“They’re laughing at me, those stupid girls. I hate them!” Amy decides.
I often point out how a good YA historical never fails to address the disease and death that lurk around every corner in the 19th century… but even books set in the 20th can tend to be unsentimental, taking a casual attitude towards physical violence and emotional cruelty. Lurking behind the innocuous cover (a Scholastic reissue) is another tale from Marilyn Sachs, about a childhood where everyone’s just looking for a fight.
The Plot: At least that was my takeaway, again. Sachs is the author of a number of interconnected novels set in a pre-Robert Moses South Bronx, including Veronica Ganz, in which a 13-year-old bad seed overcomes her psychopathic impulses to become a proper young lady (ok, a slight exaggeration).
This one, Sachs’s debut, introduces the Stern sisters, 10-year-old Amy and 12-year-old Laura, as they move into a new neighborhood and start school, make friends, and suffer through family hardship and schoolyard bloodshed. While I do appreciate young heroines that aren’t total goody-goodies (and Sachs has grown on me as a writer, which I will get to), still: holy cow, there is a lot of punching in these books.
There is a through-plot, but the chapters are more vignettes in six months of the Stern sisters’ lives, as they move into a new neighborhood after their father, who has a long history of impulsively changing jobs, has started work as an insurance agent and can no longer afford their old house. Starting school at P.S. 63 (where Laura will eventually be a classmate of Veronica), Amy zeros in on the tough, popular Cynthia, after she bonks Amy on the head with a baseball and Amy takes her usual tact of crying to older sister to fight her battles. Literally:
“Do you see that girl sitting on the stoop there?” asked Laura quietly, as the girl struggled to free herself. “Well, that’s my sister,” Laura continued, smacking the girl. The girl tried to hit Laura back, but Laura quickly grabbed her arms. From long experience fighting Amy’s battles, Laura had become a skillful fighter, although she scarcely ever became involved in a fight herself.
When Cynthia’s mother sees Laura smacking her daughter around the whole family gets involved in the fight, yet somehow in the middle of it Cynthia and Amy slip away to play ball together.
Amy is both a compulsive people-pleaser, and skilled at using flattery to manipulate people. While Laura and her mother are concerned about Amy’s white lies to adults, her parents are pretty understanding about her doing it to be liked.
But Laura thinks that Cynthia is a bad influence on her sister, and especially disapproves with Amy going along with Cynthia freezing out Rosa Ferrara, an immigrant student who struggles with learning English, but whom Amy secretly admires for her poise and good looks.
Laura also disapproves of Cynthia’s tomboying around, although she is joined by the fashionable, angora-beret wearing Annette De Luca on adventures to Crotona Park. Amy is instantly jealous of Cynthia’s friendship with Annette, whom she decides she hates “even more than Hitler” (a surprisingly casual mention in a book about mainly Jewish characters!) The girls fight with neighborhood boys over squatter’s rights to Indian Rock, and after successfully chasing them off with a hail of stones, Cynthia advises Amy on what to do if the return:
“Don’t worry,” comforted the fearless Cynthia, “They won’t get us off. If they start to throw pebbles, just put your head down between your knees and put your arms over your face. We’ll stick our legs over the edge, and if they try to climb up we can kick them.”
However, the boys return with water guns, soaking the girls (it’s December) and chasing them off, but they catch Amy, who watches helplessly as Cynthia and Annette flee, leaving her to endure the torture of “under the mill”:
The boys lined up, one behind the other with their legs spread apart. One of the boys grabbed Amy and pushed her down between the legs of the first boy in the line. He began paddling her as hard as he could. There was nothing else she could do but crawl under the outstretched legs. She began crying, and one of the boys said uncomfortably, “Aw, let’s go. She’s just a crybaby.”
But trouble worse than a fraternity initiation awaits Amy and Laura when they arrive home and find Aunt Minnie, their father’s humorless unmarried sister waiting for them. While their nervous aunt assures them everything is fine and plies them with hot cocoa and chocolate marshmallow cake, Laura doesn’t buy it. Where is their mother?
They don’t find out until the following morning, when their father arrives home and tells them that their mother was hit by a car while shopping and would be in the hospital for some months. While a paragraph is given over to the girls’ anguish that children aren’t allowed during visiting hours, far more time is given to Amy’s plotting to turn the situation to her advantage:
Aunt Minnie liked hearing nice things about herself. If someone told her that she had pretty legs or fine skin or bright blue eyes, she melted quickly. Amy made sure to tell her. This made Aunt Minnie just a little more partial to Amy than to Laura.
And the main thing Amy is looking to butter up her aunt about is getting a pet. In rapid succession she brings home a stray dog, a kitten, some baby chickens from the dime store and finally a bunch of caterpillars, all of which terrorize Aunt Minnie to no end. While the dog and the chicks are adopted out to their classmates, the kitten (which had been barfing all over Aunt Minnie’s room) “escapes” one day while on Aunt Minnie’s watch, never to be seen again. Things also do not end well for the caterpillars:
Aunt Minnie’s temper did not improve on finding caterpillars lolling along on her pillow, nestling among the silverware, or winding gracefully along under the sink. Martial law was declared, and the house was turned upside down until Aunt Minnie had flushed the last caterpillar down the toilet.
April Fool’s day almost drives Aunt Minnie to a nervous breakdown, as the girls and their father plot with the owner of the local candy store, site of the community telephone, to convince her that there is an emergency, driving her into the streets in a dressing gown with an old stocking on her head in front of the entire neighborhood. At least Amy gets a little bit of comeuppance when later that afternoon she gets her head stuck between the bars of an iron fence and can’t get her family (by now sick of being April Fools) to come rescue her. She ends up with her picture in the paper, and everyone in the neighborhood treating her like a celebrity, so no lessons are learned.
Amy does finally feel the stirrings of a conscience after she angles to get her family to throw her a “surprise” birthday party. When the big days comes and goes with only a token acknowledgement from her family (including 12 birthday smacks from her sister, because literally nobody ever stops hitting each other in this book), Amy’s thoughts turn darkly to revenge, blaming her sister for failing to come through. After considering which of Amy’s most precious belongings she should destroy, she instead settles on showing her Laura’s crush a nude baby picture of her sister.
But! It turns out that Laura had outsmarted Amy, and scheduled the surprise party for the following day, so she would truly be surprised. Greeted by her friends with more birthday smacks (of course!) Amy confesses to her sister:
“I’m so ashamed, Laura,” she said. “I hated you so much yesterday that I was planning all kinds of mean things to get even.”
Laura forgives her, but she is still dubious about her sister’s friendship with Cynthia. Especially after in a mean moment Amy claims a lost ball belonging to Rosa (who after having been cast in an 8th grade play is regard with even more contempt by Cynthia and her friends), and then humiliates Rosa in front of the entire class when Cynthia and her friends back up Amy’s story.
In the end Amy feels bad enough to (sort of) fess up to Rosa in front of the class and try to make friends, much to Laura’s approval.
The book ends with a series of letters to their mother, who has been in the hospital for almost a year as the book ends, including plans to send the girls to summer camp so Aunt Minnie can have a vacation.
Marilyn Sachs (another Hunter College alumna) has a charmingly out-of-date website (she died in 2016), in which she discusses the origins of the books and it is clear that the character of Amy is based on herself as a child. While her books are weird and violent, I was completely won over by her advice to aspiring writers:
So, don’t feel you have to be smart, beautiful, brave and popular to become a writer. Or even to be a good speller. Losers often grow up to be writers, which means we have the final word.
Footnote Department: Early in the novel a footnote defines Matzoh-brei to the reader as “matzohs, or crackerlike, unleavened bread, fried with eggs”
Blog Note: I have added a “Reader Request” tag- keep ‘em coming!