Donna had no way of knowing that things would happen before graduation that would completely change her feelings toward her friend.
Whitman-o-rama month continues with Marcia Martin’s extremely pleasant series on junior high school life in the 1950s-60s.
Background: When last we left 14 year old Donna and her BFF Ricky West (“called Fredericka only by her mother”) they had over the course of a 6-month period restored the faith in humanity of a disposed French count (and earned an electric sewing machine for doing so!); won a scholastic journalism award and thwarted a group of communist spies; and kept house while Donna’s parents set off on a whirlwind tour of Europe and India. More strictly serialized than most contemporary girls’ series, it is now almost summer in the suburb of Summerfield and a lot of old plot points are coming home to roost.
The Plot: By this point, Martin has pretty much dropped the pretense of being a mystery series, and thank God for that because there is enough going on without even the nominal mysteries of the first few volumes! In rapid succession Donna finds romance, tragedy, a rivalry with her best friend, her comeuppance when she tries putting on airs and finally graduates from Junior High.
Picking up immediately where On Her Own ended, Donna’s parents are just back from India when they get a call from no longer long-lost Uncle Roger, who had just missed meeting the Parkers’ boat in New York City. Now married to Donna’s former English teacher, Uncle Roger has come to fulfill his promise of granting Donna a trip to California to visit them- but not so fast! Donna’s parents are concerned that she’ll be so busy dreaming of movie stars and swimming pools that she’ll neglect her studies. Uncle Roger proposes a deal: if Donna brings home straight-As on her report card, the trip will be her graduation gift.
Donna barely has time to brag about it before Popular Square-Dancing Richard calls (finally!) and asks her on a movie date. He proposes doubling with Ricky and one of his friends, but before Donna can suggest the idea to Ricky, her friend calls with the news that her mother, who suffered a serious bout of rheumatic fever as a girl, has been ordered bedridden by her doctor. Ricky isn’t close to her father, and she asks Donna to come over the next day to help her keep house. When Donna arrives, it is clear that Ricky is already on the slippery slope of delinquency:
Ricky picked up a bottle of nail polish and began painting her toenails. Donna wondered if this activity was merely so Ricky could avoid looking at her; she had never seen her paint her toenails before.
Clearly, Ricky is no state to go on a double date, and Popular Richard is also unable to find a friend on short notice; after much pleading Donna is able to convince her parents to allow her to attend the movies unchaperoned. He follows this invitation with one to a baseball game, which Donna accepts even though it is her all-time least favorite sport. This does not bother Popular Richard in the least: “It’s so nice to go with a girl who doesn’t ask a lot of silly questions.”
As each of these dates end, Popular Richard acts so weird. Clearly he has something on his mind, and he seems to almost always be on the verge of sharing his troubles with Donna… but never quite does.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that Donna, after accidentally calling Richard “Ricky” (sublimated!), learns that his name isn’t actually Richard, it is Paul. Did a Whitman editor decide that Richard and Ricky were too close and causing confusion? If so, they could have picked literally any other name, since Paul is also the name of the disposed French count that Donna had befriended. So, still confusing!
However, Donna has to put Popular Square Dancing RichardPaul out of her mind for a moment when she receives a call from Ricky with the news that her mother actually for-reals died!
Ricky asks Donna to come over right away and stay with her, and Donna agrees but the whole thing makes her very uncomfortable. How is she supposed to act in the face of an actual, real-life dead mom?
Luckily, Mrs. Parker is there with some straight talk on the subject:
“Donna, life isn’t always pleasant. There are a great many things that happen to us in this imperfect world that we simply have to accept, no matter how unpleasant or tragic they are. And most people learn to face them. Somehow, somewhere, inside ourselves we find the strength to go on. I’m sure Ricky will too.”
We’re only a third of the way through the book, so it’s still going to take a while for the lesson to sink in. Realistically self-centered, Donna finds Ricky’s behavior in the wake of her mother’s death embarrassing, as she brags about the expensive clothes her father is buying her and the television set she’s getting for her room and the trip to Europe that they’re going on after graduation. The last straw is Ricky’s announcement that she’s going to try for Summerfield Junior High’s Outstanding Girl Award, which she was just encouraging Donna to enter the competition for!
Donna’s school newspaper friends take her side, of course, even the formerly-snooty Joyce Davenport, who agrees that Ricky is out of control.
Meanwhile, RichardPaul has finally confessed what has been bugging him: his father has quit his job and refuses to take another, forcing his mother to go back to work. Now he wants to drop out of high school to support them family. While Donna’s mother is constantly advising her to be less severe in judgement of her friends WHO HAVE REAL PROBLEMS, DONNA! she refuses to listen, even going so far as to sarcastically turn down a third date with RichardPaul because if he’s so worried about money he shouldn’t be spending it on chocolate sodas.
(Although this whole plot is somewhat undermined by the fact that RichardPaul’s mother isn’t exactly on her hands and knees scrubbing floors: she’s fulfilling her longtime dream of going into business as an interior decorator…)
Donna’s bruised ego is salved by receiving an invitation to her Camp Cherrydale co-counselor Bunny Knight’s wedding; better yet, she’s asked to be a bridesmaid! Again, her parents require some convincing, since Donna will have to travel alone by train to Bunny’s hometown and the Knights are basically strangers to them. Donna convinces her mother to have a telephone conversation with Mrs. Knight, who agrees after learning that Donna will be sharing a room with Bunny’s 14 year old cousin.
Donna also gives up her quest to win the Outstanding Girl Award in favor of becoming class Valedictorian instead: ever democratic, Summerdale Junior High doesn’t give the title based on marks alone, but instead has a speech-writing contest judged by a panel of English teachers.
Popular RichardPaul, who has literally mistaken Donna being a jerk for Donna giving him sound financial advice (!!!), reappears, and as a previous junior high valedictorian himself, gives her invaluable advice about selecting a poem to open her address (Donna goes with “I Hear America Singing”).
Meanwhile, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it subplot, Ricky is directing a school talent show, which Donna and her friends dismiss as a shameless attempt to earn more points for her Outstanding Girl campaign.
Throughout much of this volume, Donna is surprisingly unsympathetic and self-centered, critical of Ricky and Paul’s actions (which come in the face of much more difficult problems than the ones she has to cope with); while her mother is constantly warning Donna to have more compassion for her friends (especially Ricky), the lesson doesn’t sink in until she finds herself away from home and her friends, and far out of her depth socially, at Bunny’s wedding.
Taking the commuter train from Summerfield and transferring at Grand Central Station, Donna arrives in the ritzy suburb of Nottingham, NY (it sounds like she’s traveling between Long Island and Westchester, although it is never clear in which direction); it turns out that Bunny’s family is far wealthier than Donna realized.
The Knights’ houseguest for the weekend, Donna has no idea what to do with herself. Bunny is the only person she knows, and she is busy with wedding preparations; her cousin Ellie, who is Donna’s age, is from a world of boarding schools and ballet lessons; when Donna tries to walk about the grounds she is constantly underfoot of the workmen erecting the tent for the wedding or the household servants.
Donna is thrilled when she gains the notice of Craig, a college freshman and friend of Bunny’s fiancé. Outgoing and kindly toward her, Donna basically glues herself to his side for the weekend.
Not until she overhears Craig and Ellie talking at the reception does she realize that she’s been “chasing” Craig, and everyone thinks her behavior has been very foolish. Dying of embarrassment, she packs her things and calls a cab, sneaking away while the reception is still in progress. Unexpectedly arriving back in Summerfield, her parents console her over her disappointment in the outcome of her first outing as a bridesmaid, and Donna admits to being too hard on Ricky and RichardPaul.
OMG! There is still more plot! Donna wins Valedictorian and Ricky Outstanding Girl and the two friends reconcile. Popular RichardPaul calms the hell down about his mother having a job and goes to summer school to make up the classes he dropped out of. Despite the fact that Donna got one B on her report card, Uncle Roger comes through with the trip to California. Everyone learns lessons about not being a jerk!
Sign It Was Written In 1960:
“Mr. Greer won’t let us wear dungarees to school, and he makes the boys put their shirts inside their trousers, in case you are interested. But I can’t see that it makes any difference. In fact, the one day we’re allowed to dress in play clothes- on Blue Jean Day- is the day that is the most fun.”