June 10, 2011

Fair Exchange by Jean Nielsen (1957)

"What a wonderful idea: senior classes exchange visits . . . go to far-away places  But nobody dreams that the fair exchange will lead to long-distance romance . . . " (back cover)

Fair Exchange is the story of a group of high school seniors who take an exchange trip from their small prairie town of Cottonwood City, Nebraska to the ocean town of Deepcove, Washington.  Along the way, many lessons are learned, and, unsurprisingly, love blooms--for pretty much everyone involved, no less.

The trip is dreamed up at Mrs. Kingston's storm tea.  The school librarian, Mrs. Kingston is from the West Coast and hates the Nebraska storms, so she hosts 'storm teas' to help her through them with treats, music and companionship.  Typing teacher Mrs. Matthew and three students are at school when the storm breaks, so they gather at Mrs. Kingston's and the idea is born. 

Let's meet the three heroines!  Sunny Sundstrom is blonde, beautiful, self-assured and planning a career in home economics.  Terri Baumgartner is the eldest daughter of a big family with a busy mother; she is overworked, underappreciated and unhappy.  Steena Torland, who lives on a dairy farm with her increasingly old-fashioned widowed father, longs to learn typing well enough to get off the farm, but she has increasingly poor eyesight.  Why, this trip could change their lives!  (Psst . . . it does.)

This is a substantial book (348+ little Scholastic Book pages), and not easy to encapsulate.  So here's a quick rundown.  The trip gets planned and the students start earning money for the trip.  Mrs. Matthew, a widow, takes Steena home and talks her father into getting her glasses and letting her go on the trip.  Terri's brother Eric, who works at the Torland's farm, offers to use his money to send Terri, who can't get a job because of her family chores.  Sunny works in the library.  As the trip is coming together, so does the town.  And so do Steena's father and Mrs. Matthew, who have fallen in love.  Fund raising events are planned through the town, including a winter carnival out on Mr. Torland's pond.  Mrs. Matthew's college-age son Jeff comes to the carnival and promptly falls in love with Sunny.  I mean, promptly.  At the smorgasbord after the carnival, Sunny is admiring a Swedish Christmas candelabra:

"'Oh, I just love those,' she said.  

'We'll have one for our first Christmas,' Jeff agreed promptly.  

'Oh, I didn't expect it to happen this way,' Sunny thought with sudden amazement, 'not in the middle of a bright room with people all around and me holding a plate of smorgasbord.  What a proposal!  Well, maybe he can amplify it later.'

By the way, they just met that day at the carnival.  As for Terri, she's got her own unhappiness.  She has a stormy relationship with her mother, and wishes she could be home, cleaning the house and caring for her family, rather than being a community organizer.  Earlier in the book, Terri is waiting in the library for Sunny:

"Only Terri didn't study.  Instead, she reached for some of the magazines nearby and settled back to read them with a hopeless, longing expression on her face.  For these particular magazines were about homemaking and home decoration, and a home--a neat, clean, well-run home--was Terri's anguished dream."

And now her mother is expecting another child, and all Terri can see is more work for her.  But her brother (as well as Mrs. Kingston and Mrs. Sundstrom) is her strong supporter and helps the family see all that Terri does for them, as well as all that her mother does for the town.

As for Steena, it takes her a while to come to terms with her father's new happiness.  The couple plan to marry the day before the students leave for Washington.  Steena thinks her father is being kind to her only because of Mrs. Matthew, but she finally realizes (at the wedding) that their loneliness had kept them apart all these years and that Mrs. Matthew will always be there to bring them together.  Plus, now she can leave for the city without worrying about her father.

And they're off!  Not before Sunny fights with Jeff and falls and sprains her ankle, forcing everyone to search for her the night before the trip.  At the train station:

"The door swung open violently as what seemed like an army of teen-agers trooped inside carrying small suitcases and all keyed up for a wonderful time. 

'It's those kids from Cottonwood City,' the agent muttered to his assistant.  'Looks like the whole high school.'

'Heaven help that poor Streamliner,' the assistant replied piously."

After a fun train trip, they arrive in Washington.  Terri and Eric stay at with a large family whose house is a model of organization and efficiency.  Sunny's hostess is disappointed in Sunny, with her sprained ankle and bad attitude due to her unresolved argument with Jeff.  And Steena?  Here's Steena, at the Pacific Ocean for the first time:

"'Oh,' she cried exultantly.  For there it was--blue-gray-green swells of water cresting into white foam and spilling out on the wet, sandy beach again and again and again in cosmic precision.  There was the rest of it, too, gigantic swells undulating as far as her eyes could see--as ar as they could have seen if she had had glasses on top of her glasses.  Unimaginable miles away the same ocean was washing ashore in the shadow of a pagoda in China, along the jungles of South America, by some sheep farmer in Australia.  The ocean--the Pacific Ocean . . .

. . .  Then she was running again, half in and half out of the water, eyes shining and heart nearly bursting because somehow, half a world away from the place she had been born and lived all her life, she had found her true home."

I love this, because as a young girl growing up in Minnesota within 30 miles of her entire extended family, the idea that you might belong someplace other than where you were born was an amazing one.  And really, kind of an innovative one for teen fiction of the 1950s. 

Steena also meets Ralph, whose family owns a cranberry bog.  He takes her to Seattle, where she gets a post-graduation job and place to live.  More trip fun ensues, including a trip to Canada.  The trip ends and the seniors head back to Nebraska, with the exception of Sunny, who takes a side trip along the way.  As she explains to her hostess when the Deepcove students come for their part of trip:

"'I'd had a fight with Jeff.  That's why I was such a grade A drip all the time in Deepcove.  So on the way home I decided I had to see Jeff, even if they burned me at the stake for it.  I ditched the train and took a bus to where he lives, straightened things out, collected this ring, and came on home.'"

The Deepcove students get settled in with their host families and explore the area.  Over at Terri and Eric's house, Terri has implemented some of the efficiency methods she learned from her host family.  And since Sunny has dropped out of the competition, Terri has the opportunity to compete for a home ec scholarship.  During this competition, Terri has to use grocery ads to fix menus and plan a grocery shopping trip for a family of five; make a meal consisting of meat loaf, baked potatoes and cherry pie; create clothing out of feed sacks; mend clothing, and finally:

"with the aid of cardboard diagrams and swatches of cloth decorated a house.  This was pure joy.  It was such fun to move funiture around, to choose drapes and paint colors.  This was the creative side of housework, and since Terri had read so many decorating magazines and had dreamed so much of a home of her own, this project was easy and pleasant for her."

This is another of my favorite parts.  I totally fantasized about how I would do in this competition, having spent a strange amount of my childhood obsessed with household hints and decorating.  By the way, home ec sounds like such an outdated concept, but every part of this competition is televised every day on HGTV and the Food Network.  Let's reclaim the label of home ec!  Yeah!

Anyhoo, Terri wins a partial scholarship, which means she'll make it to college after all (and so will her sweetheart, blond farmer boy Mort Jacobs).  The trip wraps up and everyone mulls over the effects of the trip.  Here's what the last page of my beloved childhood edition looks like.  Clearly, much loved.  I had to order another copy via Ebay to see what the last line was (spoken by Mrs. Kingston's husband):

"I think Ben put his finger right on what we wanted to know--that this was a worthwhile experience for you young people.  Yes sir, I'd say we had a fair exchange."

Aw!  It was really hard to write about this book.  There's so much in it.  Three very different heroines, complex relationships between friends and family members, feelings about what home is, love and work.  I love that it has such a strong sense of place--there are beautiful descriptions of both the prairies in Nebraska as well as the ocean and forests that they visit in Deepcove.  I love that Terri starts off as a pain in the butt, and a complete martyr, but that all is not lost.  She comes to terms with her family, has a brighter future and gets a cute blond boyfriend.  Sunny, the popular beauty, spends a good deal of the book moping about and contemplating whether to leave her perfect life for the unknown with Jeff.  Steena's contemplations about her father's new romance and her finding of home away from home would be complex even in adult fiction, but still beautifully written and completely sympathetic.  It's a lovely book.  (I know, I say that about all of these books.  But they are!)

June 5, 2011

Spurs for Suzanna by Betty Cavanna (1947)

"Oh, why couldn't she go off to a summer place the way her friends did?  Why couldn't her family move to the suburbs?  Why couldn't she do what she most wanted--ride horses?  Why?  --Sue knows the answer.  Her father is ill.  Her mother must work.  When the Ballantines invite her to the farm she discovers she has much to learn about riding--and other people.  Another novel by a writer who is tops with teen-agers--Betty Cavanna."

Betty Cavanna has written such a number of iconic novels for 'teen-agers' that it was hard to decide which book to talk about first.  Her books were stand-alone novels that focused on one particular girl and her ambitions, her personal journey, and, often secondarily, her love life. Cavanna created vivid, endearing characters in vibrant, memorable settings--from a Swiss boarding school to an artist's colony on Cape Cod to an Eastern horse ranch.

Although my two favorites are probably Passport to Romance (the Swiss boarding school) and Paintbox Summer (the artist's colony), I keep coming back to Spurs for Suzanna as Cavanna's most representative work.  I've had this book since I was a very young girl, and have read it many times.  I was never a horse-obsessed girl, but something about this book spoke to me.

As the novel begins, Sue is having lunch with her friends at school and discussing their summer vacation plans.  Everyone has fun plans out of town but Sue, whose grandmother just sold the family beach house and is facing a dreary summer alone in the city (Philadelphia).  I love this passage describing her walk home from school--as a Midwestern suburban kid, city living seemed impossibly sophisticated to me:
"The red light changed to amber, brakes squealed, amber shifted to green, and Sue started across the street, neither hurrying nor loitering, her smooth young face a mask.  This was her automatic city-expression, an aloof, indifferent look that never met anyone or anything directly.  She was conscious of hiding behind it, as all girls and women did, in town here, and it was part of the reason she wised she lived in the country.  In the country no one would be watching.  Walking home from school out where Pat lives she'd be able to pout or laugh or scratch her stomach if she felt like it, as she did now." 
Sue attends a private school and her friends live mostly in the town and the country.  The public school kids consider her a snob for attending private school.  The best part of her day is visiting with the mounted policeman and his horse.  A latchkey kid (in 1947!), she goes home to an empty house, as her mother kept her job as a fashion photographer after Sue's father fell ill with a tubercular infection.

Things start to look up when Sue's mother takes her to the Devon Horse Show for her fifteenth birthday.  Here's Sue, getting dressed for the horse show: 
"She was wearing her first real suit, a gray men's wear flannel jacket bound with white and a brief kick-pleated skirt.  She had a gray beanie to match the outfit but she decided against it.  Girls were going without hats this year, even in the city and on trains."
At the horse show, her mother runs into an old friend and Sue is invited to spend a month with the Ballantines at High Acres, their horse farm.  Sue is extraordinarily excited for her visit, to the exclusion of all else.  Before she leaves, her mother enigmatically presents her with her aunt's spurs--noting that she doesn't expect them to be used on a horse.

Sue arrives at High Acres, meets the family--including slightly older Jigger, slightly younger Missy, ten-year-old Poke and baby Stevie.  After being so excited for her trip, she starts to feel ill at ease.  She's not very used to housework, she dresses too well to go riding, and she feels like an outsider in the family, as a paying guest to the farm.  She goes on a ride much rougher than she'd been used to in the city with the Ballantine kids and ends up falling off her horse into a brook.  She stomps off: 
"Jigger smiled, trying to make Sue meet his eyes.  'You're not bad-looking when you're mad,' he said insolently.  A backhanded compliment if Sue had ever heard one, and yet, against her will, she felt a small thrill of pleasure."
(It's important to mention that it was previously described that Jigger has "dark, crisp hair.")  Sue gets back on the horse, learns to curry horses, and watches the gentle blacksmith shoe a feisty horse. She goes fishing with Poke and discovers a kindred book reader, but still has prickly relations with Jigger and Missy.  She's homesick, but for her parents' sake, she tries to fit in and writes charming letters to her father about her adventures.  Jigger and Missy urge her to learn to jump on her horse, but Sue is afraid and refuses.  She goes with the family to a gymkhana and competes in a few contests, and manages to control her horse when he is spooked and runs away.  Still afraid to jump, she overhears the Ballantines skeptically discussing whether she's learn to jump:
"'All right!' she whispered with her back against the bedroom door.  'I'll show you!  You just wait!'  And her eyes, stormy and resolute, rested for an instant on the little pine night table, where she had recently placed as an ornament Aunt Suzanna's silver spurs."
One day, when the family is away, Sue decides to try jumping on her own.  It's all going well, until her horse doesn't make it over a fence and is badly hurt.  She calls the kindly blacksmith and owns up to her mistake to the Ballantines.  Luckily, the horse will recover and she continues to learn jumping with the family.  After the month is up, she goes home changed.  Instead of moping around the house, she dusts and makes dinner for her mother and herself.  Her father has a new enthusiasm as he's started turning Sue's letters into a children's book. AND, Sue invites Jigger (by letter, no less) to a dinner party and he accepts!

One of Betty Cavanna's strongest gifts is her characterization.  Sue has so many layers--sophisticated and assured in the city, ill at ease at first in the country and with a growing insight into how her actions and feelings affect others.  In addition, Cavanna creates such strong characters in Sue's working mother, her invalid (but still vital) father, and all of the Ballantines.  Even though the story is simple (girl goes to a horse farm and learns about life), Cavanna manages to make it a deeply textured one that is still relevant over sixty years later.