Henry Clark, who is less than enthused about his education. Mr. Wilson is also less than supportive about her new-fangled ideas about “pedagogy”, ordering her to stick to the fundamentals, without any singing, games or nature lessons.

For the first week her students turn the classroom into a circus, with Henry as the ringleader. Finally, in desperation she pays a visit to the Clark farm, where she finds that Henry’s father thinks that education is a waste of time for farm children, and would just has soon have Henry at home working. She does find a possible ally in Henry’s hunky older brother, Robert, who believes that an education will be an advantage as farming becomes modernized.

Robert’s solution to accompany his brother to class every day, ostensibly to keep him in line, but soon reveals to Margaret that he left school after his mother’s death and now intends to get an education himself.

Margaret is skeptical, but soon begins to put aside her own prejudices:

Robert Clark was really very intelligent, she decided, though he was certainly uneducated.

Miner also slips in a subtle gender role-reversal, as Robert turns out to be invaluable as a calming influence on her students:

His comment about her not being able to handle her class was infuriating. Yet she couldn’t deny that the class was much better behaved after he arrived, although she had never seen him do or say anything to discipline the children.

Margaret also attracts the attention of the teacher from the neighboring town, a wealthy New Yorker named Gerald Moore, described as being “as pretty as a china doll” in comparison to the rugged Robert. Gerald initially proves to be most refined company (“Do you find that you miss the cultural enchantments of the city greatly?”) but also less-than-progressive on his views of women’s roles:

“I never knew what to say to the little ones. Teaching is natural for women, but we men must work much harder at it.

“Yes, I know that infant education is all the vogue with you young ladies, but I prefer the headier stuff, introducing algebra and Latin and Greek to my older students. It’s far more stimulating to a mind like mine.”

Margaret would have like to argue with Gerald. She had heard many times that teaching was “natural” to women, in fact, that was often the reason given for paying men three times as much salary for the same work…

Before the school breaks for Christmas, Margaret gets her first taste of a Nebraska winter, as a blizzard suddenly comes up on the planes, threatening to trap the students in school house. It is also a rare Sunfire historical gaffe, as Robert references the Schoolhouse Blizzard, in which a sudden prairie blizzard killed over 200 people, including a number of children trapped in one-room schoolhouses; that storm wouldn’t take place until 1888, two years after Margaret is set.

While the town families show up to claim their children throughout the day, Margaret and Robert work together to deliver the remaining children to distant farms, and Margaret gets stranded in town for two days, where she learns both that the townspeople are well aware of the Wilsons’ miserliness, and that Robert Clark is considered a paragon of the community; his family is also very wealthy.

When she returns to the Wilsons, Margaret informs them that she will be seeking new lodgings when she returns from Christmas vacation in Chicago, taking up residence with the widow Mary Whitaker, a 19 year old with three young stepchildren who attend Margaret’s school. She also learns that Mary is Robert Clark’s cousin by marriage, and the whole town assumes that he is courting her.

Margaret is happy to have a friend near her own age, and Mary is very appreciative the additional income Margaret’s rent provides her with: demure and old-fashioned, Mary is patiently waiting to remarry and have a husband to support her and the children.

Away from the Wilsons’ constant scrutiny, is also free to entertain Gerald on a regular basis… but is he courting Margaret or Mary?

The second old-timey disaster strikes in the form of an influenza epidemic that shuts down the school; out of a sense of duty, Margaret drives out to the Wilsons to check on them, finding them near-death. Against Mary’s pleas, she stays to disinfect the house and nurse them back to health.

As usual, Sunfire doesn’t pull any punches in describing the death and destruction of the epidemic, as the disease decimates the ranks of her students, including Henry Clark and Mary’s step-daughter, Ida. It is months before school is able to resume, and the rest of the year is a somber affair.

In the spring, Gerald resumes calling on the young women, although Margaret is starting to find him a bit of snob and eventually gets fed up with his constant mansplaining:

Gerald went to great lengths to tell them about exactly what Lucretia Mott, the women’s rights leader, was going to say when she came to town. He tried to make her sound ridiculous and Margaret was furious. Then he said, “At least we should be glad that it won’t be Miss Amelia Bloomer, because all the women would be decked out in those ridiculous trousers she tries to get our ladies to wear.”

Robert, obviously, thinks that it Gerald who is ridiculous:

“I believe you’re begging the question,” Gerald said. “I’m asking you what you would permit your wife to wear.”

Robert shook his head and then shrugged his shoulders, as though shrugging off a pesky fly. “When I have a wife, I hope she’ll have the good sense to pick out her own clothing.”

Gerald also makes the serious misstep of holding a phony séance, which seems deliberately cruel when Mary thinks she sees a vision of her dead husband and faints. Robert is not amused.

Margaret makes plans to attend Antioch College with Gerald over the summer, where she will take a course in early childhood education. She also uses the time to play matchmaker, leading Gerald (who has made up for the séance incident) to the natural conclusion that he should marry Mary and take her back to New York where he can provide luxurious life for her in his family’s banking business.

With Mary and Gerald engaged, Robert is now free from family obligation to support Mary, and now nothing can stop him from courting Margaret…

EXCEPT FOR THE PRAIRIE FIRE!

Yup, seven pages to go, there is still time for one more natural disaster to keep Robert and Margaret apart. Working together, they save the whole town, and Margaret thinks that if she can’t convince (a much mellower) Hiram Wilson that a married lady can be a school teacher, she’ll become professor or lecturer on the topic of women’s suffrage, with the full support of her husband.

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Stories From The Twilight Zone By Rod Serling

Watch Rod Serling’s exciting series THE TWILIGHT ZONE each week on the CBS television network.

twilight zone

So, one of my OTHER projects this summer was to watch or re-watch all five seasons of The Twilight Zone, a series that has loomed large in my life since the age of five (“kids don’t remember their best day of television“? FILTHY LIES!)

Sadly, my quest to make it through all 156 episodes by Labor Day went uncompleted, but I did watch the entire first season,  which in 1960 was followed by this paperback featuring short story adaptations of six Serling-penned scripts.  And luckily for the readers fifty-six years later it includes both some of the best and the worst the series has to offer! Continue reading

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The Secret In Miranda’s Closet By Sheila Greenwald

With her mother an ardent feminist full of good intentions and nonsexist theories, Miranda’s experience with dolls is practically nil.

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Background: This is one of those titles with a cult following where the plot seems to be widely mis-remembered 40 years on. Most descriptions sum it up as “Shrill feminist mom goes too far!” which is not quite the case: despite being published by Houghton-Mifflin and not Harper & Row, this is a a tale of dysfunctional parents and an precocious child coming of age in 1970s New York. Miranda Alexis Perry would fit right in with Harriet M. Welch, Annabel Andrews and Davy Ross.

The Plot: Miranda’s age is never specifically stated, but she appears to be about 11 or 12; the daughter of a famous sociology professor and founder of a Feminist bookstore and magazine, Miranda is forever being pawned off on her mother’s long-suffering academic friends, for have no use for the chubby, morbidly introverted Miranda. Continue reading

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Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Lace By Shirley Conran

(Click here for information on the 2016 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the July selection, Shirley Conran’s Lace.)

lace

You may have noticed that this review is about two and a half weeks late. The reason is because that is how much longer than anticipated it took me to slog through Conran’s epic bestseller, a scandalous potboiler blown up to Clavellian (Michner-like? Ferberesque?) proportions, taking in Swiss boarding schools, secret teenage pregnancies, blackmail, S&M, purloined finacés, Arab sheiks, alcoholism, late-life lesbianism, a fashion heist, more blackmail, the Soviet occupation of Hungary, an illegal abortion, marital rape, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, cocaine, frigidity, swinging London, science-fiction cancer research, porno-chic, dead parents, a daring escape involving acrobatics from behind the Iron Curtain, near-incest, actual incest, decapitation, and a cross-dressing husband. Continue reading

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Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario By Daniel M. Pinkwater

This week, I am on vacation but  you can join Eugene Winkleman on his to beautiful… Rochester, NY!

I grew up in the Rochester area, where this book was very popular due to the meticulous descriptions of local landmarks (many of which are now lost to history).

However, in my original write-up, I inadvertently overlooked the fact that Eugene and his uncle are clearly staying at the Downtowner Motor Inn (which would have closed by the book’s publication, but was probably on its last legs when Pinkwater was doing his research).

I also strongly suspect that the unnamed movie theater where they go see the Yobgorgle documentary was probably the Waring 1 & 2, also closed for 20+ years as of this writing.

However, I can report that the Clock of Nations still greets weary travelers at its permanent-temporary home at the airport.

Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

This is about the time I lived for two weeks in a motel in Rochester, New York, with my Uncle Mel, and what happened to me while I was there.

Yobgorgle

Background: Daniel Pinkwater’s 1970s work tends toward the surreal, featuring bizarre characters, moony hippie mysticism and satirical anti-corporate diatribes, along with nomenclature that would give ME Kerr a run for her money.

(He was briefly in the news a few years ago when an excerpt from one of his short stories appeared as part of New York State’s notorious standardized tests, to the bafflement of students, teachers and the author alike. Why any state bureaucrat would choose from Pinkwater’s aggressively zany catalog remains a mystery, although the author suggested that “this was done by someone who was barely literate.”)

Yobgorgle is definitely in this vein, a shaggy dog story that pays meticulous detail to its setting, only to go nowhere in…

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Cher! By Vicki Pellegrino

The child bride turned vamp!

cher

Unlike the last week’s quickie celebrity biography, in which the subject had not yet done much of note, the author here has to contend with a subject that might just be (GASP!) washed up.

With a publication date of September, 1975, Cher! came at a low point in Cher’s career: recently divorced from Sonny Bono and mired in lawsuits, hit TV show cancelled due to the divorce, and re-married but legally separated from Gregg Allman, Cher’s life is kind of a mess. Author Pellegrino also undertakes to make the biography as breathlessly sensational as humanly possible, relying on sources identified as “former friends”, as well as Cher’s estranged father.

The whole thing is pretty sleazy behind that teen-mag style cover. By the end you just want to yell “DON’T WORRY, CHER! THERE WILL BE HIT ALBUMS AND ACADEMY AWARDS SOON! HANG IN THERE!” Continue reading

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John Travolta: An Illustrated Biography By Suzanne Munshower

TV’s most popular Sweathog and one of today’s most promising actors!

travolta

Pity the poor celebrity biographer, charged with turning out a quickie mass-market paperback on a star that may turn out to be HUGE, but at the moment is a 24 year old that has done little of note.

This is the dilemma author Munshower must have been faced with in 1976, when writing this extremely lightweight volume on John Travolta, less than a year into stardom thanks to “Welcome Back, Kotter” (I have a second edition [!!!] with a 1976 & ’78 copyright, which can only speculate on how much people will surely love him in his upcoming roles in Saturday Night Fever and Grease). Continue reading

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