When fat Elsie Edwards walks into Jenny Sawyer’s fifth grade class, she’s the last person Jenny expects to be friendly with…
I was on the fence about whether this one was “lost” enough to be considered a “lost classic” (35 years later it’s still in print, now with a cover featuring the heroine yakking into a cell phone); but after being reminded last week about Amy Treloar’s randomly terrible mother, I thought we’d revisit the meanest mama of them all…
The Plot: Jenifer Sawyer’s 5th grade class reacts with visceral revulsion when Elsie Edwards joins them halfway through the year. It’s not like the school’s administration helps any, since the principal announces in front of the whole class that Elsie is on a special diet, which consists of broth and carrot sticks, and her classmates are forbidden from sharing any snacks with her. DON’T FEED THE FATTIES, KIDS!
At least the only thing that 11 year olds hate more than having a fat kid in their class is being told what to do, so Elsie soon lasers in on Marianne, “the littlest girl in the room. She isn’t very smart, but she’s nice to everyone” and is now up a slice of cake. At least until teacher Mrs. Hanson makes her spit it out into the waste basket in front of the entire class and GOD WE GET IT ADULTS ARE JUST THE WORST!
Following their elders’ leads, Jenifer and her BFFs Diane and Sharon by turn mock and ostracize Elsie. Jenifer’s mom, managing to be not quite The Worst comments that “She’s the fattest little girl I’ve ever seen” but also shares her suspicions that something is seriously wrong with Elsie’s home life.
Elsie isn’t helping her own case, as she moves from “scrounging” food to stealing her classmates’ lunch money, including that of Marianne, who is literally her only friend. When she is caught her punishment is to spend every recess hour in principal’s office, which has the unexpected result of forcing Elsie to stick to her broth-and-carrot-sticks starvation diet, and she loses weight. So, Sweet Valley-style, now she will lose four pounds and be skinny and popular, right? Wrong! When she gets up to work a problem at the blackboard her skirt will fall off, because DeClements wants her readers to die from vicarious embarrassment.
Jenifer is starting to feel pity, if not exactly compassion, for her classmate. When she brings home a D for math on her report card, she suggests to her mother that they hire Elsie, the top student in the class, to tutor her. This way she can earn some money to pay back her classmates for the thefts.
Mrs. Sawyer is a very diplomatic type, and convinces the as yet-unseen Mrs. Edwards to agree to the arrangement. Elsie is a natural at explaining difficult concepts and soon she and Jenifer become sort-of friends, with Elsie opening up about her terrible family:
“All my sister has to do is cuddle up to my mother and tell her she’s pretty and she gets anything she wants.”
“Why don’t you tell your mother she’s pretty?”
Elsie put her chin, or chins, on her hand. “I tried once. I told her that the blue dress she had on made her eyes look bluer. She snapped at me that the sweater I was wearing made me look fatter and to go and change it.”
Jenifer eventually convinces Sharon and Diane to give Elsie a chance (prodded along by Diane’s mother, who also wants to get in on Elsie’s math tutoring for her daughter). At a slumber party at Diane’s house, Elsie confesses that her parents divorced and her father has been out of the picture ever since he got a new girlfriend:
“He said he’d come to see me on Sunday. He had a lady with him. They took me out to dinner. I remember she stared at me while I was gobbling down my food. When he took me back to my house, I think he started to say something about next Sunday, but I saw the lady shake her head. I haven’t seen him since.”
Status-conscious Mrs. Edwards also has a new boyfriend, but Elsie can only say
“He’s OK I guess. I haven’t seen him much. He’s got a Porsche, and Mama likes that.”
It’s Diane’s mother that notices that despite the fact Elsie has been losing weight, her mother hasn’t bought her any new clothes, and so to prevent another skirt-dropping incident, Elsie has been using dozens of safety pins to try and adjust them. Diane’s mother is a whiz seamstress, and does a few quick alterations while the girls sleep. This earns the wrath of Mrs. Edwards over the phone the next morning.
We could hear her scream at Diane’s mother, who was holding the receiver away from her ear. “If I want my child’s clothes altered, I’ll take care of it myself!”
“I certainly hope you do!” Diane’s mother snapped back. “It’s about time you paid some attention to her!” Diane’s mother slammed down the phone.
DeClements takes a low-key approach to the action for most of the book, which mostly deals with the day to day problems and petty meanness of a bunch of 11 year olds.
So, the action-packed conclusion is a little jarring: apparently needing to up the stakes, Jenifer’s father leaves the girls alone to go bowling (he’s seething with resentment over the fact that his wife has decided to return to work, in order that they can buy a much-needed new car, a plot point that isn’t fully explored); feeling bored and reckless, Jenifer and her friends and various younger siblings decide to go to the mall. When it turns out to be a longer walk than expected, Diane sticks out her thumb and they get picked up by a trucker who says he’s also going to the mall.
Hours later, and far out of town, the girls realize that they are definitely not heading toward the mall and decide to jump out of the back of the truck at a red light. Elsie’s sister doesn’t make the jump and they watch helplessly as her sister speeds off with a possible kidnapper (it is never made completely clear what the driver’s intentions are).
The girls call the police and Elsie’s sister is eventually returned unharmed, but now Elsie is in big trouble. Her mother’s going to send her to boarding school for sure!
While the collected moms try to convince Mrs. Edwards to allow Elsie to stay at the school, she will not be moved. At least not until she takes Elsie to the doctor and discovers that she’s lost 30 pounds over the course of the school year. Even then, the adults have to be so condescending about it that you die of embarrassment on her behalf:
“My, Elsie,” he exclaimed, “you’ve lost a lot of weight. You’re going to be absolutely skinny.”
Elsie wasn’t skinny yet, or even down to chubby, but she had lost that fat-lady-in-the-circus look.
“I won’t be skinny until I lose a lot more pounds,” Elsie told Mr. Marshall in her usual honest way.
“Ah, the rest will come off like skimming grease off chicken soup.”
Elsie shook her head and looked down at her shoes. “It isn’t that easy.”
Eventually, the 5th grade teacher saves the day, convincing Mrs. Edwards that Elsie has shown so much improvement that she should be allowed to stay.
So… just eat nothing but broth and carrot sticks and win friends and influence people! Duh, it’s easy!
Well, I actually have to give DeClements credit for (eventually) writing more than the usual “lose weight, win at life” narrative: Elsie would make a brief appearance in the follow-up book Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, and then be the main character in two (unfortunately now out-of-print) YA novels, How Do You Lose Those Ninth Grade Blues? and Seventeen and In-Between, in which (wonder of wonders!) she discovers that losing weight doesn’t solve all of your problems and terrible parents will scar you for life.
Sign It Was Written In 1981 Department:
I told Diane what happened on Mork and Mindy the night before because her TV was broken.
It was a nice day until Mrs. Hanson couldn’t find the Scholastic Book Club money.