Looking On By Betty Miles

There has to more to her life than just looking on…

This week’s book strikes me as a sort that isn’t written any more: a coming-of-age story in which not much really happens. In this case the most dramatic thing that happens to our 14 year old protagonist is (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) that she gets a haircut.

Background: Author Betty Miles work was previously featured here in the form of her unabashedly feminist manifesto/middle reader The Real Me, in which the 12 year old heroine fights for the concrete goals of paper routes and tennis classes for her female classmates.

The Plot: Things are decidedly vaguer for 14 year old Rosalie Hudnecker.

While superficially, the plot is extremely similar to Nothing Ever Happens Here (bored teenage girl becomes obsessed with observing young married neighbors), the upstate New York setting, the long-fled father, embittered working mother, and absent older siblings made me have to continually remind myself that this was not a Norma Fox Mazer book. Seriously, I had to keep flipping to front cover and double-check the author.

Too tall, too fat, too awkward, Rosalie’s crises include the fact that both her Junior High school guidance counselor and her mother are pushing her into a vocational track for High School (her mother rightly points out that earning her beautician’s license on the state’s dime is a deal); her older brother, Joe Pat, has recently married and moved out of town for better job prospects; and she is vaguely dissatisfied with her long-time “boyfriend”, Ed, an intellectual type who is several inches shorter than she is.

The tedium of life in the suburban tract off the NY State Thruway is abruptly broken when a work crew shows up and starts chain-sawing down the trees between the Hudnecker’s house and their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Cree. Rosalie is informed that having finally gotten the OK from the city, Mrs. Cree is clearing the lot and putting in a single-wide trailer to rent to local college students.

Rosalie is horrified by the suggestion that they should consider doing the same, although she realizes her family needs the money: after her taciturn father left the family for another woman, Rosalie’s mother, Rita, struggled to provide for her children, putting in long hours at a local beauty shop, leaving her cranky and depressed most evenings and her one day a week off.

While critical of her daughter’s weight and lack of interest in school activities and wearing attractive pants-suits, Rita finally comes around to supporting Rosalie’s idea of joining the college track when she starts high school in the fall:

“Tell her to take her cosmetology program and push it on somebody else’s kid!” Rita said angrily. “Tell her to stop trying to run people’s lives. Tell her I want my kid to be somebody, not stand around in beauty shop like I have to. You go and tell her I’ve had all I can take of being pushed around up at that school. They train Joe Pat and what do I get? He’s up in Newburgh, fifty miles away.” She shrugged her shoulders tiredly. “Ask her if we can put you down for the academic course now, and can change next year if you have to.”

Soon a young newlywed couple has taken up residence practically in the Hudnecker’s back yard, and with a mixture of horror and delight, Rosalie discovers that she can see right into the trailer from her kitchen window. She quickly becomes obsessed with watching the couple and their idyllic married life, including a number of interesting friends who ride motorcycles.

After a few weeks, with her mother out at Bingo, she finally works up the courage to approach them while a party (rather mildly) rages on, hoping that she can get herself noticed and invited. Unfortunately, her plan doesn’t come off, as she trips over her own feet, literally stumbling onto their doorstep. Jill and Tony Reese, students at the local community college, invite her in anyway, which in a way is more agonizing than not being invited at all:

Rosalie wished that she could go and help, but she knew she could never stand up and walk across the room in front of everyone. Besides, there wouldn’t be room for her in the small kitchen. Self-consciousness flooded over her again. She wondered if she was supposed to stay and eat pizza with everyone else, or whether Jill’s serving the food was some kind of signal that she should go home.

Although she gets in trouble when her mother gets home and finds her gone, Rosalie becomes friends with the couple, and a confidant to Jill, who has moved to New York from North Carolina and is constantly homesick.

Soon she is spending so much time with Jill and Tony that her friends, boyfriend and regular babysitting charges are starting to feel neglected, and Rosalie herself starts to become uncomfortable with the cracks she starts to see in the façade of the Reeses’ seemingly perfect marriage.

I really can’t stress enough that NOTHING MUCH HAPPENS in this book. Which honestly is kind of a relief. Rosalie goes on a diet and loses 3 pounds which results in many compliments and a new interest in her appearance… but she doesn’t develop an eating disorder. She skips out on picking up her babysitting charge from his daycare to go plant-shopping with Jill… but when she shows up 2 hours late his other sitter is mildly annoyed that she’s late. The kid doesn’t get kidnapped or fall down a well or anything.

There are no life or death situations here. She quarrels with her BFF Judy because she would rather spend time with the Reeses than do makeup for the school play, but they make up. She neglects Ed, even turning down an invitation to a square dance at something called The Ecology Store, but they also reconcile. Even the lurking shadow of Rosalie’s crush on Tony doesn’t get too weird: letting herself into the trailer to help Jill put in the plants they purchased, she finds Tony asleep in nothing but a pair of shorts, and they awkwardly have a conversation in which he reassures her that she is “a good kid”, which I don’t know if it’s supposed to be Tony hitting on her, or Rosalie thinking that Tony is hitting on her or if Tony realizes that Rosalie thinks he’s hitting on her and wants to reassure her that he’s not.

Immediately after this encounter she goes home to find Ed waiting for her (it’s unclear whether he witnessed the scene with Tony) and he impulsively kisses her and they decide to attend Judy’s play rehearsal instead of the square dance.

Finally, we get to the climax of all this:

She didn’t want to say how much the haircut meant to her. It was like cutting herself off from the way she used to be. Changing. Not because her mother nagged her into it, but because she was ready.

“Change your mind?” Maxine laughed.

“No. Go ahead.”

All of a sudden she couldn’t wait. She held her breath as Maxine clipped the back hair to the top of her head, picked up a strand from the front, studied thoughtfully and snipped it off.

There is not even a Beezus Quimby level of crisis here, as Rosalie emerges with a very nice Dorothy Hamill haircut and a sense of balance between her friendships with her classmates and her neighbors. The end.

Sign It Was Written In 1978 Department: The clientele at the beauty shop take a rather casual attitude about leaving their children unattended in the car for hours:

“You ready for me? I’m leaving the kid in the car so he won’t get in trouble. I wanna sit in peace under that dryer, for once in my life.”

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8 Responses to Looking On By Betty Miles

  1. miss amy says:

    You’re right that books like this don’t really exist anymore–the closest I can think of off the top of my head is Kevin Henkes’ The Year of Billy Miller and that’s written for seven-year-olds, lol. Every other recent title that comes to mind is a book where nothing really happens despite a Major Situation happening. This sounds like something I would’ve eaten up with a spoon as a kid, though.

    • mondomolly says:

      I have to say, despite nothing really happening, it was a fairly gripping read, and when Rosalie resolves her teenage issues in an age-appropriate way, it is a relief that she doesn’t have to cope with eating disorders or weird older men hitting on her or some kind of tragedy. 😉

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Susan says:

    I know this sounds odd to younger people, but blow-dryers as we know them were developed in the mid-70s (some of us got them as our main Christmas gifts!), which led a lot of teenage girls who had long hair to move to short, styled cuts. It was often kind of a dramatic transition! If you look at the advertising in teen girls’ magazines from that era, you’d see the shift.

  3. laina1312 says:

    Well, not to spam my own stuff, but I read and reviewed a book by the same author and was surprised at how modern many of the attitudes were! http://lainahastoomuchsparetime.blogspot.ca/2016/04/things-ive-read-recently-31.html I wish the author would put something new out – I bet it’d be awesome.

    • mondomolly says:

      Please, feel free to spam away, I love reading another take on an author or book! 🙂

      I read The Real Me as a child, and after this one, I agree, I’ll be keeping an eye out for other books by this author.

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Sheesh says:

    There was another Betty Miles book from around 1981 called Just the Beginning. It makes up in drama (possible suicide, school problems, class issues) what this one lacks.

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