Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Unchosen (1963)

The Unchosen
Nan Gilbert
1963, Harper & Row
Edition shown: 1965 Scholastic, il. Bob Cassell (cover)

We three were the have-nots, leagued against the haves.  The left-out pretending not to envy the soughtafters.  Three high-school seniors who had never had a single date, not one - can you imagine it?

Ellen Frazer, awkward and pudgy, looks dispassionately at herself and her two friends  - Debbie Fuller (chubby and desperately boy-crazy) and Kay Nicholson (self-consciously tall and painfully skinny) - and concludes privately that they are The Unchosen.  She also concludes that their families are no help.  Her hearty German-American mother solves every problem with food and needs reassurance that her daughter is happy; Debbie's lack of popularity is made worse by having a younger sister who is extremely popular; and Kay's ongoing war with her feminine, fussy mother has embittered her against human relationships - an animal lover, she finds happiness in fussing over her beloved Fox Terrier, Midge.

But Ellen has an advantage.  She has been a collector of pen pals for years, living vicariously through their initial letters about alien lives in faraway places, but finding only disappointment with the subsequent flat updates on daily life.  With Norris Adair, she finds romance.  Norris sends long, interesting letters that thrill her, and they flirt through the mail.  The long-distance romance also gives her more respect among her friends - at least she has a sort of boyfriend.  Maybe. 

Over the course of their final year in high school, all three girls find their own ways out of anonymity.  Ellen's a typical protagonist; she's ambitious and self-aware, and too proud for her own ambitions.  She's quick to see the practical work that goes into making Ann Allison the most popular girl in the class, but can't quite figure out how to pull it off - and is not entirely aware that she lacks the commitment to fame, has a crippling amount of pride. It takes Kay's ruthlessly practical streak to mobilize the group - she calculates the number of unattached boys, and the percentage they'll have to approach to be assured of a reasonable rate of success.  And Debbie, once introduced to the male side of the school, goes on a tear.

"Oh, good grief, it's as simple as two plus two," Kay said impatiently.  "It you want to end up with five boys and you're only netting ten percent, you'd have to start out with fifty - see?"
"Gee," murmured Debbie, the blissful thought of five boys erasing her doubts as to how Kay proposed to snare them.

I have an affection for the teen novels that focus on the more average teen problems.  One of the worst things about being a teenager is how you're starting to realize that prosaic, clich├ęd situations can be extraordinarily painful, which means you suffer without getting any respect.  Here you are, at the height of your energy and passion, and your emotions are all inflamed by wanting a date to a stinking prom, or arguing with your mother.  Where's the drama, where's the grand scale?

This book pulls it off.  The writing is solid, and the characters are strong.  From brooding Ellen to defensively indifferent Kay to frantic Debbie, all three girls are convincing as nice outsiders who have to find their own ways to social happiness.  The pace is steady, but the pen pal plot is jerky, vanishing for much of the book and then resurfacing to tie everything up.  There is little feeling of place - the book is set in Oregon, but it's a stock, generic American suburb.  But best part may be the admission that you have to work to drag yourself out of the popularity gutter.  This is is refreshing; it's a lot more common to find books where the heroine's either rescued by a Ken doll or (more typically) realizes the popular kids are dull and her life's work lies with the cool outcasts.      

1963, Harper & Row at Amazon
1973, Harpercollins Childrens Books

About the Author
Mildred P. Geiger Gilbertson
From Eugene, Oregon
Graduated from the University of Texas, Austin in 1933

Loganberry Books  *notice the comments from Gilbert's daughter and granddaughter on that site

See Yourself In Print (for children) (1968)

365 Bedtime Stories (1955)
A Dog For Joey (1967)
Young Adult
The Strange New World Across The Street
Champions Don’t Cry (1960)
Academy Summer (1961)
Then Came November
A Knight Came Running (1965)

Hanna Barbera's Yogi Bear Takes A Vacation
Hanna Barbera's Fred Flintstone: Bewildered Babysitter
Nan Hanna Barbera's Fred Flintstone's Bewildered Baby-Sitter with Pebbles
The Three Fuzzy Bears
Sir Gruff (dog) (1947)
Young Macdonald On The Farm (1949) il. Theresa Kalb

Story Parade - "The Burglar Trap"
Fields And Fences
On My Honor (editor Marjorie Meyn Vetter, 1951)
Told Under Spacious Skies
Told Under The Stars And Stripes
From Many Lands