Donna Parker, Special Agent (#2) By Marcia Martin

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.

Donna Parker, Special Agent

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.

Long lost younger brothers showing up from Western states seems to be a staple of Whitman series, sometimes they turn out to be imposters, sometimes not.

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.

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10 Responses to Donna Parker, Special Agent (#2) By Marcia Martin

  1. Pingback: Donna Parker On Her Own (#3) By Marcia Martin | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

  2. Susan says:

    This was one of my favorite books. I bought it with my allowance at a Ben Franklin store, which always had a few Whitman Classics. Uncle Roger gives Donna a gorgeous while formal dress in this one, which made me want a dress like that even though I would have had absolutely no where appropriate to wear it 🙂 .

  3. C Baker says:

    Do Not Actually Attempt This Itinerary Department: “Gosh, the Empire State Building, Chinatown and the Statue of Liberty, all in one afternoon!”

    Technically doable, if you have no intention of actually seeing any of those places. If all you want to do is drive past the Empire State Building and then through Chinatown on your way to the Staten Island Ferry (from which you will gaze at the Statue of Liberty), then sure. That’s a thing you can do. Tourists might even consider it thrilling. Me, I consider it “Sunday, ballet day”. (The classes are in Chinatown, we live in Staten Island, and I need something to occupy me while the girls are dancing.)

  4. Pingback: Donna Parker: A Spring to Remember (#4) By Marcia Martin | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

  5. Pingback: Donna Parker In Hollywood (#5) By Marcia Martin | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

  6. Susan says:

    I just finished this book as part of my Reread the Donna Parker Books in Order Consecutively Project, since I wasn’t able to do that in childhood. The third page contains this unintentionally hilarious sentence: “The two girls were silent for a moment, remembering the strange events of the summer that had ended when a French count presented Donna with an electric sewing machine” 🙂 . As you said, it totally makes sense in context!

    In the 70s, I was part of my high school newspaper, went to the student newspaper convention in NYC, and had home ec class in which we baked cakes from scratch (but no milk toast or Floating Island 😉 , in ninth grade, which counted as freshman year in terms of credits but was still in the junior high back then.

    Also a sign that it was written in the 1950s: when Uncle Roger proposes to Miss Fischer during the newspaper trip, she tells Donna that she immediately called the principal and resigned her job so they could get married and move to California right away — and the principal considered this perfectly valid and normal for a young woman to do with no advance notice in those days!

    • mondomolly says:

      I’m sure that kind of thing happened all the time in the 1950s! LOL.

      I have no idea if Home Ec is even offered in any middle or high school any more- while an 8-week unit was still required when I was in middle school (around 25 years ago) I don’t think it was offered at all at my high school.

      • Susan says:

        When I visited my junior high several years ago, I saw that the classroom was still there, with the sinks and stoves and all, but it was during the summer and no one was around (except a maintenance crew doing some remodeling) to ask.

        • Susan says:

          Home Ec wasn’t offered at my children’s high school (the youngest just graduated a few years ago). I think they had some sewing classes but they were more oriented toward fine arts and theater than Home Ec.

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