“Peter Wedemeyer, Peter Wedemeyer, I’ll get you, Peter Wedemeyer!”
So, this is one of those books where you think you know exactly what you’re going to get, then it turns out to be something completely different, and then it still ends up being what you thought it was in the first place.
The Plot: …Which is to say, this looks like it is going to be about a tomboy that finally grows up into a young lady, but then quickly turns into a rather grim story about child abuse, spousal abuse, abject poverty, parental abandonment and bullying… and then ends up being exactly the sort of story that Barbara Fisher would hate.
13 year old Veronica Ganz is the biggest girl in her class at P.S. 63, and by the eighth grade she has beaten up every kid in school on general principle. Veronica takes nothing from nobody.
Which is why she is infuriated at the arrival of New Kid Peter Wedemeyer, who despite being the shrimpiest kid in her grade, quickly learns of her reputation and decides to make a preemptive strike by constantly making up rhymes to tease her: “Veronica Ganz doesn’t wear pants” is a typical example. Veronica makes it her mission in life to beat him up, which is where the book opens; by the end of the first chapter Peter has outwitted her and she ends up with a bucket of fish guts dumped over her head. Ha?
Veronica heads home after getting yelled at by Peter’s neighbor:
“Fish, tish,” scolded Mrs. Rizzio. “A big girl like you. Take a bath, that’s what you should do instead of picking on little kids and telling lies. Clean yourself up, and don’t go around smelling like that. If you go around smelling like that, nobody will ever marry you. You’ll see.”
Veronica and her younger sister Mary-Rose arrive home to a 5 year old brother, Stanley, whining about going to the day-old bakery, but Veronica locks him out of the bathroom in order to de-scale herself and yells at him to hang out the laundry before their parents get home.
Wait, has that five year old been home alone all day? Where in time and space is this taking place???
It actually takes a little bit of sleuthing to figure this out: the original copyright on the book is 1968, but references to ice delivery trucks and Stella Dallas make it seem like it was intended as a historical piece; not until we learn Veronica and Mary Rose’s stepfather was a big supporter of FDR, can we place it in the early 1940s.
New York City’s nomenclature causes similar confusion as to the “where”: references to Prospect Avenue, P.S. 63 and the Franklin Avenue subway station had me assuming Brooklyn (I got excited for a second when I calculated that would put Veronica in the Amboy Dukes’ neighborhood), but it turns out that all of those places also exist in the Bronx, putting Veronica in the Morrisania neighborhood of what is now the South Bronx, pre-Robert Moses (Veronica chasing Peter all the way to Boston Road tipped me off).
The reader learns that Veronica gets her bullying ways from her mother, who frequently comes home from the laundry that she owns with her second husband, Ralph, and beats her children. Ralph is a soft touch, who tries to broker peace between wife and children, but he is also a frequent target of his wife’s anger.
Veronica and Mary-Rose’s father left the family when Veronica was five and hasn’t been heard from since. Their mother insists that she divorced him because he was “weak and spineless”, but Veronica remains haunted by a memory of him saying or doing something to her mother that made her cry on the subway.
So everyone is pretty surprised when a letter arrives from Mr. Ganz announcing that he’s coming from Las Vegas with his new wife to see his children.
The news sends Veronica’s mother into a panic. While she won’t discuss the matter with her children, Mary-Rose specializes at listening through door and vents:
“I think he’s got lots of money.”
“Papa. Our Papa. And Mama said she wouldn’t take a single penny from him. And she said he sold his restaurant in Las Vegas, and he’s going to live on ranch, and she says he wants to steal us away from her.”
Mary-Rose, a sensitive, girly-girl who dreams of the finer things in life such as satin bedspreads and painted-white bedroom furniture, immediately starts fantasizing about life with a rich father out west, where she could have her own room and everything (in Morrisania, Mary-Rose and Veronica share a bed, with Stanley sleeping on the trundle underneath).
Their mother grimly goes about making some improvements to the apartment, such as dying the soiled kitchen curtains dark green and even buying a new outfit for each of the children which must hang in the closet until their father’s arrival.
Unsurprisingly, he never shows and Veronica turns her full attention back to thinking of ways to beat up Peter Wedemeyer.
I know that we’re supposed to understand that it’s Veronica’s homelife that is slowly turning her into a psychopath… but it is really hard to have any sympathy for her, since she silently considers her classmates in terms of punchablity:
Douglas Green, a soft, timid boy, would be a pleasant person to clean erasers on.
Her only redeeming trait is that she excels in French, but even that she uses as a means to an end: when Madame Nusinoff requests additional students to addition for the French Club’s holiday pageant, Peter volunteers, and Veronica puts her grand scheme into motion.
Actually, her scheme doesn’t turn out to be all that grand. Despite the fact that she is both the best student in the pageant and genuinely enjoying herself for once, she still lies to Madame Nusinoff about having to leave the rehearsal early for a dentist appointment and lays in wait for Peter just off school grounds. That is her big plan.
Veronica is ready for a showdown when Peter arrives, but he has two friends with him and they beat up Veronica. Seriously, she ends up with a broken nose and black eye.
A random man on the street puts a stop to it, threatening to call the cops and then smacking the three boys around himself. This book is really violent.
But something is AWAKENED within Veronica.
Peter had gone down in defeat- not because she was stronger than he, or smarter, but because of something more powerful than that. She was a girl. And it was a mighty thing being a girl.
Peter guiltily shows up at Veronica’s the next day, offering himself up for a retaliatory beating. But Veronica has CHANGED and refuses to hit him. Especially after she realizes that he was only teasing her because he LIKED her:
What a wonderful feeling it was to like somebody and know he liked too, that maybe he had liked you all along, even though you were a girl, even though you were such a big girl.
And as the small figure across the street clutched his head in mock despair and staggered backward, Veronica, excited and happy at what was just beginning, giggled like a girl.
“I’ll be pitcher,” Veronica corrected. Lots of kids, she knew, liked to pitch, but that was her position, and whenever she played on a team, it was always understood she would pitch.
“You’re a good pitcher,” Peter said agreeably, “but I think you’d make a better catcher.”
“I’m pitching,” Veronica insisted.
“Look,” said Peter, “how do you know you won’t like being a catcher unless you try?”