She really hadn’t meant to pry, but why did Helene seem so terribly upset and worried? What could be in the letters that was so important, and so private? She acted almost as though it were a matter of life or death…
In our second installment of our 2017 look at Whitman’s hardcovers girls’ series, we again pick up with the extremely pleasant Donna Parker books.
Background: When last we left 14 year old Donna she had, over the course of a 6-month period, restored the faith in humanity of a disposed French count(and earned an electric sewing machine for doing so!); won a scholastic journalism award and thwarted a group of communist spies; kept house while Donna’s parents set off on a whirlwind tour of Europe and India and dealt with some pretty heavy issues at home, then rushed off for a long-promised trip to mid-century California, land of palm trees and “voice culture” lessons. More strictly serialized than most contemporary girls’ series, Donna has returned from the west coast in time to pick up a half-season as a Junior Counselor at Camp Arawak.
The Plot: Donna is initially dismayed to learn that Camp Cherrydale doesn’t need any more staff for the year, but she is recommended by her old employer for a Junior Counselor position at the much larger and more formal Camp Arawak (“Miss Tessie made it very clear that the blue camp uniforms were to be worn at all times, with the exception of Sunday, when everyone wore white”); Donna initially has hard time fitting in, and immediately upsets her Senior Counselor, Helene, first by accidentally opening a drawer that contains her mail, then making a polite inquiry about college:
“What do you mean by that?” Helene asked, stopping suddenly and looking at her sharply. Yeeks! Donna thought. Helene seemed awfully upset again. What was wrong about asking about school?
Was everyone at Camp Arawak a little strange?
Helene also warns Donna off Amy, the only counselor that seems friendly towards her, as well as Thornton “Teddy” Bair, the only boy-counselor at the neighboring Camp Caribe that will give her the time of day:
“I guess you learned right away about Teddy. He’s poison. But just wanted to warn you that, in a different way, Amy’s poison too. My advice to you is- stay away from her!”
The “mystery” aspect of the Donna Parker books tend to be the weakest element; and while this volume continues a number of arsons (!!!) for Donna to solve, the more compelling mystery is “Why is Helene such a bitch-face?”
Donna has signed on to serve as the Junior Dramatics Counselor at camp. While the camp has hired a temperamental off-Broadway actress and beatnik named Kathi to oversee the dramatics program, most of the actual work has been falling upon Kathi’s frazzled assistant, Ruth. With Donna’s arrival, Ruth hands over full supervision of “The Midgets”, Arawaks’s youngest campers, to Donna.
Kathi also sounds like a difficult colleague:
“Sometimes she’ll call everyone into the auditorium after dinner and she’ll stand on the stage with a spotlight on her and read us a whole play. She’ll take all the parts, and she’ll explain what everything means, and why she does things a certain way. It’s simply thrilling to watch her!”
“Gee, that sounds super,” Donna agreed. “When will she be having one of those- those recitals?”
“Whenever the mood strikes her,” Ruth said. “I guess it’s pretty hard on Miss Tessie, because she never knows when Kathi will decide to do something, and then all the plans have to be changed.”
Donna has a hard time managing the younger girls, especially in getting them to learn the parts for the Mother Goose play that Kathi has assigned them- when Kathi summons the group to perform after dinner one night, they flop badly and Donna earns Kathi’s wrath as well.
But at least Mr. Bidgood, the directors of Camps Arawak and Caribe, is understanding, and assures Donna that no one could be expected to perform with on such short notices with so little preparation, and suggests that Donna let the girls develop their own performance and improvise their lines to take the pressure off.
Teddy asks Donna to Caribe’s staff dance, and although she’s discovering why everyone finds him so obnoxious, she accepts on the condition he finds a date for Amy, whose “poison” turns out to be that she is smart:
Teddy snickered “That’s what I mean. Who wants to date a genius? Boys don’t want to go out with girls who make them feel like dopes.”
Despite the fact that Amy is actually quite modest about being a genius, Teddy’s set-up, a fellow counselor named Hascoe Helfenbower (!!!) is still a flop, mainly because Amy is so nervous about sounding like a genius that she doesn’t say anything all night. Also Hascoe is short, so obviously he’s got ISSUES about that.
Meanwhile, Teddy hogs every dance with Donna, making “hands off” signals behind her back to any approaching male.
Donna does renew her acquaintance with a senior boys’ counselor named Scott, who happens to mention that he goes to the same, very small college in the Midwest that Helene attends… but although he says he knows everyone on campus, Helene’s name doesn’t ring a bell. Mysterious!
The next big event is the Camp Bazaar, to be held at Arawak. Donna is assigned to the Café Committee, led by beautiful and nice senior swimming counselor Serena. A poor-little-rich-girl camper urges Donna to tell her what she would do if they had unlimited funds to build the Café, and all are pleasantly surprised when said neglectful parents send supplies beyond their wildest dreams.
Unfortunately, the fun is marred by the first of several Mysterious Fires, this one burning down the camp’s Pagoda. While staff band together to make a bucket brigade to extinguish the flames, Donna wonders if the fire was deliberately set. Could it be gruff camp waitress Estelle, who misses New York City so badly she’s joked that she wishes Arawak would burn to the ground?
Kathi also departs camp, summoned to a part on Broadway. Now Ruth is twice as frazzled, and assigns Donna to the “intermediates” and their mystery play. More difficult than the midgets, Donna’s new charges sound just plain lazy, and don’t want to memorize their parts. Eventually Donna compromises and agrees to a staged reading.
Meanwhile, Teddy has decided that HE’S going to be a dramatics counselor, too, and brags to Donna about how he’s going to get his bunk to perform some really great skits at the upcoming campfire. Whatever, Teddy.
Donna also learns the upsetting news that Neglectful Parents were so impressed by Camp Arawak that they have made an offer to buy it, which Mr. Bidgood has accepted, because he wants to retire to the Virgin Islands and write a novel. Donna learns from her camper that they intend to tear down the camp and build a hotel and golf course.
Also there are two more arsons.
Somehow in the middle of this, Donna gets a day off, and goes all the way back to Summerfield, even though Ricky is still on her dead-mother trip to Europe and none of the rest of her friends are home. So basically, the whole trip is for the purpose of her parents commenting that Helene looks familiar.
Back at Arawak, Donna, Ruth and the rest of the counselors make a pact that they are going to make their final activities so great that Mr. Bidgood won’t sell Arawak and move to the Virgin Islands.
Also Helene gets fired when it is revealed by both Scott and the Parkers that she’s only 14 and had stolen her older sister’s identity to get the job as senior counselor. Donna receives a letter from her near the end of the summer, sharing that her parents sent her to Quebec for the rest of the summer, concluding:
So now Arawak is closed chapter in my life- I never want to hear about it, or anyone in it, again. And this time I went to a different country, where no one will know me. This time my plan will work!
So bitch-face Helene learned zero lessons.
Teddy also learned zero lessons, as his campfire skits are TERRIBLE and even kindly Mr. Bidgood ends up bringing the curtain down on him. Teddy, of course is mad at Donna for being better at dramatics:
“I told you that boys don’t like to be made fools of in front of girls, and you know that’s what you did to me.”
Donna felt the blood rise to her face. “So I was supposed to do a poor job to make you look better? I never heard of anything so stupid.”
Teddy also takes the opportunity to confess that instead of properly disposing of the oily rags Donna had charged him with at the bazaar, he instead just put them in the pagoda, where they spontaneously combusted. Donna furiously marches him down to Mr. Bidgood’s office to confess.
Amy’s brain come in handy when she and Donna investigate the waitress’s cabin, which was burnt to the ground in the most recent fire. Amy finds part of Estelle’s clock radio and concludes that it short-circuited, presenting the information to the insurance agent who assures her that it was just a tragic accident and Estelle will not be charged.
And finally, Mr. Bidgood announces that he has decided that he doesn’t want to become a writer after all, that it was just a silly ambition and he will not sell Arawak to go chasing rainbows. Which is weird, because he compares himself to Kathi, who is apparently an excellent drama couch, but who insists that she is really an actress. Which is weird, because Kathi doesn’t actually couch any dramatics in the book, but DOES get called away to star on Broadway!
The book ends with Donna heading back to Summerfield, at long last ready to start her first year of high school!
Art Department: Just had to share a couple of Mary Stevens’s amazing illustrations. Here is Beatnik Kathi wearing a casual outdoor ensemble to dinner in the mess hall:
And apparently part of Helene’s master plan to pass herself off as an adult involved wearing as large a hairstyle as possible: