Background: When doing some fact-checking for last month’s Whitman extravaganza, I came across a reference to this stand-alone (non-series) title by everyone’s favorite series author, Julie Campbell Tatham.
Enticingly described as sharing a lot of similarities with Campbell’s flagship Trixie Belden series (trust me, it all comes back to Trixie around here sooner or later) with an older protagonist, I was immediately intrigued.
It turns out to be a very sweet-natured romance similar to Beverly Cleary’s YA work (Fifteen, Sister of the Bride, etc) with some surprisingly sophisticated plot elements.
The Plot: 17 year old Jan MacGregor has just graduated from high school and dreams of becoming a novelist. Her hopes to turn her talent and ambition into a money-making venture are accelerated when her parents reveal that the family has ended up in dire financial straits.
Jan’s father is in publishing, and until recently had been able to keep his family in style and comfort in a plush townhouse in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park. But upon his wife’s mother’s death, they have been willed the family farm in Westchester County. Unfortunately for the luxury-loving family, the farm was all they got: the monetary fortune went to Gran and Granddaddy’s ward, a surrogate brother-uncle type named Colby who is making a go of running a dude ranch with the money.
The townhouse is sold, the MacGregors move to the country and wife and elder siblings are horrified to learn that a mortgage has been taken out on a farm to pay for all of those debutante balls and snappy roadsters that you teenagers can’t live without. Seriously, Mrs. MacGregor could just die:
“Why, that disgraceful, mortgage must be paid off at once. There has never been a mortgage on this property since it was deeded to my ancestors by Queen Anne.”
Mr. and Mrs. MacGregor are off to “Hollywood and Alaska” in the hopes of signing some new authors to the firm so the mortgage can be paid off, leaving Jan and her two older siblings (glamorous debutante Liz and handsome ne’er-do-well Mac) and two younger (nerdy teenaged Don and 8 year old Jeff) to fend for themselves.
Jan is especially worried about Liz, who has been running around with all manner of rich young delinquents from Long Island, and Mac, who has been dating a much older woman with a young child who may-or-may-not be divorced.
The point is, the MacGregor teens need to make some money if they want to go to college in the fall. Liz and Mac could care less, but Jan and Don are alarmed by that prospect. Eventually Liz and Mac take jobs at Colby’s Dude Ranch and Don starts raising chickens for profit: they all borrow money from the MacGregors’ loyal housekeeper to fund these ventures (Mac needs a car and Liz needs Dude-duds; Don needs an entire set up of Rhode Island Reds). Jan, knowing neither a borrower nor lender be, wisely takes on house and garden chores that do not require a start-up fund. However, she’s secretly planning on entering her in-progress “novelette” into a teen mag-sponsored contest: even third prize is enough money to attend the state college.
Working in the garden one morning, she meets 19 year old Nick Cameron who has wandered through the hedge. After initially mistaking him first for a chicken fancier, and then for an escaped convict, (he turns out to be the wealthy son of the Cameron Camerons) Jan soon recognizes him as a kindred spirit as he pours out his own dilemma: after enlisting in the Marine Corps out of high school, he seriously injured his right hand in a Basic Training accident and now has a mental block about his physical therapy. He and Jan make a deal that he’ll help her with the gardening to try and regain use of his hand, which will give her enough free time to finish her novelette.
Jan also will have plenty of time to meddle in her elder siblings’ affairs. When Liz comes home upset after a weekend-long date with one of those Long Island playboys, Jan is worried that’s she pregnant. She also has a frank talk with Colby about Mac’s lady-friends:
“The wrong kind of girls call him. Trash. If I were Mac’s dad I’d stop his allowance and never let him near the Packard.”
Jan schemes to play matchmaker: Liz will marry Nick and Mac will marry Nick’s sister Diana and she’ll have the ending to her novelette and win the contest and go to college.
Complications ensue when (of course) Jan realizes that she is starting to fall in love with Nick herself. Because, duh, he is pretty much the most perfect boyfriend ever, what with helping out with all of your chores so you can pursue your career dreams and offering to edit and type your manuscript. Did I mention that he wants to drive around the country in a Winnebago and write travel articles for a living? Did I just slip into the second person? I can’t help it: he is the dreamiest.
Jan is torn between wanting to do a good turn for her sister and wanting that upper berth in the Winnebago for herself. She needn’t worry: it is clear that Liz has a thing for Colby, especially after they violently quarrel and she quits her job at the Dude Ranch:
“I just couldn’t stand working for that beast any more. He’s coarse, common- and furthermore, vulgar!”
“Oh, Liz,” I repeated, “you’re not talking about Colby.”
“I certainly am. The very idea of making me slave like a stable boy!”
It must be love.
This is about the time that the MacGregors’ housekeepers decide that they have had enough and, in what seems like a carefully calculated plan to make Liz and Mac finally grow up, take 20 years worth of accrued vacation all at once. It does the trick: suddenly Liz becomes an efficient housekeeping machine and Mac has sold his oil-guzzling jalopy to Diana in order to buy something more sensible.
Jan has finally given in Nick’s requests to read her manuscript and turns it over to him; she doesn’t tell him that she has rewritten her story about a glamorous socialite who marries a handsome millionaire into a story about her sibling rivalry with Liz.
Tatham successfully walks the line between sweet and saccharine: while both Jan and Nick are fairly boiling over with wholesome good intentions, Liz and Mac really are overgrown spoiled brats who need to learn a valuable lesson.
In the end, everyone is paired with the correct romantic partner- well, except that trampy waitress Mac was dating. Back to the waffle shack for her.
With Nick’s help, Jan submits a chapter from her novelette as a short story and is paid $750. With Jan’s help Nick regains use of his right hand so he can drive a Winnebago with a standard transmission. Jan is so overwhelmed by her own feelings that she sits down to write Nick a long letter that will explain everything that has happened that summer… which of course turns out to be the book that you just read.
Sign it Was Written in 1957 Department: $750 buys an entire college education.
I Approve Of This Message Department: “The happy ending is a cinch. Your heroine realizes her dream and goes off to college.”
Unsolved Mystery Department: Tatham’s CV includes a revised edition of this book published in 1987, but I have found no information on how extensive the revisions were or even a picture of the updated dust jacket art.