January 3, 2011

Practically Seventeen by Rosamond du Jardin (1943)

"His name is Jon," I lied shamelessly. "He goes to Whitfield . . . sort of blond, with nice blue eyes. That's all I'm going to tell you. Wait till the Prom, and you can see for yourself!"  Tobey's fight with Brose Gilman has left her without a date--so she creates a Dream Man. Now everybody believes her! (back cover)

The copyright date on my battered, beloved copy of this book is March 1971, almost thirty years after its first publication in the early 1940s.  And to me, reading this in the late 70s, it hardly showed its age at all.  Let's meet Tobey! 
"My name is Tobey Heydon and I am practically seventeen years old, since my sixteenth birthday was five whole months ago.  Actually, Tobey is my middle name and my first is Henrietta.  My mother got sort of desperate when her third child turned out to be another girl, so she named me for my father.  But, thank Heaven, my grandmother's maiden name was Tobey.  Otherwise it would have been too ghastly.  People might have called me Henny for short, and I would have simply died."
This is the first of six books Rosamond du Jardin wrote about Tobey Heydon (and her family)--books that followed Tobey through high school, college and finally marriage.  Although the book primarily follows the adventures of Tobey, and her steady date Brose ("I am pretty crazy about Brose.  He is quite tall, and he has brown hair with a little curl in it which he is always trying to discourage by the most drastic methods."), it's very much of a family story and their lives in an "average-sized town called Edgewood".  Tobey has three sisters (two older, one younger) and parents who are much more droll and funny than Tobey realizes.  Du Jardin's characters are vivid and memorable, and Tobey is a delightful narrator who is slightly less insightful than she thinks she is. 

The novel starts off during Christmas and all sorts of shenanigans ensue like a visit from Santa that goes awry (the police are called) and Brose's present (leather bound Ramona, but with lipstick and My Sin hidden in the package).  With one sister engaged to a department store heir, and the other down in the tropics, Tobey has her hands full with romantic dilemmas to solve. 

After finally getting her sister married off, it's time for the rest of the family to relax for a few weeks at Green Lake.  But wait?  Who's that girl Brose is talking to?  Well, it's Kentucky Jackson ("her hair was pale blond, like silver gilt, and done in a soft, long page-boy, with not a strand out of place") and she's about to make Tobey's summer look pretty miserable.  But don't give up on Tobey--armed with a tippy canoe and a fortuitous thunderstorm, she gets back her man. 

Things are really looking up now, but we still have a few chapters left.  Back at home, everyone's gearing up for the Heart Hop ("it is terribly splash, and everyone gets new formals and has a super time") where the girls invite the boys.  But thanks to another misunderstanding, someone else asks Brose to the dance before Tobey can.  What can she do now?  Clearly, make up a new boy, Jon Hayward from neighboring Whitfield, who she invites to the dance, planning for him to get ill the day of the dance. 

All is going well, and her parents even surprise her with a new dress for the dance ("It was the most absolutely swoony formal I'd ever had in my whole life--plaid taffeta in tones of violet and gold and black, with an off-the-shoulder neckline and a skirt so wide and rustling I couldn't even believe it!").  Finally, it's the night of the dance, and Tobey is feeling guilty and regretting her deception when a young man appears claiming that Jon sprained his ankle and asked him to substitute. 

Tobey goes off with the mystery man ("He was tall, with nice broad shoulders, and he had brown hair and blue eyes with a nice twinkle"), only to discover her little meddling sister and her friend read about her dilemma in Tobey's diary and sent the friend's brother, Dick Allen, to save the day.  But don't worry: Tobey and Brose make up and Brose gives her his class ring to wear. 
"At that moment, it seemed as though Brose and I were the only two people in the world, and I liked feeling that way.  I liked it very much, indeed!  Apparently, Brose was experiencing similiar emotions.  All he could say was, "Gee, Tobey--gee . . ."
This is a throughly charming novel, with lots of dry humor (much resulting from Tobey's practical point-of-view).  It's also a vivid look at a time gone by, complete with teens dancing at Joe's Grill, new formals for dances (complete with orchid or gardenia corsages), holiday events like sleigh rides and house parties, and friends named Itchy, Gil, Sox and Barbie.  The beauty of du Jardin's writing, though, goes beyond such retro charm.  She has wonderful insights into human nature, and those are universal--just as relevant (and funny) in the early days of the 21st century as they were in 1943. 

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