Seventeenth Summer By Maureen Daly

This week, we’re going to start at the beginning, literally.  First published in 1942 and continuously in print ever since, Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer is widely credited with being the very first work of YA Fiction, the genre that would go on to spawn a gazillion age-inappropriate romances, would-be Olympic Ice Dancers and the Wakefield Twins.

Seventeenth Summer Dust Jacket

Background: Written by the precociously talented Daly when she herself was 17 years old and published before she was 21, Seventeenth Summer is an interesting read in the wake of  Fifteen, and other books which make a convincing case that being a teenager has been pretty much the same since the dawn of time (or at least since the mid-20th Century). In contrast, the contemporary reader picking up Seventeenth Summer unaware of its vintage is going to feel like she has been abruptly dropped down amongst the Moon-people.  Which could happen, considering that while it has been in print for 70 years, it has gone through myriad changes in cover art. The first edition dust-jacket is pictured above, but really, anything from Password to Larkspur Lane to Peyton Place could be lurking behind that nondescript foliage.  But that’s not the cover on my paperback copy. This is what I got:

So, pretty much Saved By The Bell: The Novel.

So, pretty much Saved By The Bell: The Novel.

The Plot: 17 year old Angie Morrow has just graduated from an all-girls prep school in the medium-sized town of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin when she suddenly attracts the notice of Jack Duluth, who has also just graduated from the local public high school. Angie has lead a relatively sheltered life with her 3 sisters (two older, one younger), her strict mother and largely-absent father (a traveling salesman who is only home on the weekends).

The family dynamic is much more interesting than the love story (which is largely the same, plot-wise as Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, but lacking Cleary’s deft sense of humor). Angie’s eldest sister, Margaret, is in her twenties and lives at home while working full time at an unspecified job and is engaged to Art, a sensitive, doughy fellow from Milwaukee. The next-oldest, Lorraine, has just finished her sophomore year at a women’s college in Chicago and is home for the summer and working at a bulk mailing house. It is Lorraine who is surprisingly the source of most of the plot’s angst. Finally, 10 year old Kitty is the youngest, a well-behaved tomboy.

The strangeness of the story lurking behind that early 1990s cover art (my copy only has the 1942 copyright and the 1968 paperback publication date, so I’m unclear on when those hideous orange-and-pink-and-blue graphics got stuck on the cover) partially has to do with the cultural references (in the very first chapter narrator Angie goes on about “morning radio serials”) but more to do with morality that the characters adhere to and accept as normal. And trust me, to the modern reader that morality is WEIRD AND CONTRADICTORY!

The most jarring points are the amount of casual smoking and drinking done by the teenage characters: Jack takes Angie to a bar on their first date, which is a perfectly normal place for two 17 year olds to go in Wisconsin in 1942! I guess? I don’t know! On one hand they are both high school graduates, so the world treats them like adults… on the other both Jack and Angie’s family treat them and their older siblings like children, imposing curfews, vetoing their dates and generally planning their lives. Even Margaret, who is in her 20s, working and engaged to be married, accepts this arrangement unquestioningly.  Then again, at a kegger thrown at Jack’s summer cottage, one of the girls declares that she is glad they got beer because “after last night I couldn’t stand to look another mixed drink in the face!”  That worldliness comes out of the mouth of a 15-year old. And being the 1940s everyone (except Angie’s parents) is chain smoking, and Jack enjoys smoking a pipe, especially when he is out on his sailboat.

Both Jack and Angie’s families seem solidly middle-class (Jack’s family runs a successful bakery), but it is clear that this is a time of different levels of middle-class. Angie’s family is focused on their daughter’s higher education, and clearly think of themselves as the Duluth’s social betters. Angie constantly details her mother’s rules of propriety, which include endless instructions  about hanging underwear on the inside of the clothes line so it can’t be seen from the street, keeping the blinds closed  and not going downtown at night with a group of girls, lest you be accused of looking like you’re “looking for something”. This results in an agonizing scene in which Jack is invited to Sunday dinner when his parents are out of town on business and embarrasses everyone by not having read Thornton Wilder when Lorraine gets all intellectual on him, is unable to use two-handed salad tongs with one hand and (horrors!) accidentally clicks his spoon against his teeth while eating ice cream. Twice! Which results in Angie admitting that the latter transgression made her “start to hate him a little bit.” I want to cut Angie some slack, what with her being a sheltered 17 year old and all, but she really comes off as kind of a prig, later admitting that the idea of Jack not going to college, and instead going on to work in the family business makes her sick to think about:

“I hadn’t been able to mention it to him, but I had never liked it, either- his being a baker. It didn’t seem right that a tall boy with such a fuzzy crew cut and smooth sunburned skin should wear a big white baker’s hat work with vanilla and powdered sugar all day!”

The B-plot focuses on Lorraine and her trouble adjusting to being back at home for the summer after being away at college. It’s clear that Lorraine wasn’t as socially successful as her sisters in Fond du Lac, although she seems to be a hit with the boys in Chicago. For reasons Angie never fully understands, she attaches herself to Martin, a slightly older man who has been recently transferred to Fond du Lac by his insurance company employer. Angie and Margaret believe that it is because he’s new in town and therefore one of the only men who dosen’t remember what a drip Lorraine was in school. Unfortunately, Martin is, in the current vernacular, a huge douchebag. He strings Lorraine along all summer, showing up for dates when he can’t find any other girls to go out with him, not calling for weeks and generally sowing discord between Lorraine and her family. Lorraine tries desperately to confide in younger sister, but what is going on is beyond Angie’s understanding. When Martin stands Lorraine up for a date on his birthday, she petulantly picks off the gilt initials from the wallet she had purchased for him. Martin is never heard from again, and Lorraine decides to go back to Chicago early: it is implied that she had “gone all the way” with him before he ditched her. Surely she will be better off in the big city!

This book is rather long and dense, and constantly hints at plot developments that never happen, so it gets wrapped up rather abruptly: by the time August rolls around, Jack declares his love his love to Angie, learns that his family is moving back to Oklahoma to expand their business and impulsively asks Angie to marry him. She turns him down, opting to follow Lorraine to college in Chicago, and vows that she will always remember him and that summer, even if she never sees him again and finds a boy who is her social equal and doesn’t come from a family who “probably doesn’t even own a butter knife!”

Sign it Was Written in 1942 Department: “I wouldn’t be stupid enough to wear flat black oxfords. Any girl who does that almost deserves not to have fellows look at her.”  

The Morrows Are Your Social Betters Department: Angie makes special mention that her family are the kind of people who use a top AND bottom sheet on the bed. Also: “A girl can’t feel like a lady with a bottle of beer before her.”

Eyebrow Raising Quote That Somehow Has Not Been Updated For The New Editions Department: When Jack takes her to one of the many nightclubs that teenagers constantly patronized in the 1940s Angie exclaims “I had never seen a colored pianist before!”  

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17 Responses to Seventeenth Summer By Maureen Daly

  1. msyingling says:

    Oh! Wonderful review. No! Peachy-keen! I stumbled upon your blog looking for the cover of the original, and will link to this review when my post is up on 7/20/2013. Now I’m off to see what other gems you have here. As an ardent follower of Lenora Mattingly Weber and Rosamund du Jardin, you may just be my new favorite blogger!

  2. mondomolly says:

    Aw, thanks, I really appreciate the kind words and the linking! I really look forward to reading your post!

    I actually have Practically Seventeen on the “to-read” list for the future, maybe I should bump it up in the stack 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have a signed hardcover of this book. Read it every summer since I was 17

  4. scopeypdx says:

    On the sailboat! They go under the tarp to light his pipe out of the wind! And when they emerge other dude leers at them! And she thinks something like, “We might just as well been doing what he thought (necking? petting?)” reflecting on the fragility of a girl’s reputation.

    Also, wasn’t there a Betty Cavana book where the girl reads Seventeenth Summer and is so taken by Daly’s genuine style that she rewrites her entry for the essay contest, and then accidentally submits the Daly-style rewrite and wins? Betty giving Maureen a shout-out. But when I was reading the Scholastic re-release (probably re-titled, they loved to do that) of the Cavana, 17th Summer was out of print.

  5. scopeypdx says:

    Consulting The Google, the book is A Girl Can Dream (Scholastic called it Girls Can Dream, Too. SO much better.) The contest is for flying lessons. And someone refers to her reading Wind Sand and Stars, which makes more sense as inspiration for the essay. Could have read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Maureen Daly both? Or, could have been some other book entirely. So many, so long ago.

  6. Mary says:

    I loved this book so much that I intentionally kept it and paid the library lost book penalty back in 1978. Still have it (alling apart now) with two feathered-hair 70s teens on the cover. I just read it again and have to say its finally starting to show its age. Angie was really kind of a jerk. I was horrified at her description of Jack’s friend Fitz: “He had a very bad complexion and a shiftiness about him, as if by not looking directly at me he could avoid my looking at him and seeing his ugly skin”. Although I did get a kick out of her feeling depressed because she didn’t look cool wagging her finger and clicking her tongue as she swayed in beat with what I realize now must have been Benny Goodman band music. My mom (of Ms. Daly’s generation) used to do that when she heard the old timey big band music. I was crushed at their parting when I was young, now I hope that Jack met a nice girl in OK and became a gazillionaire when he created Hostess Bakery and left Angie in the dusk. Top sheet indeed, what a snob. Angie didn’t deserve him and his soft Mercury-astro buzz cut and wild grape-stained lips.

    • Mary says:

      * sorry, meant the book is falling apart…

      • mondomolly says:

        To me it seemed like the biggest “tell” that the story was written (or at least conceived by) an actual teenager was how unself-consciously judgmental Angie is!

        Also that is the truly the best description of Jack’s haircut. Thanks for your comments 🙂

  7. mondomolly says:

    Reblogged this on Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989 and commented:

    This week: from the archives!

  8. koolaidmoms says:

    This book is the reason that I had to visit Fond du Lac recently on one of our Milwaukee, Wisconsin trips. I love this book.

    • mondomolly says:

      That is so cool! Hmmm, maybe we should coordinate road trips to towns featured in classic girls fiction for a blog feature… I know you guys are up for the “Little House” sites!

  9. Carla says:

    Loved this book in the summer of 1980. 🙂

  10. Towards the end, Angie looks around Pete’s, the roadhouse where they hang out, and thinks how sad it is that, except for the few, like her, who are going to college, most of the regulars will continue to be regulars for years. Until they get married and have kids of their own, and someday it’ll be those kids hanging out. Except, not quite. When Daly wrote this, the U.S. hadn’t gotten into the war yet. If Angie and the others had been real, the next time she’d seen these guys, they would be in uniform, and some she would never see again. (Really, it only took a year for that passage to become outdated.) Beyond that, Pete’s was on borrowed time, being a total firetrap. And even if it didn’t burn down, the next generation, like her younger sister, would not choose a shabby roadhouse as their hangout. That would be a drive-in. She’s got the basic point right: some people move on and some don’t. But The War ™ changed a great many things.

    • mondomolly says:

      That is one of the things I find so interesting about the book- it is really specific to the moment in time, which makes it a little surprising that it has endured so long. I also like that it really predates that concept of “teenagers” as their own subculture and makes the parents seem both overprotective *and* wildly permissive! Thanks for your comments! 🙂

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