Will Elsie be able to accept her (beautiful!) new self?
This is the first of two (sadly out-of-print) books following up on the life of Elsie Edwards from Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade, the school fatty with a horrifying mother who eventually loses weight and makes friends with Jenifer Sawyer and her group of friends, who are then maybe-kidnapped to add some excitement at the end.
The Plot: Starts up on the first day of high school, now from the point of view of a still-slender Elsie:
That wasn’t me any more, so I kept walkin’.
While now a beautiful young woman in the 1980s mold (Jenifer says that she looks like “a thin Dolly Parton”, although on this cover she reminds me more of Horse Lovin’ Barbie), Elsie is still emotionally scarred by her experience of being loathed and resented by her mother, absentee father and entire fifth grade class. While still a mathematical genius (she finished her algebra requirements in 8th grade) and talented singer (she gets First Soprano in the school choir without breaking a sweat), as well as a GENUINELY NICE PERSON, she is completely lacking in self- confidence.
Fellow freshman Jack (a bully whom Elsie hit in the face with a baseball bat in Fifth Grade) is now a close pal, the class cut-up and slacker. One of Jack’s old family friends is senior and BMOC Craddoc Shaw, who instantly takes notice of Elsie, who doesn’t hesitate to bring him up to speed on what Jack means by his crack about ‘shrinking’:
“You’ve been shrinking?”
“When I first met Jack in fifth grade, I was four by four,” I explained.
Jack nodded. “Bubble gut to fox in four easy years.”
Unfortunately, the rest of Elsie’s life isn’t so easy. Her mother is still terrible, and somehow her younger sister, Robyn, is even more spoiled. Additionally, now that she’s not a complete embarrassment because of her weight, Elsie’s father has deigned to come back into her life: now married to a much younger woman and father of an infant, Elsie is a convenient babysitter.
The book benefits immensely from being told in Elsie’s voice, as no one can understand why she can’t believe that a hunk like Craddoc could possibly be interested in her: when he makes a date with her and then cancels with a lame-o excuse about a last-minute visit from his dying Grandmother, Elsie responds to his suggestion he call her next week with a curt “don’t bother!”
It turns out that Grandma really is visiting (and really is dying) (!!!), and Craddoc’s mother intervenes to smooth things over, inviting Elsie to Sunday dinner with the family, where she finds the kind of warm, supportive familial unit she’s lacked her entire life.
But it is the start of a pattern: despite the fact that Craddoc (it’s an old family name) seems to only have eyes for Elsie, she can never quite believe it and always expects the worst, amplifying the mildest of misunderstandings into jealous quarrels.
It doesn’t help that super-cheerleader Katie Bentler has also set her cap for Craddoc; also Fifth Grade’s perpetual shit-stirrer Sharon Hinkler is back with a constant stream of undermind-y comments about their relationship (“She still had the stupid pink barrette in her hair that she’d worn in grade school” Elsie notes). Nobody seems to get that being literally most-hated kid in the entire grade school because of how you look has lingering effects.
Surprisingly, the one character who seems to understand and be patient with Elsie and her life-problems is Jack, although probably because he seems to have a crush on her now that she looks like Dolly Parton. But at least it is a mutually supportive friendship, as Jack is discovering that being the class clown isn’t as cute as it was in grade school, gets bullied by his English teacher, starts spending time “in the woods behind the auto shop” before school (which I am assuming is a euphemism for smoking pot? It is never really made clear). Elsie helps him out academically, but also is the only one to stand up to his mean teacher, taking a black mark on her own record for her friend.
Things come to a head when Elsie misses one of Craddoc’s football games to babysit for her father & stepmother, who want Elsie to move in with them so they will have a full-time nanny and housekeeper (adults are still basically the worst in this universe); when Elsie arrives at school the next day, the whole school is buzzing that a bunch of football players and cheerleaders were arrested for underage drinking after the game; Sharon is more than happy to share the gossip that Craddoc and Katie Bentler were amongst them.
Elsie assumes the worst (why wouldn’t she?) and when she finds out that Jack was not drinking and gettin’ it on with Katie, it is too late: Craddoc has had enough of the cycle of misunderstandings and apologies.
Elsie tries to get herself together enough to attend Jenifer’s birthday party, but finds she can’t go through with it; instead she wanders down to the local beach, where she is menaced by a group of men, before being picked up by the cops for violating curfew. Returned home in a police car with a stern warning (“Most people are aware that if a young girl is allowed to wander the streets after dark, she’s inviting trouble”), it is the last straw for Mrs. Edwards, who slaps the crap out of Elsie.
After Elsie’s solo in the school’s Christmas concert (which it doesn’t even occur to Elsie to invite her mother to), she has a heart to heart with both Jack and Mrs. Sawyer, who tell Elsie that Craddoc had come to the concert just to hear her solo and urge her to contact him and try to explain things to him.
Elsie pours out her feelings in a letter, which she gets Robyn (who she has improved her relationship with over the course of the book) to deliver it to him; Craddoc arrives on Christmas morning, all is forgiven, the end. Yay for Elsie.
That is the basic through-plot of the book. There are a number of subplots, however, which are VERY WEIRD.
This includes one about Jenifer’s younger brother, Kenny, who seems to have problems making friends, so his parents allow him to adopt two pet rats to keep him company. The female of the pair is perpetually producing baby rats, which in turn keep disappearing, which causes Kenny much upset. Near the end it revealed that Mrs. Sawyer has been euthanizing the baby rats in the family’s freezer:
“I can throw these away now that they’re frozen. They’re my population control.”
“My population control.”
“Ohh.” I finally got it. “That’s why Kenny was having trouble with his baby rat count.”
“Well, what did you want me to do? Flush them down the toilet? This way they just shiver a little and go to sleep.”
There is also a nice call-back to the Sawyers’ marital strife in Fifth Grade, on account of Mrs. Sawyer getting a job. (Remember how instead of watching the girls Mr. Sawyer went bowling, leading to them getting kidnapped?) Well, four years later, Mrs. Sawyer has been promoted to the manager of the plant nursery, and is now making more money than her husband, who is still being a jerk about it. When Mrs. Sawyer buys herself a new wardrobe, he makes fun of her for dressing too young for her age, manipulating her into giving up a brand-new fox fur trimmed leather jacket to Jenifer, who is more than happy to take it. I would be shocked if they’re still married in the next sequel.
And finally, Elsie and Craddoc have an ongoing “joke” about how he should keep a leash on her to combat her insecurity about Katie Bentler. Near the end, Elsie decides that it would be funny to give him a dog collar for Christmas, for her, (GET IT???) leading to this scene in the pet store:
A woman in a black suit came down the aisle as I was adjusting a red collar on my neck.
“What are you doing, you idiot!” she snapped. “Trying out for an apprenticeship with Phyllis Schlafly?”
So, bonus points for S&M overtones and a Phyllis Schlafly reference in a book targeted at teens? I guess?
Sign It Was Written In 1983 Department:
“Well,” Craddoc said, holding his keys over the steering wheel, “do you know a secluded little spot where we can talk?”
“You’ll find one,” I said, and snuggled into the Volkswagen seat, feeling like Princess Diana who’d just taken off with Charles.
Update: be sure to check in on the Name That Book! page, I’ve added a few more mystery titles!