This is living!
This week, our Whitman Fall Classic checks in with Donna Parker, the heroine of Marcia Martin’s extremely pleasant series about Junior High life in the 1950s.
The Plot: It is now early spring in the New York suburb of Summerfield, and Donna and her BFF Ricky (“called Fredericka only by her mother”), have recovered from their adventures at Camp Cherrydale and their celebrity status as award-wining student journalists and thwarters of Communist spies.
The book opens with the beleaguered Mrs. Parker and her daughter arguing over whether Donna should be allowed to go with the gang on a camping trip the following weekend. Mrs. Parker is steadfast in her refusal:
“I never heard of such nonsense, Donna. It’s much too early in the year. The weather is still too treacherous. As for cooking out, I know the kind of meals you girls would have… I’d worry every minute.”
This reader was inclined to be sympathetic towards Mrs. Parker, between Donna’s complaining about how she’s not allowed to have her own phone line (or even an extension in her room!), younger son Jimmy constantly being late for dinner due to baseball try-outs, and her husband, who is just full of good ideas: one of his clients had trained doves left over from a publicity stunt and he brings one home as a pet, just wrapped in a towel!
“A dove!” said Mrs. Parker, in a tone which said better than words that this was really beyond belief. “Oh of all things, a dove!”
She is truly a woman deserving of a vacation, so I guess it’s a good thing when her husband announces that they will be moving to India for a few months. Yay?
Donna watched her father. He looked as though he had just handed her mother a diamond necklace which he knew would overwhelm her, but was afraid he would be told that his wife no longer liked diamonds.
The news sends the household into a flurry of activity, although complications immediately arise. For one, Jimmy refuses to go because he’d miss out on baseball season. Then when the Parkers discover that taking the whole family is more than their modest income will bear, they try to reverse-psychology Donna by telling her about how many malaria shots she’d have to get.
Next they try bribing her with a semester at boarding school:
“A real boarding school, where they have pajama parties, and make fudge late at night on somebody’s little cook-stove that the headmistress doesn’t know about, and you get invited to somebody’s mansion for the holidays?”
SIGN ME UP!
Maybe even some of them would have older brothers who would be very anxious to meet her!
“So you’re my little sister’s roommate!” She could hear the male voice, even if she couldn’t see the face “Why didn’t she tell me you were so attractive?”
(Aside: whatever happened to Popular Square-Dancing Richard?)
However, Donna’s dreams of studly older brothers and non-stop midnight fudge are dashed when they investigate the local boarding school and find it full of stuck-up girls with their own horses. Back to the drawing board.
Luckily, a family friend comes to the rescue, suggesting that a hip, young school teacher named Miss Dengrove would welcome the opportunity to get out of her cramped boarding-house and live in a real home for awhile. The Parkers invite Miss Dengrove to dinner, and both Jimmy (who instantly develops a crush on her) and Donna (who is thrilled to be treated as an equal, even being asked to call her ‘Marjorie’) are won over. The Parkers can go to India after all!
Except the morning they are to leave a massive snowstorm hits the area, stranding everyone at home. Luckily the delivery truck for the local butcher shop has chains on its tires, so Mr. and Mrs. Parker hitch a ride all the way to Idlewild airport tucked in amongst the hams and sausages.
The ‘mystery’ element of the series has been its weak point. While Marcia Martin added a few mysterious happenings in the previous books, here she wisely ditches most of the pretense of this being a ‘mystery’ series, and instead focuses on Donna’s trials in keeping house while her parents are halfway around the world.
While Marjorie Dengrove is nominally the adult in charge, both Donna and Jimmy regard her more as a friend than an authority figure, and Donna is ‘on her own’ in navigating the various crises that arise.
They start the morning of her parents’ departure, when her pet dove seems to develop a nasty cold. Donna brings his cage in from the back porch and spends her savings on a long-distance call to a bird specialist and a prescription of castor oil and charcoal.
At first Donna enjoys the lax attitude towards rules that Marjorie allows- dishes sit in the sink overnight, Jimmy is allowed to play baseball in the basement, and Donna is allowed to babysit past midnight! Additionally, the household money that Mrs. Parker left with them is constantly being spent on hamburgers and black-and-white milkshakes down at the local Sweet Shoppe.
Marjorie’s swingin’ single gal life is also a source of endless fascination for Donna, what with her bottomless wardrobe of cashmere sweaters and flirtations with Summerfield Junior High’s male staff. She’s also invited to the most exciting places, and always takes Donna along with her, including a dinner party at new Frank Lloyd Wright house (it’s really a cover for a magazine shoot) and to visit her mother’s oldest friend, the widowed Mrs. John Q.X. Cunningham, who is “a real character”:
There, framed in the archway, stood a woman whose age she could not begin to guess, with the brightest orange hair she had ever seen. From her ears hung huge gold circlets, and on her arms were dozens of bracelets, each loaded with charms. She was wearing a high-necked scarlet blouse and green velvet slacks. On her feet were green slippers covered with sequins, with toes that turned up.
Mrs. Cunningham announces that she’s going to call Jimmy “Jamesie” and offers everyone a cup of tea and cigarillo, but Marjorie suggests that maybe the butler could look after the Parker children in the kitchen while they visit. Jimmy inquires if they can have milkshakes and the butler goes looking for some milk
“Madam isn’t much of a milk-drinker.”
“I’ll bet she isn’t,” Donna thought. “Anyone who dresses in an outfit like that probably drinks nothing but champagne.”
After their lunch of cake and milkshakes, Donna receives permission to explore the mansion, and after getting lost, makes her way out to the empty swimming pool, and eventually finds Jimmy and the butler chatting in the greenhouse…
…which leads to the next complication, when Donna is reveling in telling Ricky about her adventure the next day, and Ricky has THE BEST IDEA EVER for the Junior High spring dance- couldn’t Mrs. Cunningham see her way to donating some flowers to decorate the gym, so they’re not stuck with the same old potted palms? Donna is embarrassed to ask, but agrees to add her name to letter drawn up by the dance committee requesting the donation.
But Donna has a lot on her mind, and that’s dealing with the nominal mystery: dollar bills keep disappearing from the cookie jar where her mother keeps the pin money. Could it be Jimmy? According to the Child Psychology book her mother ordered, he is at the age to take a keen interest in buying things! Could it be the Parkers’ cleaning lady, disgruntled about the state Marjorie allows the children to keep the house in? Could it be Marjorie herself, who Ricky theorizes is a kleptomaniac over cashmere sweaters?
This mystery is so boring, that I am just going to remind readers that birds are pretty much the worst.
Besides, Marjorie is allowing Donna to throw a real boy-girl party, complete with square dancing, sandwich loaves and a make-your-own-sundae bar! (Again: where is Popular Richard? He loves square dancing!)
After the party Donna and Marjorie are all tuckered out, content to leave popped balloons and ice cream drips on the carpet, when they discover that Jimmy, previously disgruntled about being offered leftover sandwich-loaf filling for dinner, has gone missing! (Also not a mystery: pouting after being cut from the baseball team, he’s been hiding in the basement all night.)
Donna has just a few more teenaged crises to navigate, as the spring dance approaches: first she discovers that the cleaner has shrunk her dress, but Marjorie allows her to dip into her own wardrobe, making Donna the belle of the ball. Mrs. Cunningham comes through beautifully, supplying more than enough flowers and shrubs to transform the gymnasium into an enchanted garden. And yes, finally Popular Richard puts in an appearance, now the lead singer of the band playing at the dance; he promises to TOTALLY call Donna next week.
Afterward at the Sweet Shoppe the gang is scolded by the manager for their loud and unruly behavior, but the real trouble turns up the next morning when a police officer knocks on the door asking to speak with Donna. Does the town of Summerfield really take such a dim view of throwing napkins?
Actually it is about Mrs. Cunningham’s flowers- due to a misunderstanding, the dance committee arrived at the estate and helped themselves to the greenhouse after Jeeves had already delivered flowers to the school. Oops. Mrs. Cunningham is very understanding about the whole thing, via cablegram from Bermuda, and allows the class to help replant her flower beds as penance.
Finally Mr. and Mrs. Parker return home and Marjorie takes Donna and Jimmy to the pier to meet their ship. Mrs. Parker compliments Donna on how grown-up she was in helping to manage the house, and hints that she will be allowed to fly to California for her Uncle’s wedding later that summer!
Sign It Was Written In 1957 Department: “It’s been snowing all night,” Mr. Parker said. “We’ve been calling the weather bureau every few minutes since we got up.”