Born to enormous wealth, she longed for something that money couldn’t buy…
Background: Scholastic’s Sunfire series is a cautionary tale about judging a YA Romance by its cover. Lurking behind the overheated cover art and melodramatic taglines are some of the best stories and most interesting heroines of the genre.
Sort of a historical counterpart to Scholastic’s Wildfire Romances, the series was authored by a handful of Scholastic regulars, such as Vivian Schurfranz and Willo Davis Roberts, and are formulaic, but reliably consistent in quality.
Each volume features a feisty 14-to-17 year old heroine facing an American historical crisis and the choice of two (or more) suitors. Spoilers: she’ll choose the one with the more progressive ideas about women’s rights.
In general, the longer, earlier books in the series focus on a general historical era, and the later, skinnier volumes use specific historic events as a backdrop, often dramatic disasters.
The Plot: This seems to be one of the most-remembered stories in the series, and I’ve received a few requests for it over the years, which I am happy to finally oblige. I was surprised to discover it is the first “long” Sunfire we’ve covered here!
16-year-old Emily Blackburn differs from what I think of as the typical Sunfire heroine: a spunky orphan, or daughter of privilege who is thrown into a famous disaster (that usually leaves her orphaned).
Emily lives a cloistered Fifth Avenue existence in fin de siècle New York as the daughter of a wealthy financier. As the book opens, she is also so depressed that she is practically catatonic:
Cherubs trailing golden streamers danced around the gilded frame, but Emily only saw a face without character, as blank as an unwritten page.
Her unwavering reflection stared back at her as she looked beyond the round, blue-green eyes, searching for some sign of life, some reason to get dressed for yet another party.
For Emily Blackburn, at age sixteen, was one of the wealthiest girls in New York City in the autumn of 1899… and one of the unhappiest.
Emily’s only companions are her cousin Annabelle (who gets to be the half-orphan, her mother having died in childbirth, the lasting effects of which is never fully explored) and Worthington Bates, a sort of surrogate brother as the son of the third partner in the Blackburn Brothers’ firm. While Emily and Annabelle’s formal debut is scheduled for the following year, “Worthie” is an acceptable escort for various events in the meantime.
Emily’s only other contact with the outside world is her Bronx-born maid Meg (or “Miggsy”), who from Emily’s point of view gets the best of both worlds: living-in at the Fifth Avenue mansion, summers in Maine and trips abroad to Europe with the family, and nights off with her “beau” Jimmy to go to Coney Island or dinner in Chinatown.
The longer format gives a lot of room for Emily’s discontent to unfold, including an extensive flashback to the previous summer, at the Blackburns’ summer home in Maine, when Emily realizes her life-long friendships with Worth and Annabelle are changing, and is suddenly beset with her existential crisis:
Who are these people? Emily asked herself. What are they doing here? With all of the money her family and friends had, no one ever did anything.
Beyond the glamor and frivolity, Emily saw nothing but emptiness… Until that instant Emily had never questioned her life. She expected to do as her parents instructed, follow the path that had been mapped out for her since the day she was born.
Although she’d live in the same house, eat the same food, and behave in the same manner as she always had, Emily would never be the same. Wort of all, no one would ever detect the change.
Emily is also notable for having two of the most unsympathetic (living) parents in the franchise, as she recalls overhearing them discuss that while she was neither as pretty as Annabelle nor as smart as Worth, she was at least nice and would have to get by on that.
Mrs. Blackburn is also self-conscious about Emily’s younger siblings, 8-year-old twins Eddie and Molly, contemptuous of both the age gap and the fact that “having children in litters is so middle-class.”
While the parents don’t have much to do with the younger children’s day-to-day life (leaving that up to nurses and nannies), Emily is taken aback when they refuse to postpone the spring trip to Europe when Eddie becomes ill, not even stopping by the nursery before they leave. Emily digs in her heels, refusing to go with them and her parents blithely leave her behind, sailing to Paris and taking Annabelle, Worth and Miggsy with them.
More alone than ever, Emily is frustrated when she finds that she doesn’t know how to do anything. Visiting the mansion’s vast kitchen for the first time in her life for a midnight snack, she doesn’t know where any of the food is kept or how to prepare it; taking a carriage to the downtown shopping district, she can’t do more than sit in the lobby of an upscale hotel. When she attempts to visit a familiar ladies’ tearoom, she is overwhelmed with ennui:
She watched a double-chinned matron, her bottom lip pushed out like Molly’s when she couldn’t have her way, imperiously point to a china slipper filled with candies. The woman looked bored, even with chocolates and sugarplums from around the world tastefully arrayed.
But Emily’s limitations take a more serious turn when Eddie takes a turn for the worse, and she discovers she has no idea what to do or even how to contact the family physician.
Luckily, the housekeeper is on hand and sends for Dr. Marstellar, who arrives with both a handsome young medical student and diagnosis of scarlet fever.
After mistaking the student, Stephen Reed, for a chauffeur (and the subsequent verbal sparring) (he just hates rich people SO MUCH), we realize that the competing love interest has arrived AT LAST.
Although Emily cabled her parents in Europe right away, they refuse to cut the trip short, even when Eddie falls into an ACTUAL COMA. This turn of events necessitates Emily to venture out to find Dr. Marstellar herself, and having zero ideas of how to do this, takes a hired carriage to Presbyterian Hospital, where Stephen is attending medical school.
In the course of this adventure, Emily meets student nurse Maude Adams (“just like the actress”), who suggests that Emily should become a volunteer nursing aide. Seeing the chance to both give her life some meaning and learn more about the mysterious Stephen Reed, she sneaks out and reports for duty the following week…
…And finds herself woefully unqualified. First assigned to scrub the floors of the ward with lye (they neglected to inform her to bring her own rubber gloves) and then empty bedpans, Emily urges herself on, aided by Maude’s encouragement and Stephen’s contempt (“Go home, Emily Blackburn,” he said harshly, “you don’t belong here.”)
And just as Emily finds a niche in entertaining children in the pediatric ward, the family butler shows up and drags her home. Mom and Dad are back. And they are MAD.
With threats of Swiss Boarding School now on the table, Emily retreats again into her cossetted life. Although she does manage to sneak out to the hospital a few times, as well as down to the Lower East Side to pay a call on Stephen’s family, who are equally contemptuous to receive her.
Worth, who TBH never really seemed like much of a contender in the romance department, confesses that he is in love with Annabelle, who is infatuated with the son of a Senator. Sworn to secrecy, Emily can only seethe that they can’t see that they are perfect for each other as the clock winds down to Annabelle’s debut into society (and the various suitors that will entail) and Worth’s year-long Grand Tour.
Totally exasperated about all of this at the Waldorf’s New Years Eve ball, Emily flees downtown to ring in the new century with a bunch of common strangers, which really is the last straw for her mother, who books passage to Switzerland for her wayward daughter.
Since this really is the end for Emily’s dream of a nursing career, she sneaks out to the hospital one last time to say good-bye to Stephen, and fate intervenes when a building collapses and the hospital’s staff ordered to the site. Emily tags along, mainly comforting the dying.
The next day her photo is on the front page of the New York Herald, so there is no keeping it from her parents. Stephen shows up to plead her case, but her mother mostly remains unmoved: while they won’t give their support or approval, they also won’t send her to Switzerland.
That is enough for Emily, who joyously reunites with Stephen, dreaming of a future together after medical school, working together side by side.
What this description doesn’t totally get at (and what many readers remember most about this book) is how dark the tone gets for a YA romance. Sidney Lanier’s poem “The Marshes of the Glynn” is constantly referenced, and in general all of the Blackburn children seem to be suffering from low-key hysteria. Eddie’s fixation on the poem (and building a giant castle that he thinks will transport him there) is an especially Gothic touch.
Cover Art Department: I look at Worth and Stephen but all I can see are Jeff Colby and Adam Carrington, two of my favorite primetime dorks of the 1980s:
Blog News: Over the hiatus I did a massive update to the Name That Book! Page, adding more than 20 new descriptions in search of a title! Take a look and see if any ring a bell for you (and drop me a comment or an e-mail if you submitted one that I missed!)
And I would especially like to call attention to a reader request in search of YA plots that involve a makeover on a MALE subject. This seems like a really obvious trope, but I keep coming up empty!