Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Too Bad About The Haines Girl (1967)

Too Bad About The Haines Girl
Zoa Sherburne, il. Cynthia Basil (cover)
1967, William Morrow and Company

It was like walking in the shadows, Melinda thought, like moving through a nightmare that went on and on. No matter how bright the day, how gay the companions, the cloud was there, a chill thing ready to fall about her shoulders like a clammy coat, silencing her unthinking laughter and dimming her easy smile.

From the first paragraph of the book, Melinda Haines knows she is pregnant. She's known for a while. She's denied it to herself, she's begged God to change it, and now she's numbly accepting it's true. She's 17, a senior in high school, and she's going to have a baby in a little under six months. Now she has to tell Jeff, her boyfriend and unofficial fiance. They love each other and they had already planned to get married eventually, but he had been determined to finish school and support his widowed mother and little brother first. She's torn between anger at him, anger at the situation and anger at herself. She can't find the words to tell him at first, then snaps at him when he tries to take her hand and draw her along to their next class.

"Don't yank at me, Jeff. You know I hate it."

He stared at her. "Sometimes," he said deliberately, "sometimes I have the feeling you hate me."

She bit her lip childishly, but there was nothing childish about the look in her eyes. "Sometimes," she said, "I wish I did."

A classmate, the knowing Polly Wyman, spots Melinda's dilemma with that unerring instinct of the born predator, and tells her of a woman who performs abortions for $200. Melinda is sickened - but inspired. Her worst nightmare could end, if she had this abortion. No one would know about the pregnancy, there would be no rumors, no gossip. And it's the hideously predictable gossip that Melinda most fears. The way her life, her and Jeff's romance and their unlucky, impulsive act and its consequences, will become public fodder, will be the latest thing everyone in her and her family's 'nice' circles will chew on with the solemn, sad glee of the righteous. Melinda hates that above all else, and the idea of escaping it, of keeping her privacy and her status, is unbearably tempting.

Melinda grapples with a variety of temptations. The abortion is only one route that occurs to her as she struggles, mostly alone, with her situation. Gazing into the darkness of the alley behind her home, she dreams of disappearing. To walk out and hitch a ride and never be seen again. She finds her mother's sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet and considers how easy an overdose would be. Jeff, faced with driving her to the woman who will perform abortions, suggest eloping.

There are anachronisms, of course, largely involving the social setup of the school (I find the idea of public high schools having school songs just hysterical) and that roundabout way older teen books had about discussing sex.

At first necking in a parked car was just exciting. It was the excitement of finding out about yourself... the wonder of discovering what you could feel for another person, a very special person. You thought you were the only ones in the entire world who felt like this, and it got harder and harder to pull away...

But there's a great deal right with the book. Sherburne does spot-on character descriptions, like this one for Polly:

She gave the impression, after a while, that she could tell any story,even Little Women, and have it come out sounding a little smutty.

And she has a knack for moving the plot along. That the plots are somewhat relentlessly relevant, a sort of precursor to the television episodes of ABC's Afterschool Specials, is part of the charm.

Most importantly, Melinda is very real. She is perhaps given too much to represent - as in most 'relevant' problem novels, the hero/heroine has to field all possible ideas and feelings - but ultimately her emotions feel true and her reactions seem unforced. When she finally, exhaustedly, turns to her parents after a grimly ironic celebration, you get the impression of a teenager who's grown up very, very fast and would now like to sleep. The tone of the book, which has been fevered and tightly-wound high drama, slows and becomes quietly, painfully realistic.

Some have dismissed Too Bad About The Haines Girl as a fantasy, what with the boy being faithful and willing to marry his pregnant girlfriend. I don't disagree that the boy as white knight is awfully convenient, but on the other hand, this plot choice made it possible to remain centered on Melinda. She's barely aware of him or his emotions or choices; she's distantly glad he's sticking by her, but in the final analysis, what's happening to her is happening to her. And the book remains faithful to that, instead of wandering off to investigate Jeff's feelings and problems. And that's kind of amazing, because even today books about girls and women have a tendency to wander off in the direction of the nearest male character to explain his problems and world view. Books that live for their female protagonist are few and far between.

A note on the abortion issue
The book was published in 1967, six years before the Supreme Court of the United States legalized abortion in the January 22, 1973 ruling on Roe v. Wade. The depiction of abortion -

The [educational] film had been sickening. It showed a girl being rushed to the hospital after an abortion, and the doctors trying and trying to save her. She had died anyway. Maybe she'd wanted to die; maybe she felt it was better than being arrested and having all that horrible disgrace and publicity. There were other girls in the film who didn't die, girls who would never be able to have children, girls who were ill - not just physically ill, but mentally ill.

- is understandable in that it's of the 'back alley' abortions done while the procedure was illegal. But it's clear that the author and her characters would not approve of an abortion done safely and legally; an abortion is presented as an evil temptation.

Other books
Almost April
Ballerina On Skates
Evening Star
Girl In The Mirror
The High White Wall
Princess In Denim
River At Her Feet
Stranger In The House
The Girl Who Knew Tomorrow
Why Have The Birds Stopped Singing?

About the Author
Sherburne turned from short stories to young adult novels in the 1950s, as periodicals publishing shorts declined. Her books usually feature a teenage girl facing a social problem, and the word 'relevant' springs irresistibly to mind. One book, 1963's Stranger In The House, was made into a CBS telefilm called Memories Never Die in 1992.

The Seattle Times obituary on October 10, 1995
de Grummond Collection
National Abortion Federation - the history of abortion in the U.S.
A shot of the book's cover at Fantastic Fiction