The 1930s and 40s are, in my opinion, an underutilized era for historical YA novels, and when it is done, it is usually lazily- a few pop culture signifiers and some retro slang is pretty much all that defines the setting. This one, detailing the comeback attempts of former child star Abby “Cookie” Baynes is an exception: it has enough period details to give us a real sense of the era, and also goes into some pretty dark places for a book targeted at young readers.
The Plot: As Cookie Baynes, Abby was a child star of Shirley Temple-like proportions in the 1930s, but now it is 1942, she has grown into a cute-but-not-pretty 17 year old, and her only gigs are performing her old tap routines for DAR and Elks Lodge charity events. Her overbearing stage mother is convinced that a star role is just around the corner, and begs invitations to premieres and Hollywood parties, where Cookie/Abby will be seen- and seen in the costumes that she wore as toddler. This is just the first tip-off that Mama is kind of a monster and the book is set in the unwholesome, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane version of Hollywood.
The book opens with Abby having a humiliating encounter at a red-carpet premiere with Linda, a former rival child star who has easily transitioned into grown-up roles. Clearly, Linda is supposed to be Elizabeth Taylor. Half of the fun of the book is figuring out who the featured “famous stars” are supposed to be knock-offs of: fake Mae West, Greta Garbo and Jimmy Durante are featured, although Abby and her friend get chased off the lawn by the real W.C. Fields.
In addition to her agent booking her at Rotary Clubs all over southern California, Abby is also dealing with real-world teenage girl problems: her younger brother is turning into a juvenile delinquent and her Regular Joe boyfriend, Luke, is graduating high school early and joining the Navy.
Luke wants to “go all the way” before he ships out, and when Abby rebuffs him (she is not that kind of girl!) he proposes getting married. But Abby is unsure; she confides in her friend Mary Lou that she really wants to get back into acting: “I want to be an actress the way all the other girls we know want to meet the men of their dreams and get married someday.”
But first she must contend with her overbearing mother, who insists she stays with her kiddie agent and pretend to be a little girl, often for her own benefit: “No one would ever guess that I’m old enough to have a daughter in her teens. Barely in her teens.”
When she wrangles an invitation to the birthday party of a studio executive’s son for Abby and herself, Abby protests both because the boy is only 8 years old and the fact that she is expected to wear a little-girl party dress that doesn’t even fit. Mother has a solution which is a little creepy:
“We’ll bind your breasts. Oh, for goodness sakes, Abby. What do you think they did to Judy Garland when she was in The Wizard of Oz? Sweetie, it’s important to keep you looking the way you used to. This is how everyone remembers you. We can’t let them forget little Cookie Baynes.”
Abby starts to rebel on the sly: first she pays a visit to a new agent to see about getting some auditions for age-appropriate roles. But he is discouraging: despite showing a real flair for comedy and impersonations, he tells Abby that she’s not pretty enough, she’s typecast and the studios are already well-stocked with their own teenaged Judys, Janes and Deannas. He advises her to give up:
“You haven’t got a chance. Go to secretarial school. Look around for a Prince Charming. Get married. Raise a family. You’ll be a lot happier.”
Discouraged, but not quite ready to give up, Abby conspires with her best friend Mary Lou to crash an audition using her old agent’s name. Dolled up in 50 pounds of Max Factor makeup and one of her mother’s dresses, she not only does not get the part, but she almost gets raped by a casting director. When her mother finds out she is upset- at Abby:
“See what happens when you don’t listen to Mama? I really do know what’s best for you. I’m not mad. I’m deeply hurt that you would do a thing like this to me. You didn’t stop to think about my feelings. You never do.”
However, Abby decides to give her career one last shot, when her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Fitch, pulls some strings to get Abby into the chorus line at a celebrity USO show. Mrs. Fitch, a slightly dotty ex-Floradora Girl who now spends her time looking for Japanese spies in Griffith Park, has a scheme to not only get Abby into the show, but to get her out of the chorus.
Under Mrs. Fitch’s tutelage, Abby is successful in pulling off a stunt which gets comedian Pat Perkins (fake Bob Hope) to notice her and pulls her out of the chorus line for some banter. He is impressed by her comedy chops and invites her to audition for the show he is putting together to tour military bases. It’s her big break! Now she just has to get her mother to sign the release! The always-practical Mary Lou suggests that she enlists the aid of her agent in explaining to her mother what a great opportunity it is. Unfortunately, when she arrives at his office, she walks in on him in a passionate embrace with her mother. Well, that explains a thing or two.
Abby’s day goes from bad to worse when she rushes home to find her father in the throes of a heart attack. Her mother arrives, enraged, before the ambulance does and the slap across the face intended for Abby hits her father instead, finishing him off. When Abby explains that the ambulance is on the way, Mother gets weird:
“You were smart to call an ambulance and come up with that story about the heart attack.”
“It wasn’t a story, Mama.” Abby said firmly. “Daddy has been sick, but we didn’t know it was his heart until today. He did have a heart attack. It’s true. You have to believe me.”
“That’s right. We have to believe that.” Mama’s voice dropped and she spoke rapidly. “We have to protect ourselves. They’d blame me, of course, even though it was really all your fault.”
Abby is clearly not going get anywhere with her mother, although it is now much easier to convince her to sign the release so she can go on tour with fake-Bob Hope.
Her first engagement at the Naval Base in San Diego is a success! Sailors recognize her in a soda fountain the next day! Clearly success is within sight for the newly renamed Abby Grant.
This is the first volume in a uniquely-formatted series: the second volume focuses on Abby’s daughter in the 1960s, and the third on her granddaughter in the 1990s.
It Is 1942! Department: Cecil B. DeMille is your air-raid warden. Also your housekeeper is leaving for better wages as a munitions worker at Lockheed.
There is a War On Department: Mary Lou has resorted to dating underclassman because: “If what Luke says is true, by the time we graduate, there may not be any boys left in the senior class.”
Movie Nerding Department: The author misidentifies Errol Flynn as under contract to MGM. He was at Warner Brothers.