“I’d rather die than hurt you like this. But I’m going to have a baby!”
The other title referenced by Caitlin Flanagan in her Atlantic hit piece on how YA lit has gone to pot, this one follows the same basic structure as Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones: nice kids from good families go Too Far, leaving the teenage girl in the family way.
While it doesn’t put the parents’ morality on trial as Bo Jo does, Sherburne still has a lot of discontent with the status quo buzzing around the edges, and it sometimes intrudes in ways that make it seem like the book was subjected to heavy editing before publication.
The Plot: 17 year old high school senior Melinda Haines finds herself pregnant in the weeks after she and her steady boyfriend, Jeff, go farther than they intended at an unchaperoned, moonlit lakeside after-party for the school’s Harvest Ball.
The eldest of three sisters, Melinda feels especially concerned about the shame she will bring upon her family when her condition is revealed. Though blessed with more-progressive parents than most, Melinda has already figured out that life is more complicated than she figured:
People talked a lot about normal impulses, and Melinda’s mother was always saying that a smart girl never let herself get into a situation that didn’t protect her.
Melinda informs noble, working-class, fatherless Jeff about the situation, and the two teenagers embark on a quest to keep Melinda’s secret and obtain an illegal abortion.
That avenue presents itself when Melinda is discovered being sick in the girls’ restroom by Polly Wyman, who we know is bad news because she wears cha-cha heels and too much lipstick:
She gave the impression, after a while, that she could tell any story, even Little Women, and have it come out sounding a little smutty.
“Well, now,” she murmured. “Melinda Haines, isn’t it? Welcome to the club.”
Of course, Polly knows a lady- a former nurse calling herself “Dr.” Granger operating on the wrong side of the tracks.
Discussion on the topic has been surprisingly widespread in Melinda’s town: she notes that the previous year a local doctor “got into a lot of trouble” for providing abortions, and that incident was followed by a girls-only assembly:
And last year at school she had seen a PTA-sponsored movie about abortion. The girls had to have a signed permission slip from their parents in order to attend, and some parents hadn’t let their daughters see the film. Melinda wasn’t especially interested, but after all, it was a movie being shown during school, and she had been a little curious to find out what it was all about.
Melinda even has a frank discussion with her mother on the subject, although she is slightly alarmed by her mother’s emotional response:
She had gone on and on, describing one case of abortion after another, each more dreadful than the last. Melinda had listened in morbid fascination, not so much moved by the information her mother was drawing out of her memory as amazed that her mother- who always seemed so untouched by such happenings- should have firsthand information about the seamier side of life.
That “firsthand” gives the reader slight pause- as I said, the book reads like it was heavily edited before publication, and one wonders exactly how firsthand Mrs. Haines’s knowledge of the subject is, and if a slightly more sophisticated and nuanced version of the novel ended up in the wastebasket.
Contrasted with Melinda is her BFF, Suky Marlowe, the only daughter of another single mother:
Suky had a mother who seemed bent on making it her life’s work to keep her daughter young and innocent. Young and ignorant was the way Suky put it.
“It’s a good thing Mother can’t tune in to some of the conversations in the girls’ gym. If she did her ears would burn up and fall off, she’d be so embarrassed.”
Forbidden from even group dates and with a strictly enforced curfew, Suky of course immediately falls madly in love with local Eddie Haskell-type, and is miffed when Melinda won’t cover for her to sneak out and go to the midnight movie at the local drive-in. Mostly there for comic relief, Suky manages to bungle her way both into and out of situations without any problems.
Melinda’s situation also forces her to really think about the ever-present question of Suky’s father for the first time:
What had happened to her father wasn’t very clear. Suky said he had just wandered off one day and hadn’t bothered about coming back. She didn’t seem to want to talk much about it. There had been a few rumors that her father was in prison, but Melinda closed her ears to the suggestion.
Later Melinda’s younger sister confesses that it is being whispered around school that Suky is (gasp!) illegitimate, and Melinda is horrified about the gossip, although, to her credit, not by the idea itself.
But back to Melinda and Jeff, who are now agonizing over how to raise the $200 for “Dr.” Granger. Melinda tries to cash in her savings bonds, but finds is unable to do so without her parents’ signature, so it’s up to Jeff to raise the money.
And maybe poor, noble Jeff isn’t as noble as Melinda thought he was: although he half-heartedly asks Melinda to marry him, when she asks him if he would still want to if she weren’t pregnant he has nothing to say. He blames her for going “too far” at the party. He doesn’t want her to be pregnant, but he also doesn’t want her to have an abortion. I kind of hate Jeff.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Jeff’s mother hates Melinda. When we learn that Jeff gets the needed $200 from his mother with no questions asked, one suspects that his mother knows exactly why he needs the money and is happy to give it to him if it means he won’t be permanently tied to Melinda.
Unlike other books of the era dealing with teen pregnancy, in which abortion is barely whispered about, Melinda actually makes it as far as the abortionist’s front parlor. Ms. D.R. Granger (hence the “Dr.” sobriquet) is stern and a little scary, and has hairy arms, but it is noted that her facilities are clean, so she’s not as sinister as she might be.
Of course, Melinda can’t go through with it and runs back to Jeff, who has been driving around in his car, after refusing to even accompany Melinda into the appointment. You suck, Jeff.
Melinda returns home, to find that her parents found out that she had played hooky from school and are so disappointed in her, leaving Melinda with the knowledge when they find out what’s really up they are going to be inconsolable.
In a somewhat contrived ending, Melinda finally breaks down and tells them when the Glee Club shows up at her front door to serenade her with the news that she has been voted Queen of the upcoming Valentine Ball (Suky will serve in her stead).
After weeks of being faced with impossible adult decisions, Melinda is relieved that her parents finally know the truth, and effectively lets them take over the problem, as they decide that they’ll tell everyone Melinda is sick and keep her out of school. Although I am guessing after her initial relief that she won’t have to make any decisions for herself, Melinda is going to realize that isn’t going to solve anything: mention has been made several times of the gossip surrounding a girl who left school to attend her grandmother’s funeral and never came back, and another who was a little too insistent about explaining away her absence as due to an appendectomy.
And this is where the book ends: what will ultimately happen to Melinda, Jeff and their unborn baby is left an open question for the reader to ponder.