Jennifer By Zoa Sherburne

That’s why I’ve never asked Griff or any of the other kids to come here- because I’m ashamed of her!


Happy New Year! Here’s to another 52 weeks of enigmatic and tricky Scholastic Book Services covers!

The Plot:  Over the past four years I’ve been caught off-guard by Scholastic titles more often than not. They published and re-published hundreds of titles in paperback, including dense and incomprehensible word-stews; surreptitious translations-that-don’t and baffling communist propaganda disguised as a tour of the Shetland Islands.

Jennifer goes one better, adding a back cover-blurb that tells you nothing about what the book is about, except that Jennifer is ashamed of her mother.

Additionally, that high-70s cover is original to the Scholastic edition: the reader is immediately plunged into a story told in the somewhat stiff, mannered style of 1950s high school stories. Check the fine print, the original publication date was 1959.

What I am trying to say is this reads like something has gone terribly wrong in the Donna Parker universe.

16 year old Jennifer Martin has moved from New York City to Washington state, revealing in a succession of dull inner-monologues that her family has done so after her mother had been confined to a “santitorium” for alcoholism in the wake of the death of Jenny’s twin sister, Molly, 8 years earlier. After her mother was released, her father, an executive at Boeing, took a transfer in order to give the family a new start in a place where nobody knows them or her mother’s history.

The book gets off to a slow start, as it tediously details the family’s resettlement and Jenny’s attempts to make friends at her new school. She is reluctant to get too close to anyone, recalling the repeated misery and embarrassment of friends finding out that her mother drinks.

Jenny is also embarrassed by her mother’s continued involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous, and thinks that her family would be better off if they just forgot about that whole part of their past.

Finally, some drama starts to build as Jenny’s father settles into his job and has to start entertaining important clients at home. When he brings home a bottle of whiskey for an upcoming cocktail hour, Jenny decides that the best course of action is to get rid of it under the cover of darkness:

There was something sinister and dangerous about moving alone in the ghostly dark. She moved the kitchen stool as quietly as she could, and when she opened the cupboard and reached past the cracker boxes her groping hand found the bottle immediately.

Jennifer drew a short, hurting breath. She lifted the bottle high above her head and the dashed it to the floor, where it shattered with a crash as loud as the voice of doom.

Naturally her parents are immediately rousted, and don’t buy her excuse about having accidentally knocked it over while raiding the pantry.

Her father’s cocktail party coincides with Jenny being aggressively befriended by the niece of a neighbor. Patsy becomes Jenny’s entrée into the social whirl at No-Name High School, and while Jenny is cagey about her family’s reasons for moving west, she does come to trust Patsy enough that she invites her over the night of her father’s party.

However, when they arrive after school, Jenny is horrified to see her mother with a drink in her hand, even asking Jenny for a refill of “her usual” in front of the guests! Jenny’s father hastily joins them in the kitchen to explain that her mother is drinking plain ginger ale, because being a non-drinking weirdo is less socially acceptable than being a lush. 1959!

Jenny begins to relax bit after this incident, as her mother is accepted into the suburban social whirl, including the PTA and the Orphans’ Fund, and Jenny gains the notice of the handsome Griff Nolan.

When Jenny starts regularly dating Griff, she seems to get a ton of side-eye from her fellow co-eds, including Patsy, but no one will come right out and tell her what the problem with dating Griff is. For the amount of build-up it gets, I was expecting to learn that Griff had got a girl “in trouble” or maybe he was out on parole for murder or something. But when the big scandal is finally revealed we learn that Griff has an M.O. of giving the new girls in town “the big rush”. Jenny is heartbroken when he moves on to a newer new girl.

Jenny’s mother’s social downfall is a bigger deal: as part of the Orphans’ Fund committee, she is eager to have the Martins participate in the annual tradition of having an orphan come stay with them for Christmas, even hinting that they may consider adopting the child. However, when the committee chair receives Mrs. Martin’s references from back east, disaster strikes:

“I thought about Mr. Phillips. You remember the man your father used to work for back East? Unfortunately his wife opened the letter and took it upon herself to answer it.

You should have heard that letter, Jenny. It was really a masterpiece. She must have toiled over it. She called herself a God-fearing woman. ‘I am a God-fearing woman, Mrs. Copeland,” she said, ‘a churchgoing woman, and I am appalled, simply appalled at the idea of turning an innocent child over to the custody of a woman like Mrs. Charles G. Martin!’ She wanted to be sure the committee would know she was referring to the same Mrs. Martin they were investigating.”

Her father takes the news in stride, admitting that it was only a matter of time before the whole town found out about her mother’s past. He remains supportive of his wife, urging her to accept a Bridge party invitation for that very night, saying that he had never known her to be a coward.

Jenny finds herself admiring her mother’s grace in the face of gossip and, after a flashback to her 9th birthday party being cancelled on account of parental drunkenness, asks to hold a holiday party for her friends.

Although Jenny is still getting over Griff (somewhat mitigated by the attention of Ed, a very tall and responsible upper-classman), Jenny and Patsy throw themselves into party preparations, and all is going well until the day of the party, when Jenny arrives back from the beauty parlor to find her mother gone, and her best hat and gloves missing from the hall closet! While the party rages on around her, Jenny becomes more and more certain that her mother must have received a call from an old drinking buddy and is probably yukking it up at the airport cocktail lounge… but that mystery is solved when Mrs. Martin arrives in a taxi, explaining that her AA sponsee was having a drinking emergency.

Mr. Martin also shows Jenny the bottle of whisky he’s hidden-in-plain-sight in his wife’s closet, telling her that he has weighed and measured the bottle every day since they moved to Washington and she hasn’t touched a drop. Which seems like a very 1950s way of dealing with a recovering alcoholic.

Ed gives Jenny a birdhouse. The end.

Sign It Was Written in 1959 Department: The archaic spelling of “cooky”.

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8 Responses to Jennifer By Zoa Sherburne

  1. Susan says:

    Wow, it must have been traumatic for Jenny to lose her twin sister at age 8! Does it cover her feelings about that, or is it just a plot device to explain her mother’s situation and behavior?

    I recognized the name Zoa Sherburne. I have a copy of a book by her called “Almost April” but I’ve never read it — I don’t even know where or when I got it. It has the more tradtional 50s-type cover.

    That’s interesting that the book uses the name of Boeing. Usually the parents’ employer is vague or made-up.

    It seems unusual and admirable for a book of that era to be addressing a topic like this. Parental alcoholism IS very scary because children growing up around it have no control over it, plus it can become publicly visible if it happens in a social gathering and can’t be as easily hidden as some other vices.

    But yes, it is strange when I see a book that I know was written long before with a “modern” Scholastic cover that doesn’t match the contents !

    • mondomolly says:

      It is progressive about alcoholism for a book of its era, which is refreshing!

      Disappointingly, it barely touches on Jenny’s feelings about her twin’s death- its noted that she still misses her, and she’s excited about the idea that her parents might adopt a child.

      The other Sherburne book I’ve read is Too Bad About The Haines Girl, which deals with teenage pregnancy. It was published about a decade later, which I think contributes to the writing being less stiff and formal- I enjoyed it!

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

    • Anonymous says:

      Susan, I love “Almost April.” I first read it as a teenager and am now a grandmother. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve read “Almost April.” It, too, addresses the topic of parental alcoholism.

  2. Jen says:

    So glad you’re back! I really missed my weekly vintage book fix.

    All the best to you for a happy and healthy 2016!

  3. daffymaiden says:

    Bless you for doing this. I got all the way back to Benetton oven mitts and Tampax virginity before my battery died.

  4. Pingback: Dear Mom, You’re Ruining My Life By Jean Van Leeuwen | Lost Classics of Teen Lit: 1939-1989

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