Like its older sisters in the field of mass-market women’s magazines (everything from Cosmopolitan to Woman’s Day) Seventeen featured a great deal of short fiction in its pages from its debut in 1944.
Some of these were reprinted in anthologies, and they also served as a springboard for a number of young authors- Sylvia Plath may be the most often-cited, but pick up any YA paperback of a certain era and you’ll likely see a Seventeen credit in the author’s bio.
The last time I bought an issue was five years ago, so I could illustrate how the publication has shrunk over the past 40 years; I just checked, and it does not contain a short story, and I think fiction was on the way out even when I was reading as a YA myself in the early 90s.
This week we’ll take a look at three stories from three issues from three decades from my library of back issues:
“When I Knew Her Best” By Joanna Bostwick (August 1974)
I feel like this is a very typical example of women’s magazine short fiction of the era, and would have been at home in any of the publications I named above.
Set in 1936, it tells the story from the point of view of 8-year-old Billy Ackerman, of Flushing, Queens, and how his parents suddenly sprung the news on him that he had a 26-year-old sister who had been institutionalized after having a nervous breakdown as teenager. Now Helena is coming home to live with them for good.
Billy quickly learns that the whole neighborhood knows about Helena’s “condition” when he goes to pick out a Christmas present for her:
“Say, aren’t you Billy Ackerman?” I nodded. “Your sister. Isn’t your sister crazy? Why, I remember when they took her away- nine years ago. They let her out?”
Billy and Helena get along well, and he is intensely protective of his sister, who had been “robbed of her growing up”.
Four years later Helena dies of scarlet fever. Billy grows older, marries and now has two children, a son aged 8 and a daughter aged 16, the same age Helena was when she had her nervous breakdown. They are also named Billy and Helena.
The table of contents notes that this is the fiction debut of 16-year-old Bostwick, and it’s… fine? I mean, it’s not like I ever had short story published in a national magazine when I was sixteen.
Whither Ms. Bostwick? The Internet was unable to turn up any further work by Joanna Bostwick.
“Off Track” By Patricia Windsor (June 1988)
This very brief story is told in the first person from the point of view of a teenage girl who has a crush on an OLDER MAN that she met on the train (unspecified, but probably the Metro North between Westchester and New York City). She dares to ask him to meet her to TALK, and he seems open to initiating an affair:
“You know, really, I am much older than you.”
“But look, we could, if you really want to, we could meet now and then…
“You realize, of course, because of my commitments, “he is saying across the table as he clinks his pipe against the empty cup, “I might not be available at times.”
“Is that all it would be? Now and then?” I ask.
“Well, on a regular sort of basis,” he says and shifts in his seat. “But weekends would be out.”
At which point the unnamed narrator gets winked at by a cute boy her own age and she hastily backpedals, bidding farewell to the Older Man and scurrying off into the night.
Whither Ms. Windsor? Seventeen notes that she is an Edgar Allan Poe award winner, and Amazon lists a number of her YA and Juvenile mystery and suspense novels, including the Scholastic/Point The Christmas Killer.
“The Avalon Ballroom” By Ann Hood (April 1991)
A lot of Seventeen’s editorial content was very New York City-centric, and this story fits right in with it. It’s my favorite of the three, but I’m also biased: it’s set in New York’s East Village in the 1990s, so I have a personal appreciation for the accuracy and detail.
Seventeen-year-old Lily lives with her long-widowed mother and works “something like ten jobs” to save up money to meet the shortfall in financial aid that will enable her to attend her sainted father’s alma mater, Princeton.
Lily’s parents met while hitchhiking in California and she reports:
My parents were flower children. They looked like Sonny and Cher. When I tell my mother this, she frowns. “Lily,” she says, “your father was somebody special. Nothing at all like Sonny Bono.” Even when I try to explain to her that Sonny Bono is special in his own way, her frown remains, deepens. “He’s the mayor of Palm Springs,” I tell her. “He was married to Cher. Doesn’t that count for something?”
Lily’s mom works at a bookstore, maintains a shrine to her dead husband in their studio apartment, and writes poetry that she performs at St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery Poetry Project, and might be dating a fat lawyer who also is an aspiring poet.
Too poor to even afford half a lunch at Dojo (REALLY POOR!), Lily finally goes to visit her paternal Grandmother, who also keep a shrine to her dead son, to see about a loan for the $1200 she needs for Princeton. Grandma turns her down, and Lily mopes that now she’ll be stuck applying to Hunter College (HORRORS!)
But, Mom comes through at the last minute, selling her beloved late husband’s beloved Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Avalon Ballroom poster to the fat lawyer, who is also a modern art collector.
Whither Ms. Hood? When I looked up Hood’s bibliography, I was surprised to learn that I had read one of her novels, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, when I found it in the sub-basement of my place of employment when I myself was working my way through (HORRORS!) Hunter College. I remember thinking it was pretty bad, so doubly surprising since I thought this story was pretty good.
The plot of When I Knew Her Best reminds me a bit of Marlene Shyer’s Welcome Home Jellybean.
I feel like there were a lot of secret older sisters with nervous breakdowns in this era.
The sister in the Shyer book was intellectually disabled and brought home because the parents didn’t like the way she was being treated in the facility where she’d been living.
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