This week we’re continuing the series on girls’ series books published by Whitman in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Background: We left Donna Parker at the conclusion of the season at Camp Cherrydale, where she and her BFF Fredericka “Ricky” West had solved a number of minor mysteries, attended a square dance with the Most Popular Boy In School, and restored the faith in humanity of a disposed French count, who rewarded Donna with an electric sewing machine. Trust me, it totally makes sense in context.
The Plot: Donna and Ricky have returned to the town of Summerfield for the start of the 9th grade, which confusingly makes them not High School Freshmen, but Junior High Seniors.
Donna is excited to join the staff of the school newspaper, The Summerfield Sum-It-Up, but Ricky is dubious, especially since she heard that Joyce Davenport, the snooty daughter of the editor of Summerfield’s daily paper is a shoo-in to be elected as editor of the student paper. Ricky wants Donna to join her in the Dramatics Society, but Donna isn’t interested in Ricky’s impromptu portrayal of Lady Macbeth.
At the newspaper meeting after school, everygirl Donna is urged by several of classmates to throw her hat into the ring for the editor position, since nobody likes Joyce and all are convinced she’ll be a slave driver to work for. Donna declines the nomination, and Joyce is elected unopposed, but Donna is convinced to take on the role of Assistant Editor.
One of Donna’s fellow newspaper staffers is Tommy Sheridan, whose father is the owner of a locally-based helicopter company. Over the summer the precocious Tommy won an award for his design for a new type of helicopter, and is now hard at work on improvements, even as his father is dealing with some Cold War problems:
“Oh, my father isn’t worried about the competition. He can still hold his own. Only one thing worries him. Spies.”
There was a gasp.
“You’re kidding,” said Mary.
“I wish I were,” replied Tommy. “No, it’s the truth. My father has to be awfully careful about the people he hires. Suppose an enemy country got hold of his plans?”
As a matter of fact, there happen to be two strangers that have just arrived in Summerfield giving Donna and Tommy particular worry.
The first is Mr. Brown, the newly-hired janitor who is just grumpy and suspicion-causing in the general. The second is Roger Norcross, a man who shows up at the Parkers’ one afternoon claiming to be Mrs. Parker’s long-lost younger brother from California.
Uncle Roger gets two strikes against him from the start, since he is both evasive about what he does exactly in California, and is deeply interested in discussing helicopters with Tommy.
Joyce has big plans for the school paper, and after some coaxing from Donna, the other students agree to hold a mock mayoral election, complete with campaigning, speeches, a parade and voting booths. The project is barely started when Joyce breaks her leg and has to spend several weeks in the hospital in traction; thus greatness is thrust upon Donna.
The mock election is such a success that Donna gets the students to spearhead a get-out-the-vote drive for the actual election, organizing door-to-door and telephone campaigns and free babysitting and taxi services for the community on Election Day. The newspaper staff’s goal is 100% voter turn-out, and they are initially disappointed when they only hit 90%… but then Joyce informs them that 90% is basically way better than any community has done ever. Not only are the students’ efforts praised in an editorial in the local paper, but the story is also picked up by the national wire services! Donna and the school staff are now local celebrities, and are invited to participate in a national scholastic journalism conference in New York City!
The Donna Parker series is more strictly serialized than most other girls’ series of the era, with supporting characters and situations from previous volumes frequently coming into play plot-wise. In this case, it is an invitation extended from Donna and Ricky’s old friend, the Comte de la Tour-Pointue, the disposed French aristocrat that they met at Camp Cherrydale. Paul, as he insists they call him, invites the entire class to join him for a fancy French dinner while in New York.
While at dinner, Donna and Tommy spot the mysterious Mr. Brown, who appears to be in the midst of some sort of unsavory spy-business. Paul recognizes “Mr. Brown” from his days with the French Resistance as being a dangerous enemy spy, and alerts the FBI, before giving chase himself, letting Donna and Ricky tag along, reasoning:
“If I go, you must go, too. It would not be right to protect you from this excitement. You are practically a special agent, now.”
Count Paul is awesome.
The Feds arrive and the spy-plot is resolved.
At the conference awards ceremony the next afternoon, Joyce arrives on crutches just in time for the Sum-It-Up to receive a special award for community service for its election coverage, and Joyce boldly takes the microphone to give all the credit to Donna; the rest of the staff decides that Joyce is a good egg after all.
On the train home, Uncle Roger, who has been serving as a chaperone for the trip, finally reveals that he works as a sound designer for a Hollywood movie studio, and has been visiting New York to consult with a group of engineers on a new, top-secret sound system. He has also fallen in love with the Journalism Club’s advisor, Miss Fischer, and they will be returning to California to be married. He promises to send Donna a plane ticket so she can attend the wedding and solve a few Hollywood-based mysteries!
As with Donna Parker at Cherrydale, the “mysteries” aren’t really the main draw for this series. Donna, Ricky and the gang don’t really go sleuthing so much as they become embroiled in some mildly mysterious goings-on.
Somewhat surprisingly, the real thrust of the series is the changing relationship between lifelong friends Donna and Ricky, as they grow up and start to grow apart and pursue separate interests and other friendships.
Aside from that, the books focus on the minor, often humorous incidents typical of High School life in the 1950s. In addition to the local politics, spies, and long-lost-uncle plots, a lot of focus is given to Donna’s struggles with her home ec class, which is taught by the eccentric-but-uncompromising Miss Merwood (“Baking cakes. A lost art. Cake mixes. Ugh!”), who enforces a strict “no talking” policy and makes Donna and her partner eat their failed milk toast dry after spilling an entire pan of milk on the floor.
Sign It Was Written in 1957 Department: In addition to milk toast, Donna worries about learning to cook “all sorts of queer things: cocoa with salt in it, and Floating Island, and cream of tomato soup with white sauce.”
Do Not Actually Attempt This Itinerary Department: “Gosh, the Empire State Building, Chinatown and the Statue of Liberty, all in one afternoon!”
Unexplained Department: For a series that is so invested continuity, it is surprising that Popular Richard (of Square Dancing fame) does not appear at all in this volume! He won’t show up again until Donna Parker: A Spring to Remember, the fourth book in the series.