I’m not sure if any of Judy Blume’s work exactly qualifies as a “lost classic”: the author’s 40+ years of work in the YA field seems as popular and relevant as ever. This is the one volume that doesn’t quite have the reputation as the rest of her work (and when I checked her bibliography, the only one I had never read). Published in 1972, the passing of 40 years has perhaps rendered the subject too prosaic to be controversial…
The Plot: …Or perhaps this is just not one of Blume’s stronger works.
12 year old Karen Newman’s parents announce their intention to divorce; this comes as a complete surprise to Karen and her younger sister Amy, although her 14 year old brother Jeff has suspected that something’s been up for awhile. Remember how last week Mom threw a cake at Dad when he was whining about it having mocha frosting instead of chocolate? Karen recalls:
Later when nobody was looking, I snitched a piece of cake off the floor. Even though it had fallen apart it was still delicious.
Karen keeps track of her parents’ fights in her diary, assigning blame using a secret code and giving each day a grade: “Practically every day this month has gotten a C”.
In addition to her parents separating, Karen has to deal with the other changes involved with growing up, including the fact that her life-long best friend, Debbie, has been enrolled in an exhaustive slate of after-school activities to make her “well rounded” for college; and when Debbie does visit she’s more interested in the moody and withdrawn Jeff than playing Barbies with Karen.
For a story narrated from a 12 year old’s point of view, it is ironic that the most interesting characters are not the children, but the deeply flawed adult characters who really seem to struggle with acting appropriately. While the Newmans’ divorce is largely amicable (the reason given is that they married too young and just don’t get along anymore), the other adults are constantly interjecting themselves into the situation. This includes Mrs. Newman’s bossy sister Ruth, who informs the children that she never did like their father, and their paternal Grandfather, Garfa, who flies in from Las Vegas to try to gulit them into reconciliation:
“Well, Ellie, there hasn’t even been a divorce in our family. Not even way back. When the Newmans get married they get married for keeps. Or until one of them dies.”
Unsuccessful, he then tells Karen that she should try to straighten them out and to report back to him on her efforts.
Mr. Newman moves out of the family home and into the local Howard Johnsons, where he takes his children for weekly dinners at the hotel bar, where he can have a martini with the Early Bird specials. Later he moves into a sad bachelor apartment and Karen makes friends with the girl who lives downstairs, a worldly 7th grader named Val who reads the entire New York Times every Sunday.
Val (if this were a movie she’d be played by Jodie Foster) shows Karen the ropes of being a child of divorce, including introducing her to The Boys and Girls Book about Divorce By Richard A. Gardner, M.D. which is apparently filled with horrifying facts about how your parents don’t love you any more:
Fathers who live close by but do not visit and fathers who live far away and hardly ever call or write either do not love their children at all, or the love them very little.
There is something very wrong with an unloving parent. He deserves pity as well as anger.
Val plans on becoming a scientist when she grows up and making a great discovery so her “drunken runaround” father will want everyone to know that she’s his daughter and Val can in turn snub him.
Karen still plots to get her parents back together, including a truly excruciating scene where she sends them separate cards on their wedding anniversary. In the meantime, Mrs. Newman has enrolled in a secretarial course and taken a temporary job at an insurance company, while Jeff has discovered that he can rebel as much as he wants and there isn’t really anything his mother can do about it. He starts eating all of his meals in front of the TV and at one point stays out all night.
After an argument over fried shrimp at HoJo’s one evening, Jeff runs away from home. Karen hopes that this will cause her parents to see the error of their ways and reunite, but it just causes more stress and propensity towards smashing things. The police sergeant assigned to the case isn’t very reassuring, either:
“Well… these kids usually head for New York. We’ll see what we can do.”
Jeff comes home on his own three days later, and nobody asks any questions about where he has been. Mr. Newman flies to Las Vegas for a quickie divorce, and Mrs. Newman announces that they are going to move to California or Florida so she can decide what she wants to do with her life.
Ugh. Parents have the worst ideas.
Sign It Was Written in 1972 Department: When Mrs. Newman announces that she’s going to get a job, Karen worries that she’s going to become a cocktail waitress like the divorced women on TV:
Imagine my mother dressed in a skimpy costume! Suppose Debbie comes over while she’s getting into her waitress clothes. Debbie will say “Why s your mother dressed up like a Bunny?”
Good Advice Department: “If I was ever going to be a Girl Scout leader I would think up interesting activities for my group to do. And if they made a lot of noise I wouldn’t yell that they give me a headache.”
Read It In The New York Times Department: “Val told me that women getting divorces always fall for their lawyers.”