Background: In 1968, Harper & Row editor Ursula Nordstrom was looking for a follow-up to Louise Fitzhugh’s now-classic Harriet the Spy, when she received John Donovan’s proposal for a book for young readers dealing with what he euphemistically termed “buddy-love problems”.
After a lengthy correspondence over how the theme could be handled in a way appropriate for young readers, I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. was published in June of 1969, hitting the store shelves just days before the Stonewall riots.
But it would do the book a disservice to pigeonhole it as “just” the first YA novel to broach the subject of homosexuality, as it is also a rich portrait of a teenager dealing with grief, loss, friendship, truly terrible parents and a sharply-drawn slice of New York City in the late 1960s.
You know, all that good stuff.
The Plot: For reasons that are never fully explained, Davy Ross’s divorced parents sent him to live with his maternal grandmother in the Boston suburbs when he was five years old. They forged a warm, stable relationship, and her death when he is 13 is a devastating blow, which is compounded by the fact that the relatives converging on the house for the funeral don’t know quite what to do with him.
While the logical choice would be to have him move to New York to live with his mother, his aunts and uncles do a lot of talking around the idea, extending half-hearted offers to have him live with them, including one from his bleached-blond, professional model Uncle Jesse from Los Angeles. The reason for the reluctance becomes clear as it develops that Mom is a druuuuunk.
Eventually, Davy is resigned to the fact that he’ll be moving into his Mother’s Chelsea apartment:
“You’re getting so many offers of bed and board that I really feel ashamed. You belong with me, David. I am your mother. These other people, they all love you, but it is you and I who are closest. Of course you will come to New York to live with me. I won’t hear of anything else.”
The depiction of Davy’s mother is just brutal: she’s either smothering him with affection or bitterly complaining that he and his pet dachshund, Fred, are ruining her life or getting drunk and making sarcastic comments about his interests, which include such wholesome activities as the track and field team (“I didn’t know an Olympic athlete would be moving in with me!”)
Upon his move to New York, Davy is also expected to renew his relationship with his father, who has remarried a younger, wealthy woman and is now living in posh digs on Central Park West. His mother chooses a “progressive”-type Episcopalian private school for Davy, mainly so she can gleefully send the fat tuition bill to his father.
At school, Davy makes the acquaintance of Douglas Altschuler, and after some initial competition over an English-class production of Julius Caesar, the two become tentative friends.
There seems to be a natural empathy between Davy and Altschuler, whose parents are also divorced and self-involved, especially after Davy learns that Altschuler’s life-long best friend, Larry Wilkins, is dying of leukemia- the reason why Davy was able to enroll mid-year is because a place opened up after Wilkins became too sick to attend classes.
And besides, Altschuler is one cool cat, showing Davy the ropes of getting around the city, and holding forth on exotic topics, such as hippies and agnosticism.
Frankly, Davy’s ease at school (his student-directed classes are kind of a hoot, and the teachers have a genuine sense of humor about it) and his warm relationship with his new stepmother, Stephanie (she’s very Megan Draper-y), come as a relief to the reader, since life with his mother is overwhelming, even just in reading about it:
“What did Stephanie have with her roast beef, Davy?” Mother asks and asks again after I tell her that she had a lot of stuff.
“What kind of stuff?”
“You know,” I tell her, “vegetables and bread and that stuff.”
“I don’t know. Vegetables!”
“Did she have potatoes?”
“I don’t think so,” I say. “No, she didn’t. She had beans, I think.”
“Beans! What kind? Yellow? Green?”
“How were they prepared?”
And on and on. Davy can’t wait to escape, either for long walks with Fred or for trips to the Gimbels’ stamp & coin department with Altschuler. Even though he’s likely to come home to his mother, “sloshed” and yelling at the Huntley-Brinkley Report:
“Good night to both of you,” I hear mother call “You bastards, I’ll bet you don’t spend your lives dog-sitting and kid-sitting. Good night, good night, get lost both of you!”
After one of these outings (and in the aftermath of Larry Wilkins’ death), Davy and Altschuler return to Davy’s empty apartment and (in a blink-and-you’ll-miss it scene) share a kiss. They initially laugh it off (“Boy, what was that all about?”), and on the surface their friendship continues as if nothing happened. However, as the story continues, Davy also seems to imply that they become more emotionally and physically intimate with each other.
It’s not until a few weeks later, when they dare each other to take a drink of Mrs. Ross’s whiskey and then innocently pass out on the living room floor that the trouble starts. Davy’s mother completely overreacts when she gets home from work and finds them asleep, insisting that something “unnatural” must be going on:
“It’s too improbable, sweetie. Boys don’t lie around asleep on the floor in the middle of the afternoon.”
She calls in Davy’s father, who handles the situation with remarkable sensitivity:
“I guess you have a crush on your friend, is that it?”
“A crush? I don’t know.” I can’t think of another word.
Unfortunately, Davy’s mother has taken Fred out for a walk while Davy and his father have their chat, and he gets off his leash, and as Davy watches the scene from the second-story window, his father assures him that everything will be fine:
“He’ll be all right,” Father says. “Your mother will catch him.”
“What if she doesn’t?”
“Sure she will.”
Of course, ADULTS DO NOT KNOW WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT and so Davy is only able to watch in horror as Fred is struck and killed by a car.
Deeply depressed in the weeks following Fred’s death, Davy uses kid-logic to come to the conclusion that he is responsible for Fred having been killed, since his “queering around” with Altschuler necessitated his mother calling in his father for a talk, which is why she took Fred out for a walk, which is how he got off of his leash in the street.
Davy starts avoiding Altschuler as much as he can, and throws himself into playing baseball for his school’s team. The confrontation that has been building between the two boys finally occurs in the school’s locker room, when Altschuler comes to congratulate Davy on hitting the winning run of the game and Davy responds by punching him in the face.
The fight clears the air between them, and afterwards Davy and Altschuler are able to talk about what really happened, with remarkable maturity:
“What happened to Fred had nothing to do with what we did.”
“Maybe it did.”
“Go ahead and feel guilty if you want to. I don’t.”
“You don’t, really?”
“No,” Altschuler says.
Agreeing they can “respect” each other and still be friends, they go meet Stephanie for lunch, striking a blow against Gay Panic in their own quiet way.
Upon its publication, I’ll Get There… garnered wide critical praise, and was named to both The New York Times and School Library Journal’s 10 Best lists for 1969. Surprisingly, it was also enthusiastically reviewed by Catholic Library World.
Sign It Was Written In 1969 Department: Private-school children do not live on the Upper West Side: “There are five buses waiting outside the school, marked ‘East Side- Above 72nd’ , ‘East Side- 57th -72nd’, ‘East Side- 14th-57th’, ‘Greenwich Village’, and ‘West Side- Above 14th’.”
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I finally read this. What a lot of nothing. Davy comes off more like a ten y/o than thirteen. And I’m surprised that the author, a gay man, presented Dad’s advice — to be careful not to develop a habit that will be hard to break — as perfectly valid.
It definitely is of it’s time, and I bet even Ursula Nordstrom was putting limitations on what you could depict with characters that young. Thanks for commenting!
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