Call Me Heller, That’s My Name By Stella Pevsner

Don’t dare her to do anything– unless you really mean it- because she’ll do it!

Call Me Heller

This is one of those cases of the 1920s being particularly ill-served by YA historical fiction. Unless it is written by people who actually lived through the era (Cheaper By the Dozen), it frequently boils down to the same clichés: Charleston, Valentino, “Banana Oil!”, bobbed hair, flag pole sitting. Vo-oh-dee-oh-do.

The Plot: 12 year old tomboy Hildegarde “Heller” Hadley is dealing with the usual growing pains in her unnamed Midwestern town: her life-long best friend Walter Wayne Reuter has decided that he’s too old to be playing with girls and has forsaken her for “the new kid from Indianapolis”, and her beloved older sister has been spending more time with her boyfriend. Worse yet, her widower father has invited Heller’s stuffy Aunt Cornelia for an extended visit with no end in sight.

Will Heller ever learn to grow up gracefully and act like a young lady? What do you think? This is exactly the kind of book that Barbara Fisher was complaining about.

And it is handicapped by the fact that Heller isn’t a very interesting heroine. Her antics make her seem less like the headstrong daredevil she thinks herself to be and more just a spoiled brat. It doesn’t help that the antagonists she’s set up against are clearly nice people who love her very much and have endless patience for getting her out of the scrapes she gets herself into.

The plot (such as it is) is put into motion as Heller, abandoned by Walter Wayne, pays a visit to the Flaherty twins, devote Irish Catholics who are constantly counting the ways that one can get sent to hell. Heller accompanies Peggy Flaherty to church to light a candle for one of the many Flaherty babies who did not survive infancy (a grim detail that is just kind of thrown in there), and Presbyterian and Hell-bound Heller gets the idea to do something along the same lines for her late mother. Egged on by Peggy’s twin, Everett, and seeing a way to really show Walter Wayne that who needs him anyway, the idea mushrooms into Heller announcing that she will go to the graveyard at midnight on the 4th of July and light sparklers on her mother’s grave.

“Whew, Heller, you sure have got guts. I guess you know that place is crawling with spooks at night. But couldn’t you use a look-out?” Everett almost stammered in his eagerness. “I know spooks don’t scare you. But I could watch out for bootleggers.”

Spooks and bootleggers! And pirates. And Frankensteins.

The next morning, Heller is crushed when she learns that her sister, Margaret, is marrying her boyfriend, Bud, later that summer, and incensed when she finds out that she is the last one to know.

Again, it is hard to empathize with Heller, since we don’t really get into her head to understand the kid-logic that translates this as a betrayal. Instead, we just see Margaret and Bud constantly taking her along on their dates and to “grown-up” parties, where the 12 year old is regarded as a welcome addition to the festivities.

Ditto for her outrage over learning that Aunt Cornelia will be living with the Hadleys permanently. While Aunt Cornelia nags a bit over issues of etiquette and grammar (she’s a former school teacher) she mostly intervenes on Heller’s behalf when she gets in trouble for her stunts, and offers to teach Heller how to cook:

“I may even let you in on some of my prize recipes. Recipes I couldn’t be bribed to reveal to my dearest friends.”

It may not be Heller’s cup of tea, but I kind of want Aunt Cornelia to adopt me.

Heller, however, decides that she is going to ruin her Aunt’s reputation so she can’t become a teacher at the local high school, and convince Margaret and Bud to let her move in with them.

She seizes her chance when she accompanies Margaret and Bud to a big party at fancy hotel to watch their friend Fanny compete in The Big Charleston Semi-Finals. Heller catches the attention of a local reporter with her rendition of “Oh How The Money Rolls In” and is persuaded to pose for a vampy photograph with Fanny’s cigarette holder. Heller makes a point of mentioning that her Aunt Cornelia will be teaching English at the high school come fall.

Heller feels bad when she sees how scandalized Margaret and Bud are over the incident, and relieved to see that her picture and comments did not make the paper the next morning.

Following her midnight trip to graveyard and an incident where she almost gets run over by a train on a precarious railroad trestle, her friends and family (finally) have had enough. Her father doles out the ultimate punishment by forbidding her to mention the incident to anyone, preventing her from using it to bolster her daredevil reputation. Walter Wayne friend-breaks up with her because she is a girl. Margaret and Bud soundly reject her plan to move in with them, and Bud is especially annoyed because he’s the one who kept her photo out of the paper with the help of his reporter friend.

It is Aunt Cornelia who smooths everything over in time for the wedding, even as some excitement is injected into the proceedings when several cases of root beer explode in the Hadleys’ cellar (hidden there by Heller and the Flaherty twins, when they suspected that Mr. Flaherty was moonlighting as a bootlegger… don’t ask).

All ends well, as Aunt Cornelia (now sporting a chic bob) agrees to stop addressing her as ‘Hildegarde’. The end.

Sensible Idea Department: “Let’s stop for some ice cream to calm our nerves.”

Grammatically Correct Department: “A person can’t smell badly any more than he can smell goodly. That’s because, if you remember your grammar, an intransitive verb is not modified by an adverb, but rather by a predicate noun or adjective.”

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One Response to Call Me Heller, That’s My Name By Stella Pevsner

  1. Pingback: Veronica Ganz By Marilyn Sachs | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

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