Barbara will be in on all the fun…
Does our centenarian national treasure really need an introduction? Probably not, but maybe her early Young Adult novels do! Beverly Cleary’s YA romances from the 1950s are less well-known than her later works featuring Henry Huggins and the Quimby sisters, although they have been consistently in print for nearly 60 years: Fifteen, The Luckiest Girl, Jean and Johnny and Sister of the Bride were all reissued by Dell in the 1980s as part of their Young Love series, and in subsequent editions with increasingly dull cover art.
Sister of the Bride was the last of the four to be published, and the only one after 1960. And, delightfully, this coming of age story set in the San Francisco suburbs is notable for the fact that THE SIXTIES are definitely coming!
The Plot: High school Junior Barbara’s MacLane and her entire lower-middle class family’s life is upended when her sister Rosemary, a freshman at Berkeley, announces her engagement to a former Air Force Captain eight years her senior.
While the MacLanes like Captain Greg well enough and think he has good career prospects (he’s studying for his teaching certification and moonlighting at Berkeley’s radiation laboratory, “where they smash atoms”), Rosemary has also long been regarded as kind of a dingbat by her family; what if this engagement is just another screwball impulse of hers?
She recalled that once when Rosemary had bought a cotton skirt with L’amour! L’amour! L’amour! Printed all over it, their father made her return it to the store. He said it made her look boy crazy.
Barbara is in her sister’s corner from the start, dreaming of a romantic wedding like she reads about in the society pages, far removed from her day-to-day reality of middle-childdom: a little short, a little chubby, with an annoying 13 year old aspiring folk singer for a brother, and pursued only by gloomy jazz trombonist Tootie Bodger.
Mr. and Mrs. MacLane, children of the Great Depression and World War II, are at first aghast at the idea, but eventually come around, genuinely concerned only about providing their children with an easier start to adult life than they had themselves. Can Greg’s gig at the atom-smashing laboratory pay the $25 a month to Rosemary’s orthodontist for her still-needed retainer?
More concerns arise when they finally get used to the idea and then meet Greg’s parents, and discover that they are far wealthier than Greg had let on: Mrs. Aldredge arrives for dinner wearing a mink stole, which Barbara later finds her brother’s cat taking a luxuriant nap upon. The Aldredges also expect the wedding to be a large affair, handing over typewritten cards with the names and addresses of roughly 200 of their closest friends and family to be invited. After taking in the MacLane’s shabby living room, and Mr. MacLane’s story of having turned the local high school print shop into the best in the county (“And now most of those kids are earning more than I do!”), they embarrass everyone by offering to pay for the wedding.
Meanwhile, in a campaign to prove herself practical, Rosemary is taking things too far in the other direction, announcing that she plans on getting married in a suit and won’t even have an engagement ring!
“We have so many more worthwhile uses for our money- and anyway, engagement rings are so sort of, I don’t know, middle-class.”
Ditto for picking out silver and china patterns:
“They are just mostly things. Greg and I want a life free of things.”
“Now what on earth do you mean by a remark like that?” Mrs. MacLane’s exasperation was rising to the surface once again.
“I mean that if we have our lives cluttered up with a lot of things, I’ll have to waste my time dusting them and taking care of them when I could be doing something more constructive. Except for books and records we want a life free of possessions.”
The generation gap is front and center throughout the book, as formerly dizzy Rosemary tries to convince her family that she is sophisticated, often quoting her psych-major roommate, Millie on the subject of modern parent-child relations:
“She probably says that her father is a little crude, but a good egg,” suggested Mr. MacLane. “And she probably says condescendingly that you are a good kid who doesn’t use her mind.”
“I can’t believe she’d say a thing like that,” said Mrs. MacLane.
“Why not?” her husband wanted to know. “Kids nowadays feel like they can say anything about their parents. This makes them well-adjusted, as Rosemary would probably say.”
Cleary, a child of the Depression and wartime bride herself, usually extends equal sympathy to all of her characters, and takes all adolescent concerns seriously. However, here she maybe extends a little more of that sympathy to the parents. Especially when she brings out the big guns and Grandma comes to visit, bringing with her her own handmade lace bridal veil, packed away for 50 years after Mom was married in a muddy Army camp after Pearl Harbor and Aunt Josie opted for spinsterhood and a prestigious job as a buyer for a department store’s girdle department. ARE YOU REALLY GOING TO BREAK GRANDMA’S HEART, ROSEMARY?
“Stainless steel,” answered Rosemary, “Greg and I feel there are many handsome patterns in stainless steel and more important things to do in life than polish silver.”
This produced complete silence from the older women.
Rosemary was oblivious to the disapproving quality of the silence. “And Greg knows the most wonderful couple who make pottery on their own potter’s wheel. They fire it and everything. We’re going to commission them to make us a set of dishes. Greg says that in our own small way we will be patrons of the arts. And I can make place mats out of burlap. Greg says burlap has a very handsome texture. And it’s inexpensive.”
Grandma knows what to say to these insufferable hipsters:
It’s interesting: after 50+ years in print, I suspect the reader’s sympathy has swung a full 360 degrees. While Rosemary was ahead of the curve on embracing her generation’s hippie earth-tones (Grandma: “Earth tones, indeed! Dirt-colored is more like it”), Mom, Grandma and Aunt Josie (Cleary-surrogates all), refusing to sacrifice aesthetics for ugly functionality seems reasonable.
Oh, and then Grandma brings out the veil and doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house:
Grandma wiped the corner of her eye. One of her daughters had not married at all, while the other had a wartime wedding in an army camp, while Grandma’s veil had lain in its tissue paper for over half a century.
“Father gave me a beautiful wedding, even though I was marrying a poor boy,” said Grandma, as her shaky hands lifted the veil, creamy with age, from the box. “Of course that was before he lost his money on mining and streetcar stocks. I had six bridesmaids and two flower girls.” She unfolded the veil and let it fall to the floor, and sat looking at it, her face soft with memory.
There is a lot (A LOT!!!) more to be said about how the much book values traditionally feminine labor, embodied by The Amys, Mrs. MacLane’s social club who LITERALLY STEP IN AND SAVE THE DAY when this nine-headed hydra of a wedding monster gets out of control (and Rosemary’s shiftless hippie roommate proves more adept at tootling folk tunes on her recorder than sewing her bridesmaid’s gown)… but lucky me, Lizzie Skurnick already covered that angle in a 2008 Fine Lines column. Back to my recorder tootling!
Meanwhile, Barbara has to contend with a very different kind of potential beau than Good Ol’ Tootie Bodger (whose real name is Robin), when she attracts the notice of Vespa-riding high school lothario Bill Cunningham, who seems to value Barbara mainly for her traditionally feminine talent for cookie baking (although as Rosemary’s wedding takes over the household she has no time for baking, resorting first to refrigerated dough, then outright buying cookies from the bakery and passing them off as her own).
But when, after months of this, Bill shows up with a shirt for Barbara to mend (because “she seems like the domestic type”) she finally lets loose with a long-overdue telling-off, after which Bill, apparently enamored of her new spine, asks her out on a proper date. Meanwhile, Barbara has gained a new appreciation for Tootie, and as she basks in the afterglow of Rosemary’s wedding (which ends up, of course, as a beautiful compromise between two generations sets of values), she ponders these exciting developments in her life:
Tootie and Bill. What a pair. She did not even know which she preferred, Bill’s thoughtless exuberance or Tootie’s fumbling seriousness. But she did know one thing- it was going to be fun to find out.