Background: This week’s book is one of those titles that attracted both controversy and acclaim in its time, and has since largely vanished from the public’s consciousness. I first heard of it (along with the similarly tantalizingly-titled Too Bad About The Haines Girl) in a 2006 Atlantic piece by paid pearl-clutcher Caitlin Flanagan, a ponderous essay on those Rainbow Parties the kids these days are constantly having (and specifically, Paul Ruditis’ truly terrible YA novel The Rainbow Party) .
Ms. Flanagan’s point was that the above-named titles were designed to “frighten us away from sex, lest we become tragic girls ourselves”.
Suffice it to say, Ms. Flanagan (who is on the record as stating that she “hates” YA as publishing category, despite how often she visits that particular well for The Atlantic), seems to have misremembered the particulars of the plot of Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, a surprisingly sensitive story of two high school kids “in trouble”, which concludes with the more conventional moral that Adults Are Pretty Much The Worst.
The Plot: 16 year old southern belle July Greher opens by noting that with all of the talk of teenage marriage in the papers these days, nobody has asked any actual teenagers about their experiences on the subject, so she’s stepping in to fill the void and tell her story.
July’s situation is straight out of Ann Landers’ book: while July admits that she likes Boswell Johnson “Bo Jo” Jones, neither more nor less than any of the other boys she dates, a combination of hormones, spiked prom punch and a secluded moonlight beach conspire to move things along a little faster and a little farther than these clean-cut teens intended.
After a few months of trying to convince herself that she miscalculated, July faces up to the fact that she’s going to have to tell Bo Jo and figure out what to do. Unfortunately, she finally gets up the nerve on the day that Bo Jo gets his letter of acceptance from Georgia Tech, along with the fat football scholarship that both he and his working-class parents have been counting on since he was born. July reacts by getting morning-sick all over the restroom of the Beatnik bar where they and their friends are celebrating.
When July finally confesses to Bo Jo, they talk around the idea of an illegal abortion, before finally deciding their only option is to drive across the state line to get married and then deal with the fall-out from their parents after it’s too late for them to do anything about it.
The young marriage is a train wreck from the start: Bo Jo’s parents throw him out of the house, July’s parents first proffer a doctor who can “take care of the problem”, then threaten them with a forced annulment; in the end Bo Jo’s parents recant and reluctantly let the newlyweds move in with them until an apartment can be arranged. Mrs. Jones never passes up the opportunity to remind July that she has ruined her son’s life, and July never misses the opportunity to remark on the Joneses’ tacky orange polyester bedspreads or mailbox shaped like a covered wagon.
Bo Jo drops out of school and takes a job at his father-in-law’s bank as an IBM Machine Operator, which necessitates the charging of a suit at the local department store, incensing Mr. Jones:
“You and your lady wife are ruining my son’s life. Ruining him. He’s not going to be worth the skin he was born in by the time you get through with him. Why couldn’t you leave him alone? Hunh? Why?”
This is pretty much how every encounter between the Grehers and Joneses goes.
Both July and Bo Jo are relieved when they are able to move into their own apartment, over a neighbor’s garage, but July soon finds being a 16 year old housewife is not very stimulating:
I went inside and bustled around making like a housewife, but to my absolute horror when I was finished, completely finished and nothing left to do, I looked at the clock and it was only ten AM and eight big fat hours to fill up before Bo Jo would be home!
I began to feel as though the apartment walls were closing in on me, and when I looked at the windows I could almost see the bars.
It’s a perfect storm of boredom and resentment: pretty soon Bo Jo is staying out all hours drinking with his high school friends (and his tarty ex-girlfriend); July takes up corresponding with an intensely interesting Princeton sophomore named Horace, whom her parents had introduced her to just hours before she broke the news about her marriage and pregnancy. She conveniently doesn’t mention either to Horace.
July also befriends the town’s other teenaged bride, 17 year old Louella Consuelo, an ex-chorus girl from Chicago who married a racehorse trainer twice her age and is still trying to make a go at breaking into show business, currently as a singing waitress at the local Beatnik Bar.
The Louella subplot is really interesting: with her distain for children and Ronnie Spector beehive, it would be easy to assume that Louella is supposed to be the bad-girl counterpart to July’s “nice girl from the best home”, but Louella’s story plays out in a more complicated way.
Furious at her husband when she finds out that she is pregnant, Louella goes to loan sharks to finance her illegal abortion, WHICH OF COURSE IS TERRIBLE, but she survives and is fairly unrepentant about; when her husband finds out he gives her a black eye, and she leaves him. A few months later July receives a letter from New York City, where Louella is a successful nightclub performer and kept girlfriend of a wealthy older man.
How do we feel about Louella? Are we supposed to recoil from her immoral behavior? I am kind of having a hard time doing so because LOUELLA WINS AT LIFE.
Back at Casa Del Bo Jo, the two sets of in-laws still are at each others’ throats, but July and Bo Jo are more frequently making stands for their own independence, much to their parents’ consternation:
“My darling, surely you and Bo Jo aren’t going to feel obligated to stay married forever.”
“Sometimes,” I said, “you actually shock me, mother. You actually shock me very much.”
After a particularly emotional encounter with Bo Jo’s ex-girlfriend, July goes into labor, a few weeks earlier than expected, but her doctor reassures her that everything is normal and the next morning Bo Jo and July are the proud parents of a healthy baby boy, whom they name Jonathan. Even their parents manage to put aside their differences and celebrate.
And this is where the novel takes a shocking and tragic turn. Baby Jonathan is placed in an incubator because he is premature, although not alarmingly so, July visits him in the nursery and the hospital staff constantly assures her that all is well.
However, the baby develops a respiratory infection overnight, and while he doctors are still reassuring her that it is still no big deal, July isn’t buying it:
I worried all day and all night. I worried up until eleven AM the next morning when Dr. Harvey and Bo Jo came to tell me that the baby was dead.
Even more shocking is both sets of parents’ reactions, as they refuse to acknowledge that July and Bo Jo could possibly feel any attachment to a baby who had only lived a few days, and instead take advantage of the couple’s weakened physical and emotional state to split them up and try to pretend that the past 8 months had never happened:
“Not that we aren’t sorry about how things turned out, but nobody could help that. No sense in crying over spilled milk. The thing is to look ahead. Think about the future. Right?”
July’s parents make plans to send her to boarding school in New England, broadly hinting that that nice Horace Clark will only be 20 miles away at Princeton, while Bo Jo’s parents try to salvage his football scholarship.
Initially July and Bo Jo feel they have no choice but to go along with their parents’ plans for them, but they finally discover that since their friends and family don’t (or won’t) understand, they have only themselves to lean on in their shared bereavement. Coming to the realization that the experiences have matured them far beyond what their parents can comprehend, they make their stand and announce that they are staying together.
The book concludes with a brief epilogue, set three years later, in which July describes her married life: Bo Jo is in college, July works in the bursar’s office and takes occasional classes, and they live together in the Married Students off-campus housing. She feels a twinge of regret when she attends her best friend’s elaborate wedding, but decides she wouldn’t trade her life for anything when she sees that Bo Jo has unexpectedly come to meet her bus.
In conclusion: you can rebound from ruining your life. Also adults are pretty much the worst.
Sign It Was Written in 1967: “The nephew turned out to be a perfect dream boat of a guy in spite of his name, which was Horace, and his wavy blonde hair, which made him look more like Dr. Kildare than Dr. Kildare does.”