“Winning the election is fine but that’s just the start. Now we really are in up to our ears.”
Concluding our 2017 series on Whitman’s girls’ series of the 1950s, 60s and 70s is the second volume in the short-lived Polly French series.
Background: Polly French has become something of an object of derision for me over the past year, what with its hysterical cast of characters whipping the whole town into a frenzy over a high school election. I am somewhat relieved to report that for Polly’s second outing, everyone has calmed down a bit. I still don’t love (or even like) the series, but at least it doesn’t have everyone chasing hobos around cornfields all night!
The Plot: Now that Polly and her cousin Alan Gray have swept the students General Organization election, they have to fulfill their campaign promise to start a club for student theatrics. Alan seems to already be regretting accepting the nomination:
Alan looked at her with the condescension of a sixteen year old senior, who is six feet tall besides, for a sophomore of fourteen, even a very pretty one.
Wait, what? Didn’t we establish in the last volume that Polly is too dim to be entrusted with an actual boyfriend?
Polly discovered that Alan was a little zany and unpredictable, yes. Sometimes he teased her almost crazy, true. But Polly and Alan had some very fine times together, along with the neighborhood young people….
Ok, that still sounds fairly wholesome…
After a year Polly was still learning about him and hoped that the surprises he had in store for her would prove comparatively mild shocks. For that matter, she might provide young Mr. Gray with a few surprises of her own.
Also awkward is after a hard-fought battle for the Vice-Presidency, Polly doesn’t really have anything to do. When Alan meets with his secretary and treasurer, he makes it clear that is it MAN BUSINESS and she is relegated to bringing them trays of Cokes.
However, the High School Principal, Mr. Van Tuyl has plans of his own for Alan’s presidency, as he immediately informs him that the student constitution needs to be completely overhauled, Alan shall have to sequester himself away for weeks, maybe months, to make the changes! Polly will have something to do as Veep after all!
I will give this volume one thing: it doesn’t even pretend to have a mystery to solve. It follows Polly through the high-drama, (but low-stakes) process of learning parliamentary procedure, finding out that there is more to being a VP than just being the most popular girl in school and getting her mother to buy her a new suit, and coordinating several smaller events in order to win over the Principal to their promise of starting a drama club.
In fact, by the end of the first DAY of filling in for Alan as he toils away on the constitution, Polly is finding that some of the bloom is off the rose:
Polly’s departure from school that afternoon was an anti-climax. Not that she lacked followers trooping at her heels, across the main hall, but now they were freshmen. “Only freshmen,” Polly thought, with the impatience of someone who had only been a freshman herself last year. The youngsters followed her like a flock of chicks, eager and trusting and slightly scared in the bigger new world of high school.
Polly resolved to do something for these babies. They needed to be welcomed and made at home. But how? What should she do for them?
Polly is initially thrilled to hold court in Alan’s place over the month’s Student Council meeting:
It would be a relief to meet with the non-crazy, highly capable, student leaders who were members of the Student Council. As chairman, if you please.
But Polly finds out that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, as the student council is filled out by her former political rivals, including snooty Elsa Carter (who accused her in the press of horse thievery!) and belligerent Danny Craig, who sarcastically derides the “chairlady’s” promise of a dramatics club. Sports! That’s what is really important!
Polly’s case isn’t helped by the well-meaning freshman in the gallery (seriously, the illustration of the high school auditorium that accompanies this chapter is roughly the size of a soccer stadium) who rally to her defense:
“A lot of us freshmen think Polly French deserves a vote of thanks for running this meeting.”
The freshmen think! Praise from babies. Was anything more damning?
In the meantime Polly tries to distinguish herself in the literary world by submitting a story to The Maroon and White, the school’s new literary magazine, which also happens to be run by Elsa and company.
Polly is called before this learnèd tribunal to have her work personally rejected:
“Some of the editors didn’t think your article was as humorous as it tried to be. I myself found it only fairly entertaining. In fact, several of us fail to see anything funny about a fantasy in which the teachers and students play each other’s roles. I thought your sketch of Mr. Van Tuyl heading up the boys basketball team was- well, pointless, to put it bluntly.”
“Fantasy,” Mrs. Walsh murmured, “is extremely difficult to write.”
Polly doesn’t take rejection well.
If only she could drop out of school for a little while! News of this second failure would flash around Whitford High; how would she be able to live through the school term?
“There must be something wrong with me,” she thought.
You’d think that Polly would be more sympathetic toward the other students, but she’s tired of being the Queen of the loser-freshmen:
Emma Seaver looked at her with open admiration. Emma herself looked as drab as the shapeless gray coat she wore. No lipstick, hair limp. Polly wanted to shake her. She could put up with sloppy-Joe sports clothes, she could tolerate the plainest dungarees and shirts. At least those were a kind of fun, a fad people enjoyed. Emma’s appearance was merely sad.
Nor does she have much sympathy to spare for Joseph Pace, a musical prodigy from a poor family with an invalid mother, and his constant tone-deaf suggestions for student council activities:
“I want to take part, like the rest of the kids, I guess. But I do it all wrong.”
“Why don’t you talk over your ideas with people before you speak out in Assembly?”
“Who should I talk to? I don’t know very many people, not well, I mean.”
Polly blew out a sigh of exasperation. “It beats me how anyone can attend this high school and not know an awful lot of people.”
Polly eventually pulls off a dance and ice cream social for the freshman class, but gets jealous when Alan dances “number after number” with Elsa Carter. With this success under her belt, she convinces the student council to form several new clubs, including a Home Arts club, a Crafts club, a Radio Club (NO GIRLS ALLOWED!) and a Music Club. The clubs come together to put on a Hobby Show in order to raise money for a student review, which, if successful, will finally gain the approval for a Dramatics club from Mr. Van Tuyl. All of this process is described in extremely tedious detail.
In the midst of all this Alan has been neglecting his duties as Class President to listen to jazz records:
“Ah, I’m tired of being president. I never asked to be school president, but if I have to be president, I want to do my own job in my own way. Van Tuyl keeps trying to tell me how to do it, and I – well, I give up that’s all.”
“So help me, cousin, either you go with me to the principal and apologize, and cooperate, or – or- I will announce your resignation!”
After her tiff with Alan, she pours out her feeling into her diary, which her BFF Janet then steals and submits to The Maroon and White, so Polly gets to be a writer after all, even if it is by having her secrets published without her permission. Yay? I guess?
I will spare you, constant readers, the description of the student variety show. But suffice it to say, anything that involves an act called “Mr. Rubberlegs Junior” is going to be a smashing success. At least at Whitford High.