Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself', Judy Blume's 1977 story of Sally Freedman, who, following WWII, spends a year in Miami and triumphs over Hitler and Man O' Wars.
"Can I have another jelly sandwich?" Sally asked her grandmother, Ma Fanny. They were in the kitchen of the room house, sitting on opposite sides of the big wooden table.
"Such big eyes!" Ma Fanny said, laughing. "You still have half a sandwich left."
Okay, everyone, quick poll: raise your hand if, after V-Day, you want your brother to get sick with nephritis so your dentist father can send you, your mom and your bubeh from NJ down to Miami for the winter to help him get better and you can go to school in a trailer and bike around being afraid that your neighbor, Mr. Zavosky, is Hitler, while you get your braid tugged by a boy you only later figure out you like and your grandmother calls you "mumeshana" and you dream of your dead cousins, Lila and Tante Rose, killed in the Holocaust, and you drink cocoa with whiskey because you're trying to make the creme de cacao your Mom drank in Cuba, and then you get stung by a Man O' War and complimented by said brother on being braver than he thought and catch Virus X and eat two bowls of chicken with rice soup, then try on some toe shoes.
For those who didn't do last week's assigned reading (or, you know, read the preceding paragraph), Blume's wondrous near-autobiography is the story of one Sally J. Freedman, whose father (dubbed neither my mistaken last week's "Dodo-bird" nor "Dooey-bird" but in fact "Doey-bird") moves the rest of the family from N.J. to Miami after the end of the war for one year when Douglas, the older son, needs to recover from a bout of nephritis. Thus ensconced in the Sun Belt with her mother and Ma Fanny, Sally embarks on a series of adventures that only another girl could understand are true adventures, including getting nits, having a friend fall on a bike, getting stung by a man o' war, washing diamonds with a hotsie-totsie in the Ladies Room, having her neighbor get knocked up by a goy, and discovering her neighbor is Hitler.
You might note from one of those that Sally is also given to vast flights of fancy, which, given the times, wend to spy missions in Europe and captures of Hitler — who has, in fact, killed her cousin Lila and Tante Rose, her grandmother's sister, both gassed in Auschwitz. Sally's triumphant narrative:
Sally F. Meets Adolf H
It is during the war and Sally is caught by Hitler in a round-up of Jewish people in Union County, New Jersey...He orders the Gestapo to bring her to his private office. Tell me, you little swine, Hitler hisses at her. Tell me what you know and I'll cut off your hair.
...Sally shakes her head. I'll never tell you anything...never!
So Hitler goes to his desk and gets his knife and he slowly slashes each of her fingers. She watches as her blood drips onto his rug, covering the huge swastika in the middle.
Look what you've done, you Jew bastard, Hitler cries hysterically. You've ruined my rug!
Ha ha, Sally says. Ha ha ha on you, Adolf....And then she passes out.
When she comes to, Hitler is asleep and snoring with his head down on the desk. Sally crawls out of his office, then dashes down the hall to the secret passageway of the underground. She gives them valuable information leading to the capture of Adolf Hitler and the end of the war.
Sally's approximations of what is actually going on in her family and the world around her run at roughly the same level of accuracy. After espying it on her babysitter's stationary, she knows "Love and Other Indoor Sports" is a fine way to sign off on a letter, but not exactly what kind of letter it's for. She knows her father has called her mother's lavender-and-black bathroom a bordello, but not why praising some else's bathroom as same might not yield a joyous response. She is hazy not only on the concept of Latin Lovers but on the question of whether there is a country, in fact, called "Latin." And while it's possible that Mr. Zavodsky, her next-door neighbor, might in fact be Adolf Hitler, she's not quite old enough to give up on the possibility.
It seems impossible to write about Starring Sally J. using a straightforward plot synopsis, because, like some glorious dish of kreplach, its mighty stuffing of detail exists in a symbiotic relationship with the soup of the plot. (As we have previously covered, frontiers, English manor homes, and the 40s somehow lend themselves unswervingly to that old detail porn, a fact for which PBS must be very, very grateful.) Instead, you hear about curtains being run up on sewing machines and you can't help but be transported right into Sally's apartment, with its Murphy bed and courtyard fountain with goldfish, and in the kitchen you sit, being spoken to by Ma Fanny entirely in Yiddish, reverse-syntax English and ellipses. There's your grade-school teacher Miss Swetnick over there, with her heart-shaped glasses and chipped tooth, and there's your Sunday at Herschel's, with just a little cherry juice on top. That's the ring on your four-party phone (one long ring, followed by two short), and there you are in the grade school bathroom pulling down your Esther Williams-esque coronet to make Margaret O'Brien braids and stuffing your white socks into the garbage to look more like the girls in Florida and not the ones in NJ. (And hoping God will forgive you this one time when the starving children in Europe could probably — right? — use those white socks.)
But I wonder if another reason we swoon for Sally J. is that, as readers, we were very much at the same level of detail comprehension — not only in our real-world lives, but in our reading of the book itself. After all, not only did I also have no idea what an "addition" or "Creme de Cacao" was (though I too tried to approximate it with Hershey's and whiskey) I also was ignorant of so many of the ready references of Sally J.'s world that she understood perfectly well: Jolly Rodger, dog tags, "Swells", Esther Williams, Margaret O'Brien, open-sided pinafores, Admiral Halsey. (To be perfectly honest, I still have no idea who Admiral Halsey is.) Any goyim must have been even more ferblondzet!
Pre-Wikipedia, I of course only realized who Esther Williams was years later, and some of the scenes — like that Ma Fanny borrowed Sally's English book to practice English and THAT'S why it was in the pantry — I just realized now (I am slow). But even as an eight-year-old, I understood that Sally realizing Peter Hornstein liked her, or that she was more adventurous than her mother, was a great leap forward for my beloved character. And though, at age 8, I may not have known yet who Eva Braun was, or where Union Woods could be found, I knew when Sally made peace with the fact that, probably, Hitler was not running amok in them, I too could set aside this childish dream.
Still longing for a finished basement, though!
• • • • • •
Now, for this week's Plotfinder winner: Congratulations, one Gillian B., who slid in with the correct answer, O.T. Nelson's The Girl Who Owned a City, pretty much *as* the post was posted. (Do you know, I've actually never read that one? Whatever—have you read The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids? That's what I thought!) Congratulations, Gillian—write me at email@example.com to claim your column, any column.
This week's Plotfinder comes from reader Allison, who sent me a great many Plotfinders, all of which we will get to eventually:
Theres also one about a little girl, and a little girl witch lives in the abandoned house next door. She flies her broom into the bushes I think, and climbs into the window. She eventually turns herself into a turtle, and goes to school with the non-witch girl. The turtle-witch girl sneaks off, into another classroom with younger kids, and ends up in the cafeteria eating out of a big jar of strawberry jam.
Is it just me or do the Plotfinders increasingly resemble head trips? In any case: Send your answers, as always, to firstname.lastname@example.org, or post below in the comments. First correct answer gets their favorite pick in an upcoming Fine Lines.
And, finally. I have heard around the way that some Jezestrelles would like to know the books ahead of time. Oy! All right. I'm also finally cracking to reader pressure—WITH the provisional caveat that I may change my mind periodically or, you know, forget. I mean, I'm the person that has a shopping bag with things to return to Target that I forget EVERY TIME I GO TO TARGET, even when I'm going there to return them.
With that, next week's book will be The Girl With the Silver Eyes, followed by Plotfinder winner Sarah R.'s request: Norma Klein's Love is One of the Choices, followed by some TBR blockbusters in June. Happy Half.com! (And by the way, if you NEVER read Klein, I recommend going whole hog on whatever is there, especially Sunshine.)
As always, write me at email@example.com with your demands, observations, remonstrations, and Man O' War remembrances.
Earlier: Summer Of My German Soldier: Springtime For Hitler, Part I
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