Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'Deenie', the 1973 story of a girl whose newly set back proves only a minor setback.
My mother named me Deenie because right before I was born she saw a movie about a beautiful girl named Wilmadeene, who everybody called Deenie for short. Ma says the first time she held me she knew right away I would turn out the same way—beautiful, that is.
Oh, how I wanted to look like the girl on this cover. She might be the only cover girl I ever wanted to look like, actually. (Those legs! That skirt! That SWEATER!) But kudos to the cover artist for catching that Deenie Fenner is that rare kind of beauty, appreciated both by her high-school-age peers and by modeling agencies in NY—and one of the few female characters to whom the reader might relate to exactly as the other characters do: with admiration, jealousy, and an involuntary sense of possession.
When we first meet Deenie, she's an ordinary high school girl, complete with a less pretty older sister, Helen, two best friends, Janet and Midge, a crush, Buddy Brader, and even an actual stalker, Susan Minton, who is given to wearing whatever Deenie wore last week. Her place in the social circle is secure if not exactly all-reigning, and while she by no means torments her inferiors, like the hunchbacked woman at the newstand, Gena Courtney, her wheelchair-bound neighbor, or Barbara Curtis, a new girl whose eczema Deenie privately calls "Creeping Crud," she's not exactly rushing out to sit with them at lunch either.
At home, her father—albeit affectionately—reacts to the events in Deenie's life with baffled, genial detachment: "I didn't make the cheerleading squad," "So you'll find another activity." But her mother has even greater plans for her—to push Deenie into a modeling career: "Deenie, God gave you a beautiful face. Now he wouldn't have done that if he hadn't intended for you to put it to good use." On her own beauty, Deenie's fairly neutral, treating it with admirable equanimity, and only a few qualms. When she's trying out for the cheerleading squad, "Most times I don't even think about the way I look but on special occasions, like today, being good looking really comes in handy. Not that a person has any choice about it. I'm just lucky." But when she thinks a little deeper on her mother's set roles for her and her sister Helen ("Deenie's the beauty, and Helen's the brain!" her mother crows to anyone who'll listen) a few fault lines emerge: "One thing I'm sure of is I don't want to spend my life cleaning house like Ma. Sometimes I think Helen's lucky. She'll be a doctor or a lawyer or engineer and she'll never have to do those things. But if I don't make it as a model, then what?"
Still, it's important to remember that Deenie's no Queen Bee, even though she's well-received in all the modeling agencies her mother totes her around to (despite the increasing complaints about her posture...foreboding, foreshadowing!!!). In another narrative Deenie might lord a recent trip to New York to see a modeling scout over her friends, but Deenie's a product of her present, not the future her mother sees for her:
When we go to Woolworth's Janet's the best at trying on junk without buying. You're not supposed to do that but Janet always gets away with it. The one time I tried on some nail polish the saleslady caught me and I had to buy the whole bottle.
"And we say Harvey Grabowsky," Midge said.
"Yes, we followed him all around the store."
"Did he say anything?"
"He never even noticed."
Harvey is the best looking guy in the ninth grade. He's also on the football team and President of his his class. Harvey has never said one word to me. I guess he doesn't talk to seventh-grade girls at all.
As soon as I hung up the phone rang again. It was Janet.
"We followed Harvey Grabowsky in Woolworth's," she said.
"I know. I just talked to Midge."
"Did she tell you what he bought?"
"Three ballpoint pens and a roll of Scotch tape. And once I stood right next to him and touched his shirt sleeve!"
I just knew I'd miss out on something great by going to New York.
Yup, something great. Would have absolutely killed me to miss this, too, naturally. But the social drink of adolescence is like a delicate, primordial soup into which the introduction of a foreign agent can alter the composition forever, causing unexpected, irreversible roils in the resident organisms. Which is exactly what happens when Deenie—heretofore heading in a predictable evolutionary direction—finds out she has scoliosis. (Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, that is, or, in Deenie's words, "adolescent and something that sounded like idiotic.")
Suddenly, Deenie goes from having her photo snapped and practicing her walk in front of agents to having her X-rays taken and walking around in order for the doctor to better pinpoint her infirmity. It's portfolio to pathology, a narrative parallel I did not fully appreciate pre-Masters Degree. Even Deenie's new doctor doesn't respond to her in the predictable ways she's used to, as he examines her and she checks out the photos on his wall:
"Were you a good football player?"
"I was fair," he said. "Are you interested in football?"
"I'm not sure. I don't know much about it yet. I wanted to be a cheerleader, but I didn't make the squad."
He didn't say anything about that. I thought he would. I thought he'd say "Well, you can try again next year" or something like that. Instead he said, "Bend over and touch your toes with your hands, Deenie."
No more cheerleading, no more modeling—and no more "you'll find another activity." Instead, it's a race to figure out what activities the new, highly unimproved Deenie actually can do, and who's to blame for the situation:
In the car, on the way home, Ma told Daddy, "Your cousin Belle had something wrong with her back....remember?"
"That was different," Daddy said. "She had a slipped disc."
"But I'll bet that's where this came from."
"I don't think so," Daddy said.
"Because you don't want to think so!" Ma told him.
I wanted them to stop acting like babies and start helping me. I expected Daddy to explain everything on the way home—all that stuff Dr. Griffith had been talking about—that I didn't understand. Instead, he and Ma argued about whose fault it was that I have something wrong with my spine until we pulled into the driveway. It was almost as if they'd forgotten I was there.
And in a way, Deenie is not there anymore. (Also: Ah, marriage.) As the doctor marks her plaster cast with a felt pen to show the braceman where he should put the straps, he might as well be marking the spot in the narrative where Deenie must also fit herself into a new role—finding out what's beneath the pretty face that was masking whatever was underneath. (Gimme one post-Masters moment of meta: when Deenie is cut out of the cast, she even finds that her body stocking has disappeared, leaving her nearly naked, a babe born into a new life who runs immediately for the closet, because it is also freaking mortifying to be naked in front of two doctors. Anyway, thanks! I'll try to keep these to a minimum.)
It's also no coincidence that the first thing Deenie does when she gets home is masturbate, an operation I am not ashamed to admit went right over my head at age 8: "I have this special place and when I rub it I get a very nice feeling. I don't know what it's called or if anyone else has it but when I have trouble falling asleep, touching my special place helps a lot." Deenie does have a private life, and private desires—and soon more socially acceptable ones will also be made manifest. (Deenie, by the way, other people have it! I have it! And I now understand you were NOT talking about your toe!)
The first step is breaking free of her mother:
The brace looks like the one Dr. Kliner showed us three weeks later. It's the ugliest thing I ever saw.
I'm going to take it off as soon as I get home. I swear, I won't wear it. And nobody can make me. Not ever!...I had to fight to keep from crying.
Just when I thought I was going to be okay Ma started. "Oh, my God!" she cried. "What did we ever do to deserve this?" She buried her face in a tissue and made sobbing noises that really got me sore. The louder she cried the madder I got until I shouted, "Just stop it, Ma! Will you just stop it please!"
Dr. Kliner said, "You know, Mrs. Fenner, you're making this very hard on your daughter."
Ma opened the door and ran out of Dr. Kliner's office.
Daddy hugged me and said, "I'm proud of you, Deenie. You're stronger than your mother."
And it's not only that she's stronger—her outward manifestation of difference makes Deenie realize she really is different, not only from what everyone thought of her, but what she thought of herself. "It was hard to believe I really had something in common with Old Lady Murray," Deenie thinks, looking at an illustration of kyphosis, hunchback-ism, with the nurse showing her what her own spine looks like. She's handed a form for the handicapped bus, throws it away, then wonders if her neighbor thinks of herself as a "handicapped person or just a regular girl, like me." She stops worrying about Barbara's creeping crud and being her gym partner after Barbara nicely ties her shoes in gym, since the brace makes it impossible to lean over anymore to do it herself. (Cry-line alert: "When she told us to choose partners Barbara and me looked at each other and grabbed hands." SOB, SOB.) But, sporting her new brace at school, she has her best insight when faced with the avatar of her old standards, Harvey Grabowsky:
When Harvey saw me he asked, "What happened to you?"
He would be the only one in school who didn't already know. "I have scol..." I stopped in the middle. I didn't feel like explaining anything to anybody. Instead I looked straight at him and said, "I jumped off the Empire State Building!" After I said it I felt better. I usually think up clever things to say when it's too late. From now on, when people ask me what's wrong, I'm going to give them answers like that. It's a lot smarter than telling the truth. No one wants to hear the truth. "I jumped right off the top!" I forced myself to laugh.
"Oh, Deenie!" Janet said. "Tell him the truth."
"I just did."
"Hey, that's a good story," Harvey told me.
It is, and it's a much better story than the story her mother had planned for her. After her mother pushes out Helen's boyfriend, coupled with Deenie's brace, the entire beauty and brains scheme comes crashing down in one epic sob scene:
"Oh Ma...you're impossible! Ma didn't give me a special brain. You made that up. And you almost convinced me, Ma...you almost did.... I used to tell myself it didn't matter if I wasn't pretty like Deenie because I have a special brain and Deenie's is just ordinary....but that didn't help Ma....it didn't help at all....because it's not true!"
Helen turned around and looked at me. Then she did the craziest thing. She ran to me and hugged me and cried into my shoulder. "It's not your fault, Deenie...don't let them make you believe that...it's really not your fault."
I started crying too. Helen doesn't hate me, I thought. She should, but she doesn't. We both cried so hard our noses ran but neither one of us let go of the other to get a tissue. And right through it all, Ma kept talking. "I wanted better for you," she said. "Better than what I had myself. That's what I've always planned for my girls...is that so wrong?"
SOB. Um, excuse me. SOB!!!!!!!! But how wonderful that this is not a simple comeuppance story, since it would have been so easy for Blume to make this a tale of the conceited beauty who gets brought low by her own flaws. (ALSO: BLUME IS A GENIUS.) Deenie's not conceited, she's just passive—a very minor flaw that, as Blume knows, in the long run can have far more dire results than excessive self-regard (which, unfortunately, kinda works in one's favor). Ironically, it's Deenie's brace that frees her from the invisible brace her mother was setting up for her, an adolescence locked into a role that would have derailed her growth as a real person. The plastic, with its collar and straps, chafes, but it's a minor cage—and, unlike the cage her mother had in mind, one Deenie can emerge from with her standing intact.
Now, for the winners of our double-header Plotfinder! You ladies are awesome. Onion-soup bath was, of course, In the Beauty of the Lilies. I mean, Where the Red Fern Grows. I mean, Homecoming. Where the Lilies Bloom!!!!!! That's it! I knew you'd get to it eventually, although I enjoyed all the associative variations, especially when they were delivered with such decisive, wrongheaded aplomb. ("IT IS WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS!!!!!!!!") Wait until you start making mental leaps likeThe Trumpet of the Swan into The March of the Wooden Soldiers, and we'll talk.
The winner, by LITERALLY ONE MINUTE, was commenter Nellicat. Congrats, N! Email me at email@example.com to claim your prize.