September 7, 2016

Don't Cry, Little Girl by Janet Lambert (1952)

While Tippy Parrish eagerly awaited the arrival of Ken Prescott, she dreamed of love and marriage. And when she found his sentiments to be the same as hers, her happiness bubbled over. Then, quite suddenly, Ken's leave was cancelled. With a heavy heart, Tippy put away the lovely tablecloth she had purchased for their game of make-believe at being married.

As Tippy bravely say Ken off to Korea on the morning plan, she gave some serious thought to the months that lay ahead. She would learn how to knit, to sew, and to cook, against the day when they would be reunited once again. She would write him regularly, and look forward to receiving his precious letters.

Busy with school--with comforting Peter Jordon and the weekly hops at West Point--time did pass. But one day, the world almost came to an end for Tippy, and all her hopes were shattered . . . This is one of Mrs. Lambert's most unusually charming and appealing stories. (from the inside flap)

Let me refer you to the last line of the inside flap blurb: "one of Mrs. Lambert's most unusually charming and appealing stories." Spoiler: the blurb writer has a very strange idea of what connotes charming. Of course, the books are all charming and appealing, but this novel has some incredibly serious emotional heft to it.

We open as the Parrishes are driving from New York to Washington, D.C., bringing Tippy to meet Ken Prescott on his quick leave before he heads to Korea. They check into a hotel (with two rooms and a sitting room for proper entertaining) and set to discussing Tippy's relationship with Ken.
"All the Parrish children were accustomed to discussing their feeling with their parents. Happiness always bubbled out of them in gay little fountains; and when they were drenched in a sudden shower of sorrow, they ran for comfort and loving advice."
Tippy eagerly awaits Ken's arrival at the hotel and finally there's a knock on the door:
"'Cherub,' he said. And Tippy ran straight into his outstretched arms.
'Oh, cherub, darling,' he breathed as his lips met hers and that was the kiss Tippy had worried about, and a proposal of marriage, all rolled into one."
Tippy and Ken talk to the Parrishes about love and marriage, go on a picnic above the Pentagon, and plan for the future. Although Tippy considers them engaged, Ken is realistic about the fact that Tippy is just eighteen and Ken is headed off to war in Korea.
"'I'm going into a war, Tippy; but I'm coming back. Your love will bring me back. Just keep thinking and knowing we'll have all the rest of our lives together. We will.'"
After their picnic, they drive past Arlington Cemetery, where Ken asks casually if Tippy's ever been there. Tippy has; lots of times. When they return to the hotel, they engage in a fanciful pretense that they are an ordinary couple, relaxing at home. They're having a lovely time, when Ken's bosses call and tell him that he is heading out the next day--a few days earlier than expected. As they say their goodbyes, Tippy reflects:
"'For two whole years, I've gone around all mixed up and dissatisfied. I didn't know what was wrong with me; and now it's just as if a bright, dazzling light had been turned on and I can see.' She caught her breath with a little gasp and said as she let it out, 'I didn't know love could do this to you.'"
Ken leaves and Tippy is sad but elated at her newfound love and their future together. She breaks the news to Alice, and to the always understanding Peter. Tippy goes to college, but is bored with it. She tries domestic housekeeping, learning to sew and cook (not very successfully.) She visits Peter at West Point, who is again, very understanding. She makes a few friends at college and sets one up with Bobby. Then, Alice breaks the news that she will be marrying Jon Drayton in June. David gets his orders to ship out, and Ken continues to write.

We get a brief look into Ken's life in Korea as he writes his Christmas letter to Tippy:
"Tippy couldn't know that Ken had taken his precious rest hour to scribble that last note; that grimy, aching from fatigue and cold, he had sat in a bombed hut with its windows out, its roof blown off, holding a cup of hot coffee in his hands to warm his stiff fingers enough to hold a pencil."
He writes another letter as well, one that is much harder to write, the one that reads: "To be mailed in the event of my death."

Christmas comes and goes and Tippy is not receiving any new letters from Ken. The family begins to make cautious inquiries through the Pentagon, but no news. She is snowed in at school one day, and has a lovely time, riding in a sleigh up to West Point for the weekend.

While she's having a marvelously gay time, the family gets the news that Ken has been killed. Mrs. Parrish speaks to Peter, with Tippy for the weekend, and asks him to break the news to her, that Ken died of wounds after he'd been evacuated and placed in a hospital behind the lines.

And very gently, he does. Penny's husband Josh comes to get her and brings her and Peter home to the Parrishes. Tippy is quiet and still, and won't cry. The family agonizes, and Trudy steps in with some hard truths and love.
"'You can stay in this room for all the rest of your life, but you ain't ever goin' to see him walk in that door with his eyes shinin' an' his arms held out.' She pushed deep into Tippy's numbed emotions and stirred them to a sluggish wakefulness."
She finally breaks down and cries, and Peter carries her down to the living room, where he watches over her. She is grieving, and finally Ken's last letter reaches her. He asks her not to cry, and not to grieve too much:
"Love me always, as I'll love you wherever I am. Keep me deep in your heart; but let the love we've had lead you on to another love that will fulfill the good life we planned."
Soon, Peter's graduation and Alice's wedding are approaching, and Tippy gets through them all. The book ends with Peter making a mild declaration of love.
"'I'm such a different kind of guy. But I love you, Tippy. I'd do my level best to make you happy.'"
And the book ends, with Peter's hand warm in hers, and "only her heart wept in the silence."

Don't Cry, Little Girl is moving, emotional, sad, poignant and heart-breaking. Lambert really digs into the family relationships and how grief affects the family and friends and how hard it is to know how to help heal. Again, some really lovely writing about love and marriage, and Ken's letter is wonderfully eloquent and generous.  Even by today's standards--perhaps especially by today's standards--Lambert's writing about love and relationships is unusually wise and complex and insightful.

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