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.
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:
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!”