Blog News: The impromptu celebration of Retro Pride month in June garnered a few mentions across the internet. I want to belatedly thank and welcome new readers from both the art and culture site (and world’s most popular independently-owned lesbian website!) Autostraddle, as well as thank and recommend the excellent school library-oriented blog Ms. Yingling Reads.
Background: I was out of the target demo by the time Lurlene McDaniel gained fame as the authoress of the Terminally Ill Teen genre, so I know her name mostly as my sister’s bête noir through years of bookstore clerkship, invoked whenever I suggested that YA as a genre was worth reading.
So, here we have volume after volume of squeaky-clean non-denominational Christian teenagers finding true love before dying of various diseases. Reading through her bibliography is pretty much guaranteed to bring on clinical depression: Why Did She Have to Die, Last Dance, Letting Go of Lisa, Too Young to Die, Time to Let Go, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, Mother Please Don’t Die (????), Don’t Die My Love, The Girl Death Left Behind, Sixteen and Dying, Baby Alicia Is Dying (???? Also:!!!), Mother Help Me Live, A Season for Goodbye…. You get the idea, right?
I tried to approach If I Should Die Before I Wake with an open mind, and the firm belief that since…
1.) nobody is more morbid than teenage girls, so emotional martyrdom and misery might really speak to them
2.) this is just weird enough as a subgenre to actually be interesting.
The Plot: 14 year old Deanne Vandervoort is the fat and awkward only child of glamorous, socially prominent parents Dr. Hans and Sylvia. Deannne’s mother is constantly trying to push her into activities with the sons and daughters (mostly sons) of the “right” families. Deanne wants to volunteer at the hospital where her father works, and eventually convinces her parents to allow her to. For some reason Deanne gets to write and direct a TV play starring the children in the cancer ward. She meets improbably hot 16 year old Matt who is suffering from non-specific cancer. They share a love that is chaste and pure. He dies.
The problem starts with the fact that Deanne is completely unlikeable, and McDaniel makes the entire universe within the book revolve around her. She’s like Voltron made out of Wakefield twins. As the book opens, Mrs. Vandervoort has arranged for Deanne to attend the Hospital Ball which she is chairing (“the social event of the spring season!”) with Judson Courtland. Deanne is not pleased:
Deanne felt her cheeks burn hotly. How could Mother do this to me? She asked herself. How could she humiliate me by arranging a date with the most handsome boy in the entire city? The most popular boy in school?
I realize that Deanne is supposed to undergo a transformation from a poor-little-rich-girl to… well, something that is not that, through her work at the hospital and relationship with Matt, but she doesn’t. The whole book is concerned with improving Deanne’s self-esteem. Matt pretty much only exists (and subsequently shuffles off the mortal coil) to make Deanne feel better about herself. Also he is A Poor:
Six kids in one family! Deanne just stood and stared.
GAWD! They probably live in some kind of potato-shanty!
Also, Deanne starts losing weight, using a sensible diet plan prescribed by McDaniels in which she forgets to eat because she’s so involved with her work at the hospital relationship with Matt:
Frankly, she was too busy to think about eating. She rarely took time to eat more than a container of yogurt for lunch. By the time she got home, she was too tired to eat dinner.
This garners her attention from boys which pleases her. After Matt dies Judson Courtland even asks her out.
GUYS! This is not a good relationship for teenage girls to have with either food or dudes!
Finally, I can’t decide if McDaniel has really strict ideas about teenagers’ romantic relationships or if she is just set up the ending as a terrible coincidence. Matt’s parents invite Deanne to come visit their vacation-shanty when Matt gets a weekend pass from the hospital. She begs her mother to let her go, but her mother is reluctant, fearing her daughter might be looking to make-out with a common cancer patient! Lucky for her, her father steps in:
“Hold it!” Dr. Vandervoort said in his deep authoritative voice “You’re my family and I will decide.”
Oh, Dr. Hans, permissive parenting never does anyone any good in these stories…
The first morning after her arrival, Deanne and Matt sneak out of the house so Matt can show her a special clearing in the woods that he found. They hold hands. Upon their return, he immediately sickens and has to be rushed back to the hospital where he dies.
Intentionally or not, McDaniel made God smite Matt for holding hands with a girl.
Sign It was Written in 1983 Department: Not much of anything. The video games in the rec room are kind of a big deal.
Tongue Twister Department: The candy striper program is called “The VolunTeens”.
Hey, Girls, Want a Cancer Boyfriend to Call Your Own? Department: “To become a hospital volunteer during the summer, after school and/or on weekends, call the Volunteer Program Director at your local hospital.”