Friday, January 27, 2012

Young Adult Books of Bygone Times

My favorite book when I was a young teenager was Bab, a Sub-Deb, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, a book my mother liked to read when she was a teenager, indeed the very same copy. I found it on a bookshelf in Granny's house, along with many other delightful books to beguile the long, quiet summers in Canada. What Katy Did. A number of light romances by P. G. Wodehouse. Sherlock Holmes. Some Kipling. And a profusion of mysterious and exotic fairy books.

These days Bab would be considered a Young Adult book, in that the protagonist was a girl of seventeen. When I told my third-year high school English teacher that Bab, a Sub-Deb, was my favorite book, she was convulsed with scorn, possibly because it had been written to entertain and was not Deep. She gave us Arrowsmith to read, and I really did try to like it, but (spoiler alert!) when the doctor's wife died from not getting vaccinated for the disease whose epidemic the doctor had gone to East Djabip to study, I threw it against the wall. Metaphorically, of course. The book belonged to the school; I would never deface public property.

Books by sorrowful Deep Men were considered more worthy when I was in school than books by merry women. Perhaps they still are. I was going to review Bab for you, point out its charm and grace, how funny it is, how prettily it paints the era just before the U.S. entered World War I. Issues deeper than Babs' goofy adolescent concerns are not addressed. Should we be going to war? Is it really our fight? What are these labor agitators carrying on about? Nobody asks these questions. But you couldn't, back in 1917, not without going to jail, and such questions would never have occurred to Mary Roberts Rinehart in any case.

As I think about it I find that instead of reviewing that book, I want to talk about the books that bore our high school English teacher's stamp of approval. Literary men's books. As I remember those tomes they all had messages in them. If you were a manly male writer you could present the wretched neuroses and failures of your protagonist without grace or humor, and everyone would say it was Honest and call it Art. Any well-balanced woman could have seen from afar what the consequences of the protagonist's behavior would be. But, no. Go ahead! Take your wife to the epidemic! Fail to vaccinate her!

And so we conclude that putting your work before your personal life is a bad idea, as if no one could have figured that out without reading a whole book. Spare me your life insights. Entertain me. Give me Bab, a Sub-Deb, every time.

Read it yourself if you like. Here's a copy from Harold's online library:

If you're sick enough to want to read Arrowsmith you'll have to find your own copy.

Kate Gallison

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