Vin Packer’s 1952 novel of ‘forbidden love” is generally considered to be the first in the niche market of Lesbian Pulp Fiction: strictly speaking, it is not intended for a teenage audience. However, it does deal with a 17-year old protagonist and first love and college life, which are certainly YA themes; additionally, “Vin Packer” is one of the many pseudonyms of author Marijane Meaker, who may be best known (as M.E. Kerr) as the author of YA staples of the 1970s, including Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! and I’ll Love You When You’re More Like Me.
Background: Spring Fire is Meaker’s first novel, and for those interested in the background, I urge you to read her introduction to the 2004 re-issue from Cleis Press, in which she talks about how it came to be published, as well as paperback publisher Gold Medal Books’ reasons for changing the title from the less-racy Sorority Girl. Meaker’s aim was to create a story less depressing than Radclyffe Hall’s 1928’s lesbian-themed The Well of Loneliness (2011 Imaginary Book Club selection!). When discussing the development of mid-century lesbian popular fiction, a line is often drawn directly from Hall’s novel (in which everyone winds up miserable) to Spring Fire (slightly less miserable) to Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker series (at long last a happy ending for our heroines! Also a former Imaginary Book Club selection!)
Gold Medal’s target readership for the book was men, but those looking for titillation are going to be disappointed: the sex scenes are strictly of the fade-to-black variety. Today, the book is probably most interesting as a cultural study of college life in the early 1950s, both the pressures to conform to the crowd, and the discontent stirring around the edges.
The Plot: 17 year old Susan Mitchell arrives at Cranston College from Kansas City. Naïve and unworldly, with a dead mother and a newly-wealthy father, she is flattered by the attention of the top sorority on campus. Little does she know that Epsilon Epsilon Epsilon has received an extensive advance report from a member of the Kansas City Alumnae chapter:
Mrs. Boynton (Cranston ’22) relished the task. She was a superior sleuth, and she would often come from an assignment with copious notes on such intimate details as the estimated income of the candidate’s father; the color of the guest towels in the candidate’s bathroom and condition of said bathroom; the morals of the candidate, the candidate’s mother, father, brother and sister; and ever important, the social prestige of the candidate’s family in the community. Then she would type up her notes and send them special delivery.
Thus Susan Mitchell (called Mitch) is declared “an absolute must” for Tri Ep, due to her “fabulous wardrobe”, late-model red convertible and “wall-to-wall carpeting in every room of the house”.
Tri Ep’s members initially express reluctance about pledging another “athletic” girl to their house, but house mother Mrs. Nesselbush (called Mother Nessy, Cranston ’36) bluntly tells the girls that the KC chapter will gift them with that new silver service with the sorority crest that they’ve been wanting so badly if they take Mitch on.
Apparently, every house on Sorority Row needs a new set of silverware, as the gangly and awkward Mitch finds herself the belle of Rush week. Only after spotting the glamorous Leda Taylor at a Tri Ep party does Mitch make her choice, ending up as Leda’s roommate.
Leda is the product of terrible parenting (a glamorous alcoholic mother and an endless string of stepfathers), but despite her “fast” reputation she has become the most popular girl in school, dating Big Man on Campus Jake and winning every “queen” title around (Homecoming Queen, Harvest Queen, etc. You could be a lot of different Queens back then).
And the descriptions of the elaborate events ruled over by those lucky campus Queens is one of the best parts of the book, the pomp and circumstance surrounding sorority life. Look at the Tri Ep’s president’s posh digs:
The president’s suite consisted of three rooms. There was the bedroom, the study room, and the meeting room, all of them attractively furnished with low couches and triangular lamps and small square tables.
Did I mention that she also has silver-embossed monogrammed stationary?
All of those sorority dances and robes and rituals and Sweetheart Circles sound pretty dreamy until the entire plot takes a turn for the bad and they start sounding more like White Citizens Council or John Birch Society meetings.
This happens when Mitch is date raped by the president of the prestigious Sigma Delta fraternity during a Tri Ep-hosted party. While her sorority sisters are more concerned with covering it up, lest they be blackballed on campus, Leda comforts Mitch, revealing that she had also dealt with the unwholesome designs her mother’s husbands and boyfriends had had on her since she was barely a teenager.
Mitch and Leda start a secret affair, although Mitch is frightened by Leda’s insistence the world may accept her as a bisexual nymphomaniac (after a fashion) that “she’s no lesbian. Men will always come first.”
(Unsophisticated Mitch retreats to the campus library to look up the definition of “lesbian” and is left even more confused).
Trying to follow Leda’s lead, Mitch starts dating Charlie Edmondson, a genuinely good guy, even though he doesn’t belong to a fraternity and is scorned as “a goddamn independent” by the Tri Eps (they even have a song about it!) While Mitch’s relationship with Leda runs hot and cold, especially when Mrs. Taylor comes for a week-long visit, the rest of her life at Cranston is improving: she makes the swim team, forges a friendship with Robin, an ex-Tri Ep who was kicked out for dating an “independent”, and finds a platonic pal in Lucifer, the class clown who belongs to a low-status frat that has “burned the rule book” when it comes to social regulations.
Most of the sorority sisters get by with only a sentence of description (although they are pretty great sentences):
Most of them wore their hair long, curled loosely, their faces tinted with the popular liquid powder base they all used… there was Sissy’s brother who flew transatlantic flights and had been married four times. Bebe Duncan’s father was an author and his books were dedicated always to ‘to B. and Bebe’ because her mother’s name was Beatrice. Jett Duquette was named after the racehorse her uncle made his first million on. And Travis King had false teeth, which only made her more beautiful and which she talked about, often, in mixed company.”
Robin and Lucifer are notable for getting more characterization than the others: outspoken Robin compares Tri Ep’s policy of only dating fraternity men to racial segregation (which is a little overblown, but I’ll give her a point for her believing that it is something that should be fought against); Lucifer speaks frankly of his mixed-racial parentage.
Robin and Lucifer are also by far the most likeable characters in the entire book. While Meaker has expressed embarrassment with the way she took the plot in a more enlightened era, the stirrings of discontent with the status quo are there all the same.
While Leda is busy trying to impress her mother, Mitch decides to “go all the way” with Charlie. It doesn’t work out: while Charlie is gentle and attentive, and sincerely professes his love to Mitch, he is ultimately unable to “perform”. It is initially left ambiguous as to whether he’d had too much to drink or (Mitch fears) he was somehow able to sense Mitch’s “abnormality”. However, later that night Charlie returns to his dormitory and starts reading from the Bible and compulsively scrubbing himself with soap, leaving the suggestion that he himself might be deeply closeted. It is still 25 years to the well-adjusted and self confident Charlie in I’ll Love You When You’re More Like Me.
After Mrs. Taylor leaves, Leda apologizes and declares that she doesn’t care what the world thinks, pledging her love to Mitch. Unfortunately, a couple of sisters walk in on them in a passionate embrace: backed into a corner, Leda tells Mother Nessy that Mitch attacked her and turns over an incriminating letter Mitch wrote her.
Mother Nessy panics and contacts the dean of women, demanding that Mitch be expelled and seeking aid in covering up any gossip that may hurt Tri Ep’s reputation. To her credit, the dean’s response is basically to roll her eyes and be like “Wow, really? There are lesbians in college? You don’t say!” The dean might be duty-bound to deal with the situation, but she really seems impatient for the Old Guard to get over themselves and get with the times, which are a-changin’.
Leda is sick with guilt over selling out Mitch and goes on a bender, during which she wrecks her car and ends up in the hospital with a touch of amnesia. The dean and Leda’s doctor advise Mitch to go to her and let her believe that she has been kicked out of school… because that is somehow going to help her recover? The plan seems to work, until the terrible Mrs. Taylor shows up and gives Leda “a complete nervous breakdown”:
“She won’t have a thing to do with her mother. There is only one place she could go. An asylum.”
“Lord,” Kitten said. “Leda in a nut house. Lord!”
“As Tri Epsilons we must do everything we can for her. I wonder,” she said dramatically, pausing, her brow wrinkled. “I wonder if- if insane people can read mail.”
Mitch leaves Tri Ep for life in the dormitory, pondering her if feelings for Leda really are love, and deciding that it was just infatuation.
The book ends with the Mother Nessy and the Tri Eps cooing over the monogrammed silver the alumnae chapter sent in return for pledging Mitch.
Seriously, may the food turn to ash in your mouths, ladies.
Sign It Was Written in 1952 Department, Or: I Should Say Mr. Senator, That A Pixie Is A Close Relative of A Fairy Department: “There are lots of people who love both and no one gives a damn, and they just say you’re oversexed and they don’t care. But they start getting interested when you stick to only one sex.”
Inelegant Metaphor Department: “Bisexual- that’s sort of like succotash, isn’t it? Only this succotash hasn’t got any corn in it. It’s straight beans!”
The Kids These Days Department: “He wondered if his generation had been that way, or if it was true that the younger generation had changed, evolved into a careless breed of people who lacked even a remote basis for understanding.”