In a completely different context, I have recently been reading about how a combination of post-World War II affluence, fear of being bombed into oblivion, and the Eisenhower Interstate highway system facilitated the flight of the middle class from the cities into the suburbs; the theory I like the most suggests that, especially in New York, by the early 1960s the city was left inhabited mainly by the very rich, the very poor, and the very crazy.
So what stands out the most about this week’s book, written in 1950, is that the process is reversed: this is a tale of forced suburban flight and downward mobility.
The Plot: 11-year old Carol Clark and her family have moved to Manhattan from suburban New Jersey after her father’s shoe store failed, forcing the family into a 4th floor walk up and her father into taking a job as a sales clerk at somebody else’s store.
It is quite a comedown for the Clarks: Carol is upset not just about leaving behind her best friend, but also having to share not only a bedroom but a bed with her younger sister, and the family can’t afford to have a telephone installed in their apartment. Carol is also upset about having to live in a building with a bunch of ethnic people (Jews and Italians!) and is pretty much determined to be miserable before the family has even unpacked:
Imagine wanting to meet the boys and girls who lived on a street like this!
“I hate New York,” she told herself bitterly. “And I know I’ll hate everyone in it, too.”
While these are understandably difficult adjustments for any 11-year old, Ms. Friedman has created the single most unsympathetic YA heroine I have yet come across.
Carol’s 8-year old twin sister and brother, Jinny and Johnny, have no such reservations, and eagerly make friends with all kinds of street urchins, telling the older children that their sister is too shy to come down and meet them. The neighborhood boys and girls come up to introduce themselves throughout the afternoon and Carol summarily judges and rejects them:
She had bushy black hair and smiling gray eyes. Carol noticed immediately that her dress was too short and too tight, and not the right style for such a plump girl.
She had been sure last night, when she heard Pat’s loud voice, that she would not like him. She had been right. She did not like his voice, his manners, or his bright green shirt.
Her black hair hung loose across her shoulders. It was so uneven that Carol knew her mother must have cut it, or maybe she cut her own hair.
She just did not want to know New York people, girls whose dresses were too short and tight, girls whose hair was cut badly, and who had accents. She didn’t want to know boys who wore bright green shirts.
While Ruth (too Jewish!), Pat (too Irish!) and Maria (too Italian!) don’t make the cut, Carol feels warmer towards Betsy Warren, the daughter of the neighborhood doctor. Especially when she realizes that she can brag to her best friend back in New Jersey about her:
She could not picture herself writing to Helen and saying that her best friend in New York was the daughter of a man who had a shoe-repair shop. But a doctor’s daughter! That sounded very nice.
Carol initially shuns the summer programs in Central Park that the other children attend, but changes her mind when Maria’s just-off-the-boat cousin Frankie invites her to attend with him. Again, she can brag to Helen about how an older boy asked her, while feeling superior to Frankie, who is still trying to master the English language and doesn’t EVEN know that Thanksgiving doesn’t fall on the same date every year. GAWD!
At the park, Carol refuses to sit on the ground, but Betsy comes and sits with her on park bench, away from the unwashed peasants. Carol sees the chance to make her move:
Back home, she and Helen used to feel as if they were even closer friends when they talked about somebody else.
“If Ruth wore longer dresses, she wouldn’t have so much trouble,” Carol said to Betsy, as if she were telling her a secret. “Doesn’t she ever get any new clothes?”
Unfortunately for Carol, her plan fails. Betsy calls her mean and informs her that Ruth’s father is dead and her family is poor.
The day’s activity, incidentally, is a contest to see which neighborhood child has the most freckles. Pat wins because he is some sort of Irish bridge-troll:
However, the next activity is announced and it is right up Carol’s alley: an art contest at the local Public Library. Carol sees a new opportunity to take her rightful place as queen of the neighborhood:
She could not explain that the only reason she was going to enter the contest was to win first prize. She had to make these New York boys and girls look up to her. She had to make that show-off Pat realize that he was not so important. She had to make Betsy understand that Carol had a good reason for feeling superior. She felt herself getting angry when she remembered Betsy’s voice saying, “That’s a mean thing to say.” Well, after August first, Betsy would not talk to her that way!
Carol enters a watercolor painting of her old house in New Jersey. Frankie admires it and tells her that “back in Italy only rich people live in such houses”, which makes Carol feel very delighted and superior indeed.
When the paintings are finally judged, Carol is horrified to earn that her downstairs neighbor, Christine (too Scandinavian!) has won first place and Carol second. She actually waits for the judge to announce that there was a mistake. Finally, with maximum eye-rolls, she accepts her prize (a gift certificate at the local bookstore) and refuses to go the celebratory party at Betsy’s house.
At this point the neighborhood kids are done with Carol, and plan on taking many trips to Coney Island and having many club meetings at which sponge cake will be served without her. Mrs. Clark sighs that Carol has “no talent for making friends” and Carol wonders if the cranky downstairs neighbor Miss Tyler is the literary device known as “foreshadowing”
That weekend Mr. Clark decides to take his wife to inspect a shoe factory, because that is what passes for a vacation now that they are poor, and leaves the twins with Carol for the afternoon. The twins want to go to the Central Park Zoo, but Carol insists that they attend story hour at the library as planned. They of course run away, and Carol has to enlist the help of the other children in taking the subway to the zoo to try and find them. Summoned by their sense of duty from their afternoon ice cream and sponge cake, Ruth, Betsy, Pat and Maria agree to help, but make it clear it is because they like the twins, not out of any desire save Carol from getting into trouble. She can pretty much just rot at this point for all they care.
Amazingly, it works, and Mrs. Clark lets Carol babysit the following day when she goes and volunteers with the Red Cross.
Carol is surprised when cranky Miss Tyler doesn’t bang on the ceiling when the twins are being noisy, so she takes it upon herself to break into the downstairs apartment via the dumbwaiter. Apparently Miss Tyler was in the act of banging on the ceiling when she fell down and broke her leg. Carol considers leaving her there to die (?!?) but then realizes that she will be the center of attention if she calls the doctor.
And that how it ends! Carol basking in the attention of the neighborhood and thinking over how she can leverage her “heroism” to her best advantage:
Now she could answer Helen’s letter. She would answer it this very evening. She would tell Helen that she had made many friends in New York, that she had helped a neighbor and everyone seemed to think she was a heroine.
Nope, nothing disturbingly sociopathic about any of that. I’m totally sure Carol won’t be going on a cross-country murder spree by the time she’s 16.
Sign It Was Written in 1950 Department: Carol has to borrow a dime to take the subway to Central Park.
Stranger Danger Not Yet Invented Department: Jinny and Johnny explain their adventure to their parents: “Everyone was nice. They helped us cross Columbus Circle, and one man bought us popcorn. We didn’t have any trouble.”
Geography Department: While the exact address is never given, I am pretty sure Carol and her family live in the neighborhood that was slum-clearanced to build Lincoln Center.