RemArt Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0971095914.
Reviewed by PJ Pierce
Posted on 01/23/2004
Just as I suspected. Donna Van Straten has taken me through the gamut of emotions in The Jitterbug Girl: Class of '55. And the same fluid readability of her first novel, The Littlest Big Kid, comes through again in this one.
In this second installment, Van Straten regales the reader with hilarious slices of her teenage years during the early 1950's in Black Creek, Wisconsin. All the while the author slips in reflections of more serious truths hidden within the niceties of Wisconsin small-town society. Her first-person narrative, complete with the genuine teenage slang of that day, rings true, especially for any American who lived through that innocent decade. The author says she discovered her first-person style while writing The Littlest Big Kid. After first attempting to tell her story from an adult perspective, Van Straten says (in an interview) that the kid inside her started telling HER version of the stories. "I decided to let her take over, telling things with her words and from her perspective. The advantage of telling things as if I'm still a kid is that it gets the analytical and inhibited side of my adult personality out of the way."
From her teenage point of view, Van Straten reflects on the world as she is experiencing it. She relays her thoughts to me, the omnipresent reader as if we are conversing. "I'm beginning to think that women run the world," 16-year-old Donna tells me after getting her first real job. "It doesn't seem like they do, but it's still true. For instance, I tell Marie Wagner and Edna Eick that I can make life easier for them by working in the grocery store, so they tell Babe to hire me. Babe had told me that he didn't need me, but after they talk to him, he calls to say that I can start work tomorrow. See what I mean? We may not get the credit, but we actually do run the world. It's because we figure things out faster than men."
Babe allows his new hireling to give cookies to the Black Creek kids who come in the store with their parents, but not to the ragged and transient gypsy kids. "I want to fight for (the gypsy kids') rights, but I can't figure a way to do it," she tells me. "All day long I think about how it isn't fair that these poor kids can't have a cookie like every other kid in town. It's not their fault that they're gypsies, is it?"
Throughout her childhood and teenage years, the author finds herself analyzing ethical situations such as how to tread the thin line between her boss and the gypsy children. And she continues to question the teachings of her Catholic religion. When the polio epidemic causes the Seymour Fair to be cancelled for fear of spreading germs, Donna and all of her six siblings have to begin taking a daily "polio" nap. Afraid of impending boredom, the 15-year-old decides to read the whole Bible to wile away the time in bed. "Catholics don't have to (read the Bible), but I'm going to," she explains to me, the reader. "I want to try making sense of the stories by myself, without Father Scholton telling me what to think. Those Old Testament stories are really weird. In so many of them, God punishes people for their sins by causing terrible things to happen in nature. Like the flood that got Noah to build his ark. Every living thing couldn't fit onto his ark, just Noah's wife and two of each kind of animal. This means that lots of living things must have died because of God causing the flood. Why would God do that? When Catholics can't figure things out, they have to believe it anyway."
From my perspective in this new millennium, it is uncomfortable to be reminded that girls of the 1950's were not encouraged to go to college. In fact, Van Straten quotes her father's dinnertime comment to his daughters, "The Appleton Post Crescent says that girls shouldn't take a space that would otherwise go to a GI war veteran. And, Father Scholton says that universities are breeding grounds for Communism. I don't want you to be corrupted into thinking Communism is better than America's democracy."
In spite of their father's assessment that "it's not important for girls to get a college education," he eventually took great pride in the fact that all five of his daughters as well as his two sons graduated from college. The initial dinnertime discussion with their father, however, brought 15-year-old Donna to list nine reasons she would rather be a boy, including "boys don't have periods, boys get chosen to be leaders more than girls do, and boys get to go to college. She could think of only three reasons for being a girl: "1) I like wearing girls' clothes, 2) I like wearing makeup, and 3) I like not paying for things on a date. "I'm racking my brain for other reasons," she concludes, "and I just can't think what they might be."
Skillfully and gradually, Van Straten helps us see the ironies of the '50's decade. But because those ironies come to us through a teenager's eyes, we can smile at the innocence and absurdities.
It is a big day in the Van Straten household when their father brings home their first television set. But the arrival of the contraption sparks a disagreement between her father and mother over whether to watch the news or "I Love Lucy." And an even bigger argument ensues when Lucy uses the word "pregnant" in front of all of America, including the seven Van Straten siblings. Mr. Van Straten contends that neither Lucy nor his wife should use that word in front of kids. "Hogwash!" Mother snaps. Her face is red like she's about to explode. "I'll say pregnant whenever I want to. Pregnant, pregnant, pregnant! If Lucy can say it on television, I can say it in front of my own children." Apparently even Lucille Ball was instrumental in corrupting the youth of America - thus preparing them for the upheaval of the 1960s.
And so we follow this feisty, inquisitive teenager to the brink of her college years. "By the way," she says to me just before I come to the last line of the book. "Have you heard about this new kind of music called rock 'n roll? It's unbelievably groovy, especially Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Every time I hear it on the radio, I feel ready to get out into the world and be somebody. Daddy, meanwhile, says rock 'n roll is the worst noise he's ever heard and that if it catches on around here, it'll be a bad influence on kids. He's such an old fuddy-dud!"
*Donna Van Straten Remmert uses her maiden name for memoir writing.
Check out our interviews (here & here) with the author of The Jitterbug Girl.
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