Polly French And The Surprising Stranger (#3) By Francine Lewis

Peru! Polly tried to visualize herself helping someone from Peru fit in comfortably at good old slam-bang Whitford High.

Rounding out this year’s annual collection of Whitman’s girls series titles is the final* volume in the Polly French series…

(*OR IS IT?????)

Background: I know over the past few years I’ve done a lot of complaining about Polly French and her chums, as they involve the whole town in a High School class election, aid and abet horse thievery, and generally square-dance around like idiots. Polly may be the dimmest of Whitman’s girl-heroines, to the point that they take pity on her and don’t bother giving her a mystery to solve (although the reader can try to solve the mystery of Is Polly Dating Her Cousin?)

That being said, I enjoyed this Polly French adventure more than the last two, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

The Plot: Those reasons mainly being that I wanted to see if Polly was going to cause an international incident when Whitford High hosts an exchange student from Peru.

It’s not just Polly- everyone in Whitford seems to have a problem with not thinking things through, starting with Principal Van Truyl, who has jumped at the chance to earn prestige for Whitford High by accepting an exchange student, but not thinking about where that student shall reside. Not his house, surely! He dumps the problem into Polly’s boney lap, as VP of the high school General Organization. Polly calls an assembly to make a speech about it, with the idea that she will gently hint that the sophomore, Lita Barrios, needs a host family, and someone will volunteer.

Nobody catches her drift:

“It’s rather like asking who’s going to adopt Lita.”

“Why, we all are,” came a hearty voice from the audience. It came from John James, who generally did not miss the point.

“You see, fellow students, though Lita Barrios will arrive here in a few days, it still isn’t settled where she is to live. If any of you have suggestions- or invitations…”

“The February term begins next week,” remarked the acid teacher of Latin, Mrs. Cobble. “It strikes me as disgraceful that no home has yet been found for this child.”

“Yes, exactly,” Polly answered. “That’s why we are appealing-“

“Furthermore, it strikes me that someone at this school has been shamefully neglectful-“

SHE MEANS YOU, PRINCIPAL VAN TRUYL!!!!!

The assembly resolves nothing and Mr. Van Truyl reports that the three offers that have come in have been rejected by World Wide Students, the managing organization, because they feel that the offers came from families who wanted to show off.

It takes Polly a painfully long time to get the idea to ask her own parents to host Lita, and her parents are notably skeptical:

Her mother asked if Polly, an only child, would be genuinely willing to have another girl here.

“Even if she turns out to be prettier and smarter than you?”

Thanks, Mom.

Eventually they agree and are accepted by the WWS, and they set about planning Lita’s welcome dinner. Polly suggests “Brownies and chocolate pie”, while her mother suggests “typically North American foods” like canned corn (!!!) Everyone agrees that it should definitely include “easily digested things like roast beef.”

Polly also helps to plan exciting trips to historic attractions “Like where I fell over the waterfall?” (?????) and a tour of “the electric bulb factory on the outskirts of town”.

Oh, lucky Lita. She doesn’t know what she’s in for!

Neighbors are also constantly dropping off welcome gifts for her, including the Grandmother of Polly’s cousin-boyfriend, Alan, who brings some homemade perfume:

“That is the very same rose perfume I used when the Reverend Mr. Gray and I spent our honeymoon in Paris. Ah, me! Quelle Romance!

When Lita finally arrives she is beautiful, sophisticated and retiring, but from a world of single-sex education, chaperones, and uh, very specific gender roles.

The rest of the book is pretty much just a constant stream of cultural clashes, as Polly grows increasingly jealous of Lita and her new popularity, while Lita gets more and more judgmental about her rowdy American classmates.

And it seems to be working, as Polly notices that all of the girls in her class have started imitating Lita:

On Monday at School , Polly observed many girls had abandoned sweaters and skirts; they looked sleek and neat and new in dresses. The perfume in the classroom was noticeable- “and pleasant,” said Mr. Rubens.

“Yes, indeed,” said Janet in a gently modulated voice.

Polly stared. Voices and manners like Lita’s too!

But at the same time Lita has taken a liking to American ways. Polly speculates in her diary:

My own theory is that American freedom is beginning to go to Lita’s head.

The book doesn’t take a side- or rather, it tries to take both sides: American teenagers are a bunch of napkin-throwing hoodlums, but all of South American is also hopelessly backward.

Lita is making friends on her own, but EVERYONE disapproves of her choices- Polly, Polly’s parents, Alan…

“Well, I mean Danny never does any G.O. work unless he’s dragged into it. Ruthie and Betty don’t care about anything much but kidding and dressing up. Bob Fair isn’t so loud but he’s sort of wishy-washy.”

“It’s just that she still has so many kids to get to know.”

“Such as Danny’s ack-ack crowd? What does she see in a brainless number like Betty?”

Alan looked down on her from his full height of six feet. “Take my advice, cousin. Tell Lita to choose her friends more wisely, before she falls flat on her face.”

Uh, Alan, aren’t you always shirking your duties onto Polly so you can go play your jazz records?

Things come to a head when Polly’s parents have to intervene, when Lita is invited to a party at Ruthie Crane’s house, lured by the promise of Welsh Rabbit and chocolate cake:

Mrs. French explained with great care to a white-faced Lita.

“Some day you’ll find that people fall into two groups- those who are considerate of others, and those who are careless and selfish. It was not thoughtful of Ruthie’s parents to go out of the house and leave a party in full swing, without any responsible older person present.”

TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE, LITA. Considerate people who serve their guests easily-digestible roast beef and WELSH RABBIT-EATING GUTTER TRASH!

But there is still trouble at home, as the Frenches seem to show blatant favoritism towards Lita, telling Polly that she will have to get along with her pink jersey dress and beret for Easter so they can buy Lita some “typically North American clothes.”

Lita chooses a leather jacket. Honestly, I’m surprised that she isn’t already cutting school and sending away for baby alligators from TV commercials.

But of course, Polly is most put out by Lita stealing her cousin-boyfriend:

Polly minded most about Alan. Oh, it wasn’t any one big thing, just a number of little things that added up.

This happens when Polly, Alan, Manley Dean and Lita agree to go for a Latin American-style paseo, and somehow Lita and Alan somehow manage to paseo right away from the group and down to the Oak Room at the Lincoln Hotel.

Polly thought angrily, “I suppose Alan will drink champagne out of her slipper, or whatever it is.”

As spring approaches, Polly puts on a brave face and throws herself on her own sword, broadly hinting and then telling Alan outright to ask Lita to the senior prom. But luckily that problem has been solved:

“Oh, yes, I am going! I would not miss it for anything. I am going as the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Van Truyl.”

“You are! Then Alan can take me to the prom after all!”

Lita smiled broadly at her, and Mrs. French, pretending not to notice, looked very pleased.

Maybe there is a long tradition of cousin-dating on Mrs. French’s side.

The description of the prom is unexpectedly exciting. Held at the Lincoln Hotel, it features multiple bands playing in different ballrooms, ping pong tournaments and a Hawaiian Luau served at 3 am. All of which sounds weirdly appealing at this point on my life.

Lita tries to get WWS to let her stay on another semester, but they are like “no, you have to let other people have a turn.”

So, thus we bid farewell to Polly French… OR DO WE???

The University of Minnesota Libraries massive list of Girls Series Books, includes a fourth volume, Polly French Finds Out, but notes “no information has been found to verify the publication of volume 4”. So probably not. Because if there is one thing I am sure of, Polly French doesn’t find out anything.

This entry was posted in Vintage YA Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Polly French And The Surprising Stranger (#3) By Francine Lewis

  1. LOL This recap with its many witty asides has me choking with laughter! Thank you!

  2. ninyabruja says:

    which body parts is she missing in this one? 😉

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