Saturday, June 13, 2009

Winter's Answer

Winter's Answer
Lucile McDonald and Zola H. Ross
1961, Thomas Nelson and Sons

"You're so poised, so sure of yourself," one of her sorority sisters had told her admiringly.

Would-be journalist Kit Langford is confident and ambitious, but her first taste of failure hits her badly when she transfers from a small college to a larger one and her writing and managerial talents aren't instantly recognized. Angry and humiliated, Kit takes comfort in winning a short internship at a New York magazine over the Christmas break, vowing to win a job there and never return to college. When that plan fails horribly, Kit runs again, joining her cousin Diane on a trip to Florida, where Diane is to rejoin her new husband, Jack.

But things don't go as planned in Florida either. Jack is in a coma after a car accident. Diane, frantic, spends every moment at his bedside while Kit hunts for a job to support them and the elderly boat Jack had bought as a re-sale project and temporary home. Kit is rejected over and over, first from the newspaper jobs she covets and then, lacking experience, even from menial labor positions. Desperate, she becomes the world's least apt waitress as a greasy spoon, on her feet from 7 AM to 1PM every day.

Kit grinned. She had left Northern expecting to conquer the world. Now she was afraid she could not even keep a menial job.

A depressed Kit bounces back quickly with attention from Paul, the handsome rich boy on the next boat over, and his low-key pal Red. She also finds satisfaction in refitting the Matilda, scrubbing, refurbishing and decorating the old boat in hopes of finding a buyer.

The book lacks a strong sense of place; Florida and New York both get the most cursory treatments, although New York fares slightly better. But the character of Kit is very strong and vivid. Her flaws are as compelling as her strengths, and she's a very appealingly resourceful protagonist, navigating her way around a strange place and reluctantly taking charge of the practical problems of Jack's illness. Her youthful encounter with reality is as painfully realistic today, in essence, though the details have changed (she limits her newspaper search to the women's page, after all). And in some ways, she's more realistic than a modern heroine would likely be - her worries about her clothes and their suitability would not occur to most modern YA heroines - yet is realistic. And yes, there is some clothing porn here:

The two-piece shantung ensemble was a gay print of blurred rose. It was perfect with Kit's dark hair and gray eyes. She could see herself marching confidently into a newspaper office. Wearing the jacket, she would look business-like; on removing it,she had a dine-and-dance dress

Paul's discomfort with working sounds odd, and the near-universal dismissal of Kit's efforts with the boat seem harsh. Red distinguishes himself (and feeds my old theory about boys named Red in fiction) by being the only one who mentions that it was pretty lucky for Diane that Kit came to Florida, and by admiring her work on the Matilda.

She thought back to the moment when she had dressed for her first day at Young Modern. Her confidence of two weeks ago was gone. It had been peeled from her by the failure of her New York dream, the shock of Jack's accident, Mr. Forbes' attitude, the rejection by the employment agency, the realization of her own shortcomings.

Kit loses her boundless confidence and discovers how hard it is to even just earn a living, let alone succeed. It's implied that this will make her a better person and more successful, that a knowledge of her own flaws will strengthen her for the career ahead. I have my doubts. True, Paul's example is convincing - a well-off boy who's never had to struggle and doesn't accept that he ever should have to work hard - but there's such a thing as having the confidence dented, not knocked back a few steps. Kit's so arrogant at the start that she can stand some knocks; others might have folded tents and been destroyed by what only serves to strengthen her. While the moral to this story might be similar to a fairy tale - be humble and work hard - I take from it that it's all luck. The right temperament in the right place at the right time...

About the Authors
Helen Girdey Ross aka Zola H. Ross
Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Washington 1948-1955
Teacher in Kirkland, Washington
Pseudonyms included Z.H. Ross, Helen Arre, and Bert Lles

Lucile Saunders McDonald
Graduated from the University of Oregon in 1923
Freelance journalist who worked for the Seattle Times Magazine
Lived in Washington State most of her life, and was very interested in its history
Wrote or co-wrote nearly 30 books

Zola Ross and Lucile McDonald wrote several juvenile novels, including
The Mystery of Catesby Island (1950)
Stormy year (1952)
Friday's Child (1954)
Mystery of the Long House (1956)
Pigtail Pioneer (1956)
Wing Harbor (1957)
The Courting of Ann Maria (1958)
Assignment in Ankar (1959)
The Sunken Forest (1968)
For Glory and the King (1969)

Obituary for Lucile Saunders McDonald
University of Washing Special Collections - Lucile Saunders McDonald

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