Polly French of Whitford High (#1) By Francine Lewis

Never before in her fourteen lively years had Polly French found herself in a predicament as delicious and ticklish as this one.

Polly French WH

And in the third and final entry in our annual look at Whitman hardcovers, I give you the first volume of four in the Polly French series.  And, constant readers, it’s not good.

The Plot: The perils of these shorter-lived Whitman series is that they tend to fizzle out for a reason: two-dimensional characters, meandering plots, ponderous prose. Polly French has all of these problems in spades.

I don’t even know where to start. There is a stolen circus horse. There are mysterious hobo-tunnels under an abandoned house. There is a student body election that the ENTIRE TOWN seems way too involved in.

There is Polly French, a girl who I assume is supposed to be “lively” and “spunky”, but just comes off as fatuous, and possessed of a flexible morality.

Polly is so much of a ghost, she doesn’t even get a wholesome kinda-boyfriend, instead getting stuck with her cousin as the male lead in this adventure.

The book opens with sophomore Polly being nominated as the student body VP on her cousin, Alan Gray, presidential ticket for the student body of Whitford High. Polly is shocked by the announcement of her nomination, probably because she was busy eating paste or something:

pf210252016

As you can see, the illustrator has rendered Polly’s figure in an artistic style that makes the observer wonder where her digestive system goes… so maybe we should be glad that the poor dear is eating anything.

Rounding out the Gray-French ticket are Gus Neilsen for secretary, a boy that is given literally no personality; and Tommy LaCava for Treasurer, who is capable of only speaking in baseball analogies before disappearing into the ether for the rest of the story.

Alan doesn’t really care about the election:

“Who the heck wants to be president? I wanted to build a combination radio-television this fall, and that will take up a lot of my time.”

The rival ticket is not announced at the assembly, because OH MY GOD THIS STUDENT ELECTION IS AN EXTREMELY LONG AND TEDIOUS PROCESS. Polly suspects that they’ll be up against Big Man On Campus John James and Polly’s personal rival, the snooty Elsa Carter.

Polly also has a BFF named Janet, who is constantly stuffing candy in her face, and Janet has a smartass younger brother named Sam. She also has eccentric parents, including a beauty queen mother and a father who is always winning contests and having prizes delivered to the house. They also have a housekeeper that speaks in an undetermined ethnic patois (it could be anything from creole to Irish).  Orphan Alan lives with his widowed grandmother.

Do you have all that? Because the author is now going to introduce about 500 more characters.

Also on the way home from school Polly spots a door in the side of a hill on the property of an abandoned mansion that used to belong to an eccentric inventor. She ponders it:

“I shouldn’t go in there- I know that’s a good place to stay out of. But I’ll die of curiosity if I don’t find out what that flapping thing is.”

A mysterious shadow chases Polly away, so she heads home to help her mother prepare a dinner of superfluous adjectives:

Her mother handed Polly a choice celery heart, took another for herself, and munched and thought earnestly.

Polly is in for an unpleasant surprise when the morning paper arrives and she learns that Elsa is indeed her competition for VP, and she’s also gotten a jump on publicizing her campaign:

Her father read a news item aloud. “Miss Elsa Carter announced late yesterday that she is sending out questionnaires to all potential employers in the area asking what jobs they have for young people…”

I’m not kidding. This whole town is constantly reading about BREAKING HIGH SCHOOL ELECTION NEWS in both the morning and evening papers.

Luckily, Mr. French has just won a raffle prize of “four bushels of eatin’ apples” and Polly stages a counter-attack by giving them away to the student body with the campaign slogan “The Best of the Crop”. THANK GOD, I WAS GOING TO BE SO WORRIED ABOUT THE FATE OF THOSE APPLES FOR THE REST OF THE BOOK.

Back to the tunnel. The gang explores it. They decide to ask Alan’s grandmother about it, and learn that the eccentric inventor was trying to tunnel to Chicago or something.

Onto the “C” plot: everyone goes to the circus. Polly meets one of the stable-boys for the horse act, 15 year old Dan’l. No, not Daniel. Dan’l. Dan’l confides that he thinks his favorite dancing horse, Chimes, is getting bored with circus life and should run wild and free, so he’s thinking about horse-napping her.

Afterwards Polly is basically just like “what an odd encounter!”

For reasons left unexplored, Polly pays a visit to Elsa’s wealthy parents, to talk over the election with them:

“Now, Miss Polly, let me see if I understand you,” said Elsa’s father solemnly. “The school election is undertaken in a spirit of sportsmanship, shall we say? Whoever wins is to be congratulated. The loser is also to be congratulated for having been the choice of a certain number of students?”

“If you’ll forgive me for saying so, “ Polly spoke up, picking her words carefully, “I think that perhaps, only perhaps, you might be taking a funny little school election a bit too seriously. Only perhaps, please I don’t mean to be rude!”

Nice try, Polly, but don’t you have to make a speech in front of the entire town that evening? Because that is how school elections work.

Polly is almost late to her speech, because she is summoned to a dark alley by a carny who informs her that Dan’l has run away from the circus with Chimes. Polly locates him, and first tries to hide him out in the local livery stable, but the stable’s rugged Irish groom, Killian, is having none of that. So she takes them Alan’s grandmother’s house, who seems receptive to being party to horse thievery. Unfortunately, Killian sicced the gruff-but-lovable local cop, Sgt. Meade on them, who for some reason has Elsa along with him to swear out a warrant for Dan’l’s arrest. AREN’T YOU ALL SUPPOSED TO BE MAKING YOUR BIG SPEECHES IN FRONT OF THE ENTIRE TOWN RIGHT THIS SECOND?

Grandma convinces Sgt. Meade to release Dan’l into her custody, but in midst of all of this yakking, Chimes is re-horsenapped from Grandma’s barn.

Polly barely makes it to school in time to make her speech, much to her parents’ relief:

Her mother let out a long sigh. “I certainly am glad the special assembly is over. I think I’ve been as keyed-up as Polly. What made you so late? I nearly had nervous prostration.”

Elsa tells everyone that Polly was seen talking with Sgt. Meade and starts a rumor that she has been arrested for being party to horse thievery. They exchange words at the local malt shop:

“You’re very considerate of people harboring a thief,” Elsa Carter remarked.

Polly burst out, “You’re the coldest girl I ever heard of!”

“I am only doing my duty.”

“You’re a prig, that’s what!”

“You’re merely dishonest, aren’t you?”

I can’t even anymore. Polly chases the carny that put the idea into Dan’l’s head through a cornfield, which somehow clears everything up. Dan’l is forgiven and rejoins the circus.

On school election day everyone votes, including the high school’s 11 year old “baby genius” who worships Polly and votes twice, prompting a tedious voter-fraud investigation.

Elsa has a few more dirty tricks up her sleeve,  when the local paper interviews her and she implicates Polly in the whole horse-stealing scheme.

Also for some reason Polly’s father puts on a dress and rings his own doorbell and this happens:

“I am Geepsy Lou, an’ I come to tell the Madam-a Vice-Preseedent-a’s fortune. Kindly may  I come een, hah?”

Polly and Alan win the election, and they receive many telegrams of congratulations. Everyone celebrates with square dancing, the end.

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9 Responses to Polly French of Whitford High (#1) By Francine Lewis

  1. miss amy says:

    I did such a double take when I saw Alan Gray’s name! Go back to the Baby-Sitters Club where you belong, sir.

  2. Susan says:

    This seems to be a mash-up of Trixie Belden (tunnels and horse grooms, plus you could imagine someone named Dan’l), Donna Parker (the illustrations and the election storyline, although with Donna it was the students getting involved in the mayor’s election), Nancy Drew (orphans and housekeepers), and every sitcom from the Brady Bunch to the Wonder Years in which a main character has to get up and make a student council President speech in front of the whole school (although often there is a glitch in which someone gallantly withdraws their own nomination).

    This illustrator tends to make young teenage girls look like women in their 20s, or at least like college students!

    It’s always interesting to read the names of the characters in these books, which were popular back then.

    • mondomolly says:

      That’s what I was thinking too! I can’t tell if these are common tropes of the era or if the writer was consciously copying more popular series. I didn’t go into it, but Sam is also clearly a Mart Belden knock-off 😛

  3. ninyabruja says:

    Her right forearm is attached to her waist.

  4. Shawn says:

    I can’t shake the mental image of Polly, contentedly sitting there eating paste, when suddenly her name is called out as she is NOMINATED! Oh, the drama!

    Some of these book plots would make wonderful, surreal, “Adult Swim” type little films with animated puppets!

  5. Pingback: Robin West: Nurse’s Aide By Louise Christopher | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

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