When The Bough Breaks By Lois Duncan

Background: Lois Duncan is best known for her YA thrillers, which often involve a supernatural element, such as telepathy or psychic intuition, or witchcraft. However, her work from the late 1960s through the 70s also explicitly addresses how both the teenage heroines and their mothers are dealing with the social and political gains and compromises of the women’s movement and how it is affecting family life.

This week’s selection is, at first glance, an oddball volume in Duncan’s bibliography: you can tell that from the cover art, which is not even remotely terrifying.

When the Bough Breaks By Lois Duncan

While in this case Duncan eschews the mystery/suspense elements, the changing social mores of the 70s remain front and center.

The Plot: The book opens like most do in the Pregnant Teen genre, with the heroine, Kate Michener, lying in bed one morning, knowing that her period is far, far too late and she is In Trouble. How will she tell her boyfriend? Or her parents?

But Kate is no high school student: she’s a 35 year old mother of three, including a teenage daughter. A few years divorced, and living on her own for the first time in her life, she has been dating a much younger co-worker who seems to be a confirmed bachelor. She admits up front that Dan doesn’t like children and her own kids don’t care all that much for him, either.

The narrative is structured over the nine months of Kate’s pregnancy, but weaves multiple flashbacks through the plot to reveal how her first marriage ended and how she came to move from Florida to New Mexico, started a career in advertising after having never held down a job in her life, and became involved with Dan.

Married the spring of her Freshman year of college, (after which she dropped out), Kate’s identity has been defined as a wife and mother for twelve years when she learns that her husband, Rob,  has been carrying on a long-term affair, because “I’m a man!” and that gives him the right to. While he insists that his girlfriend, Barbara, means nothing to him, he’s married to her before the ink is dry on the divorce decree.

Kate leaves her hometown of Miami Beach for Santa Fe, where she talks her way into a copywriting position at an ad agency, based on the fact that she has been married to an ad man. Her Perry White-like boss is all “I like your moxie, kid!” and gives her the job; when she has trouble juggling her responsibilities to her family and career he takes her on as a freelancer, because “I like your talent, kid!” Besides, she’s the best at coming up with adjectives to describe the swimming pool at the Fairlawn Hotel (Splashtacular!)

Dan is the graphic designer at the ad agency; he’s an unspecified number of years her junior, but her teenaged daughter, Diane, insists that he’s closer to her own age than Kate’s. Dan is kind of a bumbling idiot man-child (Kate has to explain what stretch marks are the first time they go to bed together) and he goes to pieces with every interaction he has with her children. In fact, the fact that Kate’s is enceinte, is due to the fact that her son, Chris, broke his arm while on a getting-to-know-you outing with Dan and his sisters: Dan freaked out so badly that teenaged Diane had to drive him to the hospital (sans Learner’s Permit) and Kate forgot to take her birth control pill in all of the hubbub.

While the dust-jacket states that “the very idea of abortion is repugnant to her”, that is not quite accurate. After her Catholic obstetrician won’t even discuss the newly-legalized procedure with her, Kate opts to go to Mexico on a co-worker’s recommendation (her daughter’s friends are candy stripers at the local hospital and she’s mortified at the thought of running into someone she knows).  Unlike the sinister and filthy abortionists that populate the genre in the previous decade, the retired American physician who has set up practice across the border is clean, professional and compassionate; he states that he hasn’t been seeing too many patients since Roe v. Wade, which he heartily agrees with. So, in the end it isn’t so much that the very idea is repugnant, as it is that she carefully considers her options and makes the choice she wants to make.

Encountering men that insist that she doesn’t know her own mind are a recurring theme, from the divorce attorney who insists that she doesn’t really want to use adultery as grounds for divorce (no, she really does) to Dan insisting that she couldn’t possibly keep the baby (shut up Dan, your hysterics got you into this in the first place), Kate constantly has to stand her ground and insist that the world treat her like an actual adult.

Breaking the news to her children presents another set of problems: while the younger ones accept it unquestioningly, 16 year old Diane is horrified. As the months progress, Kate feels like she no longer has any moral authority over her daughter, who now does what she pleases.

And what about Dan? When Kate goes to visit her parents and break the news, he sends her a rather passive-aggressive offer of marriage, which Kate decides to accept; but then he backtracks and is all like “How about you go into hiding and put the baby up for adoption?” While she’s away he sneaks out of town for an “interview” with a Madison Avenue agency, and some weeks pass before Kate learns via her boss that he won’t be coming back, the skunk. Kate is understandably not all that broken up over the loss.

While she has become an object of local gossip once she starts to show, Kate bravely soldiers on, unpacking her maternity wardrobe and continuing to attend her children’s school events, even though she knows that people are going to gossip about how she drank three cups of cider at the Halloween Carnival. She gets a call from her daughter’s Girl Scout leader informing her that she won’t be needed as a co-leader in the spring after all, thank you, after that incident.

And then there is her creepy next door neighbor:

Each time I step into the yard that man next door emerges from his house at the same time, his bright old eyes glistening in appreciation of the scandal taking place right here in his own domain.

Luckily, her boss and his wife are a rock of support for Kate, encouraging her to shrug off the judgment of the entire town, and joining her in celebrating the holidays and planning for the baby’s arrival. After a particularly nasty scene between Kate and Diane after Thanksgiving, Diane runs away from home via Greyhound, back to Florida to live with her father. Kate decides to let her go, calling her ex-husband’s new wife, who assures her that Diane will be welcomed into the household upon her arrival.

Kate goes into labor at the office Christmas party, and although her boss is a little freaked out, she assures him that she has hours before she has to go to the hospital; she stops back home to find a telegram from her ex-husband, informing her that Diane is being sent back on the first available flight because he and his new wife are too busy partying to raise a teenager after all. Kate wonders if he deliberately turned her out to engineer a mother-daughter reconciliation, but I think he’s just kind of a turd. Much to her boss’s consternation, she insists on going to meet Diane’s plane before going to the hospital (calm down, she’s done this three times before, sheesh…), and upon arrival at the hospital she delivers a healthy baby boy. Take that, puritans.

Signs It Was Written in 1973 Department: Diane flies home on Frontier Airlines.

Unhelpful Department: “This is an illegitimate child, Mrs. Michener, coming into the world with two strikes against it. Don’t you think it might be kinder to give it an opportunity to grow up in a normal home with the love and protection of two parents?”

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16 Responses to When The Bough Breaks By Lois Duncan

  1. grace says:

    Ey, we still have Frontier Airlines!

  2. Lois Duncan says:

    I wrote WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS two years after my own divorce. Back then, divorce was unheard of–in fact, I was the first divorced person I’d ever known. And, minus Kate’s pregnancy, the story is based on my own struggling first years as a single mother. I had a “Dan” of my own–a sweet man four years younger than I -and eventually gave him up because I thought he was too immature to step-father three children. I then married a man four years my senior who adopted my children, & we’ve had a happy marriage for 46 years. Meanwhile my “Dan” married twice–ironically each time to a woman with three children–as if he were looking for another “me.” He and I have remained good friends. My husband and I had two more children together, and I named our youngest one “Kate.” Kate (who changed the spelling of her name to “Kait” because it was more exotic) was murdered in 1989 at the age of 18. For information about that on-going nightmare, read WHO KILLED MY DAUGHTER? and ONE TO THE WOLVES: ON THE TRAIL OF A KILLER.

    • mondomolly says:

      Wow, thank you for sharing some background on this book, what a treat!

      Thank you for taking the time to comment on these posts today, it has been a thrill to read them.

      I also urge my readers to check out the memoir Who Killed My Daughter?, which was recently reissued as an ebook through Open Road Media:


      • Lois Duncan says:

        WHO KILLED MY DAUGHTER? is also available in print form. (Check it out on Amazon.com). ONE TO THE WOLVES is currently available only as an e-book, but soon will be in print form too. The publisher of ONE TO THE WOLVES is Planet Ann Rule.

        • mondomolly says:

          Thanks for the info! I look forward to reading it.

          • Lois Duncan says:

            If you’re looking forward to reading WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS, I’m sorry to tell you that it’s no longer in print in any form. But the books about our daughter’s murder are available on Amazon. I hope you read those, as they form the third chapter of my multi-chaptered life.

  3. michele says:

    Holy Moly, it’s Lois Duncan! I loved your books as a kid. Well, to be totally honest, I still enjoy them and I’m middle-aged.

  4. michele says:

    Oh! And your book, “Stranger With My Face” where the main character’s twin is trapped for eternity as a spirit, neither alive nor dead, creeps me out to the day.

  5. scopeypdx says:

    You know who else went into labor with her illegitimate child at the company Christmas party? The woman in Norma Klein’s Give Me One Good Reason! And she was dressed up like Santa Claus, and drunk! That’s some good company to be in.

  6. Pingback: Summer of Fear By Lois Duncan | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

  7. I enjoyed going to your webiste. I rarely leave comments, but
    you definately deserve a thumbs up!

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