The Son Of Someone Famous By M.E. Kerr



We noted the death of YA giant Marijane Meaker, best known as M.E. Kerr, at the end of  last year: as one of the writers at Harper & Row under legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom, she was an important part of the changing landscape of YA fiction in the late 1960s and 1970s. Like her colleagues Louise Fitzhugh, Mary Rodgers, Paul Zindel and John Donovan, she pushed the envelope in depicting “topical issues” including terrible parents, alienation from peers and questions of sexuality. Kerr stands out for a highly developed sense of whimsy, which can come off, initially, as an off-putting level of wackiness…

The Plot: …which I had to again remind myself to see past, as her work is never just aggressively zany, even if we immediately learn that our heroine is named Brenda Belle Blossom.

Brenda Belle opens:

This story begins the winter I thought I was turning into a boy.

Stuck in a small town in northern Vermont where everyone is up in everyone’s business all the time, Brenda Belle has become the class clown as a defense mechanism: her voice is low enough voice that she’s addressed as “sir” on the phone, and is self-conscious about her hairy upper lip. Additionally she’s cursed with a widowed mother whose mission in life is to make her more “feminine” and is nursing a crush on Christine Cutler, the most popular girl in school. As the book begins, Brenda Belle is certain her only choices are running away to New York City or suicide.

So it’s a little disappointing that the balance of the book focuses on Brenda Belle’s relationship with the new boy in town, who calls himself Adam Blessing.

Each chapter switches between Brenda and Adam’s point of view, so we learn that Adam has been expelled from yet another boarding school and has convinced his unnamed movie star father (who remains anonymous in this universe but is obviously Warren Beatty) that he should move in with alcoholic grandfather and attend public school. He meets Brenda Belle when she is trying to discretely buy a depilatory cream for her mustache.

Kerr’s plot takes in a lot for 159 pages in paperback, and it can be difficult to keep track of how the lives of the townspeople are so thoroughly intermeshed. Everyone assumes that Adam is the son of one of Charlie Blessing’s sons, but he is in fact the child of Charlie’s beloved only daughter, who left home, married Warren Beatty and was tragically killed in a car accident, which lead to Charlie’s alcoholism…

…Which in turn lead to Charlie losing his veterinary practice, eventually being bought out by his younger assistant, Dr. Cutler, who made the practice a success. Charlie tells everyone that Cutler stole the business out from under him, but the town tacitly acknowledges there is more to their feud than that. Dr. Cutler is also the father of Christine, the object of Brenda Belle’s crush.

Despite getting told off by the druggist for not realizing a young lady wants privacy while buying mustache removal cream, Adam and Brenda Belle become fast friends, bonding over their outcast status and tragically dead parents (Brenda Belle’s father was a rodeo rider, killed before she was born in a another extremely complicated subplot).

Adam proposes that the two of them harness their “Nothing Power” to both raise their own social status and cheer up the other outcasts and losers at their high school. For Brenda Belle, this means keeping up the masquerade of “going steady” with Adam to keep her mother off her back:

“I know a lot of kids who plan never to get married,” I said. Actually, I didn’t but I’d read about it in magazines.

“Every woman wants to get married, Brenda Belle.”

“What about women’s liberation?”

“That’s just television talk-show fantasy, Brenda Belle. That’s just a of talk from New York City. Women are very hard there, and they’re not typical. Actresses and slutty types.”

Adam and Brenda Belle’s campaign of Nothing Power has unintended consequences, as they send anonymous mash-notes to their old maid English teacher, various socially impaired students and even Dr. Cutler. It also has the effect of getting Christine to take an interest in Adam.

More complications ensue when Billie Kay Case, Adam’s ex-stepmother, a veteran comedienne who is much older than Warren Beatty, shows up in town to spend the holidays incognito with Adam and his grandfather. She throws an elaborate New Year’s Eve party for Adam’s friends after he and Brenda Belle are invited-and-then-uninvited from Christine’s party. When Brenda catches Adam calling the Cutlers’ at midnight, she takes it as a betrayal and takes off with Christine’s boyfriend, who decamped after a lover’s quarrel at her party.

There are further complications in Adam’s life when his father calls him long-distance to inform him that he’s marrying again, to a starlet named Electra Lindgren, known to tabloid readers as The Electric Socket. Adam is ordered to Palm Springs with his grandfather and Billie Kay for the ceremony, but not the reception. Electra is something else:

“Here’s part of the ceremony I wrote myself…. It goes ‘We are gathered here to marry two people who love each other.’ That’s the minister. Then I go ‘I love and want to live with you as long as you want to live with me.’ Then your father goes, ‘I love you and want to live with you as long as you want to live with me.’ Then I go ‘I will care for you but never crowd you…’ I want you to just call me Electra. You don’t have to call me ‘Mother.’”


“Everyone’s going to carry a small bunch of dandelions. I’ve always been partial to dandelions and your father’s promised to hunt down thousands and thousands of dandelions to pass around at the reception. They’ll be my wedding bouquet, too. Imagine dandelions in the desert!”

Things continue to get more complicated, as Adam and Christine start dating, despite her father having forbidden it- he is the one person in town to have figured out Adam’s true parentage. And Brenda Belle overhears her mother and aunt gossiping and learns the true source of the feud between Charlie and Dr. Cutler (Adam’s mother was killed when she tried to run away with Dr. Cutler, who was also married, and town’s officials covered it up to spare the families a scandal). Learning this, Brenda Belle decides to make amends with Adam, but he has a pretty big “ask” for her.

Adam, having been placed on “probation” for his academic failings isn’t allowed to leave town for his father’s wedding, although Charlie is still going… meaning Adam has the house to himself to entertain Christine. He thinks he’s successful in luring her over when there is a late night knock at the door… but it turns out to be The Electric Socket, suddenly maternal when Warren Beatty postponed the wedding to allegedly tend to his sick son in Vermont.

Realizing she’s been dumped, Electra takes an overdose of Nembutal, and Adam is the only one around to call the ambulance to get her stomach pumped, and fight off the paparazzi that descend upon the town.

Which comes to his “ask” of Brenda Belle: planning on attending the school’s masquerade ball with Christine in an elaborate headless Sir Walter Raleigh costume to evade detection by both Dr. Cutler and the school principal, he talks Brenda Belle into putting on the costume, calling for Christine and entertaining her until he can escape, promising to bring a costume for her that they will swap.

Brenda Belle does manage to make the best of the situation, dancing with Christine, wooing every female wallflower in the gym, and learning that Nothing Power really did boost the self-confidence of the school’s loser-class. But things come crashing down when Adam is caught trying to sneak into the dance, Brenda Belle’s identity is revealed, and Christine learns that Adam was seen leaving his house with a half-naked chorus girl in an ambulance in the middle of the night. Brenda Belle is suspended from school, and Adam is expelled.

But Kerr also gives her readers a very satisfying coda, reassuring us all that even the worst, most embarrassing parts of high school are only temporary. Some months later Adam has moved to California with his grandfather and Billie Kay, who have opened a Baskin-Robbins franchise, which is very successful, even if Charlie is constantly fighting with the corporate office about his insistence on selling clam chowder and baked beans alongside the banana boats.

The social structure at the local high school was never quite the same after the dance, as everyone has changed romantic partners, jocks are dating nerds, everyone’s making out in their parents’ station wagons, romantic chaos reigns.  Brenda Belle is now dating Milton, a boy heretofore noted only for his interest in birdwatching, and Brenda Belle’s mother is certain they’re doing more than practicing birdcalls out in the swamp every weekend.

And Brenda Belle is no longer contemplating suicide or running away from home, accepting the fact that she’ll be singing the alto-bordering-on-bass parts in the school choir, and having decided to go “au naturale” with her body hair, much to her mother’s consternation.

“Brenda Belle,” my mother says, “I’m not criticizing you. But I have this feeling, this very definite feeling that you are slipping away from the crowd- that you are losing interest in the things other girls in Storm care about.”

This time I think my mother’s right.

Odds & Ends Department: Kerr seems to have a real affinity for the name “Charlie”, as it is also prominently featured in Spring Fire and I‘ll Love You When You’re More Like Me. 

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8 Responses to The Son Of Someone Famous By M.E. Kerr

  1. Ronald says:

    Charlie Gilhooley, a gay character who eventually worked as a mortician, turns up in a few Kerr books including Night Kites. I don’t think I ever came across this one. What are the clues the father is Warren Beatty? It can’t be multiple marriages – the notorious lady’s man Beatty didn’t marry until he wed Annette Bening in 199 (though that would be good cover). Woody Allen said that if there was reincarnation, he wanted to come back as Warren Beatty’s fingertips…

    • mondomolly says:

      Oh wow, had no idea Charlie Gilhooley turns up in Kerr’s later work, I am going to have to go looking for those! Thanks for the tip.

      Ok, maybe I was a little overly-enthusiastic about Adam’s dad totally being Warren Beatty. He might have actually been Robert Redford 😂

      But in all seriousness, both the globetrotting (very “You’re So Vain”) and the fact that Unnamed Actor is taken so seriously as a political supporter and confidante to politicians seemed very Beatty-y. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Ronald Cerabona says:

    By “cover” I meant plausible deniability.

  3. Ronald says:

    1991 above

  4. Cee says:

    You thought Adam’s father was a movie star? For some reason (I can’t cite anything specific, it’s been awhile since I read it), I thought he was a politician.

    LOVED Nothing Power. I loved that chapter ending when they see the old maid English teacher “shining with Nothing Power.” Loved the grandfather’s calls to the animal radio show and how respectful the host was to the grandfather.

    Also loved the poems. “Why do you walk through the field in gloves/Missing so much and so much?/O fat white woman whom nobody loves/Why do you walk through the field in gloves/When the grass is as soft as the breast of doves/and shivering sweet to the touch?” I loved it so much I made up an alternate version for my cat: “Why do you stalk through the field in white paws/Hissing so much and so much?/O fat striped kitten whom everyone loves…” I am known for writing cat poetry–I even came up with a rap for her.

    Although it’s kind of an obnoxious poem! Leave the “fat white woman” alone, she’s not hurting you! Why do you have to call her out like that, Poet?

    Also loved Adam’s piecing together exactly what happened to his mother, and reading that last letter (I think it was) to his grandfather. And Adam’s entirely too believable romance with Christine, with those awkward phone calls.

    I just loved this book. I’m visiting my mother next month, I’ll have to reread it.

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for commenting! It is definitely worth a re-read. And you are correct in remembering that Adam’s unnamed father is depicted doing more political work than acting in the book- I think it is specifically mentioned that he is both addressing the UN and advising the vice president over the course of the story.

  5. ME Kerr remains one of those authors I’ve read more about than I’ve actually read their work, but your reviews make me want to actually check out her books (I had to look her up and I remembered Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack and how I wanted to read it since I can’t imagine that title going over well in this day and age of book bannings). This honestly sounds kinda fascinating and quite ambitious for the times? (I realize authors had to pull a lot of punches with the plot in order to get the book published and I can only wonder how if this was adapted for the screen today, the changes they’d make.)

    I’m fascinated by the obvious Warren Beatty connection and it’s kind of funny he did go on to eventually be a father in real life long after this book? (I mean officially. 😬)

    That Electra subplot sounds fascinatingly dark and that ending– that’s surprisingly and delightfully progressive (and yet I could see it not causing too much of a stir when it was published).

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for commenting! I wonder how a lot of 70s YA would go over in filmed adaptations today- I’m excited for the upcoming adaptation of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret- the first trailer looked promising!

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