100 Years in the Life of an American Girl: that's an intriguing title. One American girl? Which one? I flip to the table of contents. I'd like to learn more about this girl. Where was she born? In California, Texas, New York or Korea? Maybe Viet Nam? The answer of course, is all of the above and many more. The American girl may be a docile piano player who minds her manners, does her homework, and always, yes, always pleases her parents, or maybe she's a rebel who leaves home determined to do the opposite of whatever her parents suggest. A quick look through the table of contents confirms that there are lots of American girls. Suzanne Sherman looks at a century of these lasses, each speaking in her own voice.
As I heard each one, their voices triggered others. Voices I knew from across the ten decades that span this book, those of the American girls in my own family. Mother, born in 1911, kicked it off. Then I came along, and my daughter and finally my granddaughter born in 2005, right with the last of the girls Sherman includes. I wasn't far into that first decade before I'd grabbed a notebook and pencil. The stories of Mary Ann, Florence, Emma, Beulah—my mother's contemporaries—brought back memories Mother told me of her growing-up years. Stories I had not thought of in decades bubbled back.
The bubbles got thicker as I moved through the book. What color was my first bicycle? Blue. And the boy across the street—my partner in mischief? Yes, Joey. My daughter's decades sent me scurrying for the photo albums. And finally, I rejoiced that my nine-year-old granddaughter is coming for a visit. If her contemporaries Marina, Dylanne and Aalaa (girls whose stories appear in the book's final chapter) are old enough to tell their stories, so is she. A brand new notebook and plenty of pencils will be in her welcome package at the airport. "What do you remember about the last time you visited?" I'll ask her, and then we'll write those memories down. I predict that most of the readers of this book, whatever their ages will have a similar reaction.
In 1996 Sherman began to teach classes for older adults in a program at her local college. She describes her job as a "storycatcher" rather than teacher, helping her class participants not only write their stories but "realize the value of their experience." Some of these stories spoke so directly to Sherman that she couldn't let them go. After 15 years, she had quite a stack, and realized what a treasure she had. These were not just life stories, they held the history of the times. Like Sherman, I'm no novice at recording memories. I've kept journals and worked with others on recalling their own memories, both in classes and in interviews. I salute her for the fine way she has reaped her teaching experiences for a delightful harvest of stories.
The early stories here, through the 1940s are taken from the stories written by class members. Sherman uses direct interviews cast in first person voice for the subsequent years. She sets the stage for each decade with a profile of the times. Were we farmers or city folk? What did we do for fun? Gathering around the family piano for an evening of singing, gawking at Elvis's gyrations on the new television, or tucking away in a corner to concentrate on video games. What we ate, what we studied, even the most popular girls' names for the decade. I always wondered why they named my 1911-born aunt "Hazel." Turns out that lots of new arrivals got that name—it's seventh on the list for that first decade, right behind Virginia.
"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten," the great storyteller Rudyard Kipling observed, and these stories bear him out. It may take me a moment to remember when Warren G. Harding led the country or when Hawaii became a state, but Charlotte Oram's recounting of her family's decision to leave their Russian-Jewish community in East Chicago, Indiana because they feared the Klu Klux Klan make 1923 become as real as 2015. Just ten years after statehood, in the 1970s, Jennifer Lei Bowen felt as much an outsider as Charlotte. She was the only fair-skinned child in her sixth grade class of Hawaiians. Because of her skin color she could not be in the running for class queen, but she could comfort herself with the local delicacy of boiled peanuts. I'd add geography to Kipling's history suggestion.
As one American girl who has lived through more than half of the decades covered in this book, I relished the stories and the personal memories they recalled, and I happily recommend it to my contemporaries. But in these unruly and divisive times, I'm more interested in seeing younger people—those who may think that they are Americans and therefore, all Americans are like them—take this book into their hands. It won't take many of these stories before they realize that there are many different ways to be an American girl.
Californian Suzanne Sherman grew up in Los Angeles and now lives on a hilltop in the northern part of her native state. She began writing as a child, going on to gain a college degree in creative writing and create a career in the publishing industry. For about 20 years she has also been a teacher and storycatcher. She shares more about herself and her activities on her website, and you can read about her young years in Los Angeles in Chapter 6 of 100 Years in the Life of an American Girl.
Check out our interview with the author of 100 Years in the Life of an American Girl.
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