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 reads 'Happy Endings Are All Alike', the 1978 Sandra Scoppettone novel about two young lesbians who want to be together in the worst way.
Sometime around the invention of email, slowly drifting into cubicle death, I sent the following email to a high school friend I hadn't spoken to in years:
Hils, What's the name of the book where there are two lesbians and the girl gets raped under a tree? Not My Sweet Audrina. There are two girls on the cover. How are you?
The friend in question did not even bother to respond to the perfunctory closing query. Addressing only the former, she zinged back simply:
HAPPY ENDINGS ARE ALL ALIKE!!!!!
Such is the power of this novel, which I had borrowed from the friend in question for months until I was forced to finally return it, then commenced idly thinking about roughly every three days since. It wasn't only that there were lesbians, or rape, or pretty girls in polo tees with shiny hair on the cover who I might grow up to look like. It was that, like so much of the work of Paula Danziger or Paul Zindel, it presaged a world for us filled with more than gym teachers hurling basketballs at us (see Plotfinder), alive with teenagers struggling with the new complexity of adult relationships-one in which gym teachers, lesbian or no, weren't anywhere near the center of the drama.
I'd like to provide the nut graf for Happy Endings Are All Alike, but Scoppettone's first paragraph does it so admirably it seems a shame to mess with it:
Even though Jaret Tyler had no guilt or shame about her love affair with Peggy Danziger she knew there were plenty of people in this world who would put it down. Especially in a small town like Gardener's Point, a hundred miles from New York City. She and Peggy didn't go around wearing banners, but there were some people who knew.
Considering the hullabaloo about teenage sex-ANY kind of teenaged sex-nowadays, pretty much every sentence of that paragraph is mind-blowing. But remember, this is the fictional world 1978, where parents might mention Susan Brownmiller as quickly as they asked you to set the table. Castigated by her sister, Peggy thinks resentfully to herself, "You weren't a pervert just because you loved someone of your own sex, for God's sake!" And, as the preternaturally well-adjusted Jaret puts it to said mother: "Look, I know where you're coming from, Mom, but don't let it freak you out. I'll tell you this: Whatever I did with boys I found really boring. I didn't get turned on, okay?....And it's got nothing to do with you and Dad. I mean, you didn't make some terrible mistake in raising me or anything. And it's not so terrible. In fact, it's pretty nice. So don't lay a guilt trip on yourself, okay?" Okay! And don't forget the napkins!
But just because Peggy and Jaret - and, nominally, their semi-informed families - are not completely up in arms about their relationship, it doesn't mean they are off the hook entirely. The ancillary characters are brought in to project the basic prejudices of their time- a narrative conceit that might seem clumsy in an adult novel but it, be-LIEVE me, provided crucial info for an eight year old girl.
First to hold a nasty grudge at the girls' love is Peggy's sister Claire, who is jealous not only of her sister's favor with their father but her looks:
She lit another cigarette, sending up a smoke screen between herself and the mirror. Again her mind fixed on Peggy and Jaret. Both of them were attractive. Jaret might even be considered beautiful. Dammit, she was beautiful...by male standards, she was a knockout. And that was what really made Claire crazy. Jaret Tyler could have had any boy or man she wanted and she wanted none. Peggy, too, could have had her pick. And who did they choose? Each other. It was sick. Crazy. Enraging. Why, when they could have the cream of the crop, did they want each other?
Okay, first lesson-people think if you're a good-looking, not getting with a man is a waste. Lies! Check. Scoppettone's second lesson: Not all heterosexual relationships are happy, or free of complication-but that doesn't mean married women are all oppressed. Jaret's parents are a case in point: While Kay, her mother, muses her husband is madly in love with her, she thinks with irritation how she's truly invested in his looks, even if she allows him to think it's the other way around:
He often accused her of regarding him as nothing more than a sex object and she had a hard time denying it. "Well, kid," she often said, "I can't help it if you're a looker." "What about my mind?" he'd ask. Kay would shrug and say, "Who needs it?"
Of course, she didn't really mean it. She just said it to keep Bert aware of the way women were treated. And he knew that. What he didn't know what that Kay was not overwhelmed by his mind.
Kay is an interesting character-an aggressively liberated Mom who is deeply disturbed at how disturbed she is about her daughter's new relationship:
She lit a fresh cigarette. [If you're thinking of lesbians, grab a smoke.] Kay had read everything she could find on the subject of homosexuality and lesbianism and what she'd read wasn't that helpful. There were many theories as to why a person turned out to be a lesbian-environment, chromosomes, choice-and a lot of big, fat blanks. No one really seemed to know. Nevertheless, Kay couldn't help blaming herself and Bert. But why blame? Why the need to put it in those terms? She knew it was because she still had one foot in the fifties and a lesbian life-style was not what she'd had in mind for her daughter; it was not something she could fully accept as normal, no matter how liberated she might be
Oh, what a fraud she was! Pretending to Jaret is was all fine with her, simply swell, because she wanted Jaret to like her, to think she was cool! What she really wanted to do was throw herself at her feet and beg her to see a psychiatrist so she'd get over this thing.
Equally equivocating is Peggy's friend Bianca, who reacts to the news with blase sophistication until one day Peggy, chatting with her in the bedroom, tells her sweating friend to take off her clothes, then is shocked and appalled to realize she thinks she's hitting on her:
"Besides," said Peggy, "do you think I'm interested in all females?"
"I thought...I don't know," she said, somewhat ashamed.
"No, I guess you don't. I thought you understood. I mean, are you interested in every guy you see?"
This was not only a revolutionary piece of transitory logic to a third-grader, but also a good schooling in the minor injustices visited on people who are different by well-meaning people, particularly (primarily!) their own friends. But if the emotional travails of their friends and family were the only ones in store for the girls, this would be a fairy story, not a political coming-of-age. There are deeper dangers in a character named Mid, a friend of Jaret's brother Chris and no less disturbing for being stereotypically disturbed. Musing he'd like to "knock [Jaret] on her ass" for being so good-looking and aloof, he stalks her and finds out that she and Peggy have been making love in the woods. Not realizing Peggy and Jaret's rareifed world is only agonized about their girls' predilections, not apt to disown them for them, he decides he can rape her with impunity.
The rape scene is long and awful and I APOLOGIZE for their being like 88 rape scenes in these columns lately. But the introduction of sex to girls, however it is rendered, is such a constant trope in the novels, it is instructive to think of how it's handled by the character-in this case, Jaret, who is shocked and destroyed, though not permanently-and by the author, whose scene is neither maudlin nor lurid, but simply chilling:
"I hate your guts," he whispered.
Why then? she wondered apathetically. His movement continued. Her head was turned to the side. Breathing became difficult. Month after month passed. Staring at the landscape, she wondered why the seasons didn't change. Where was the snow? She longed for snow, cool, white. Snow would stop the burning inside. She felt her body rock as Mid's movements quickened. Would she break apart? Explode into pieces of flesh, bone, blood, flying through the air, sticking to trees, bushes?
Was 8-or anything but 18, for that matter-too young to be exposed to this kind of thing? As horrifying as it was, I don't think so. The early exposure to injustice from someone on Jaret's side absolutely is a powerful tonic to defend against the crappy justice system the reader is going to grow into. The sheriff Jaret has to deal with after the rape is cut from the same cloth as Are You in the House Alone's awful lawman, and as awful to watch as the parents who stand up for their girls are a relief:
"What's the name of her boyfriend?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" Kay asked.
"Pardon?" said Foster.
"Why do you want to know about a boyfriend? She was horribly beaten. It has nothing to do with a boyfriend."
"Pardon, Mrs.," Foster said, "but you're out of your element here, so to speak. The girl was raped and we have to find the perpetrator. Now, please, let me do my job."
"This is a crime of violence," Kay went on, "not a sexual one."
Foster cacled, took a swipe at his nose with thumb and forefinger. "Well, if rape ain't sexual then I don't know what it is."
"Well, I have news for you," Kay persisted, her voice rising. "It ain't sexual. It's aggressive and it's violent and it's based on hatred of women, not desire for them."
GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH DON'T YOU WANT TO KILL HIM! (Just wait until he gets to the part later about how it didn't matter that Jaret was raped because a) she's not a virgin and b) she's a lesbian.) So, say what you will about early exposure, but it definitely gave you your feminist talking points-of which I have personally amassed a very large collection ever since.
But-despite these handy fillips-what's wonderful about Happy Endings Are All Alike is how it chooses to not devolve into a paroxysm of blame. Not only is Jaret's lesbianism not Kay's fault-it's not a fault-but it or the rape doesn't turn Jaret bitter against men, which is another prejudice Scoppettone uses the book to debunk. After Jaret's brother, Chris, beats up Mid, he realizes it was unnecessary:
"Chris, you know, we never talked about what you did that day. Going after Mid like that."
"What's to talk about?"
"Why'd you do it?"
"What d'you mean? He hurt you, I wanted to hurt him. Simple." He looked past her shoulder.
"Is that the only reason?"
"Sure, what else?"
"I don't know." She touched his hand. "Are you angry with me? Do you hate me?"
He was shocked, sat up. "Me? Hate you? No. I thought....I mean, wow....I thought you hated me."
"Why?" she asked, dumbfounded.
"Well, I'm a....a guy."
"I don't hate men, Chris."
"You don't? Then how come....I mean, you come you're a...."
"A lesbian? It's not such a terrible word. I'm not sure why but it definitely isn't because I hate men."
"Not even after what happened?"
"No. I'm angry with him, Mid, but not all men. Not you."
"I thought for sure"-he cleared his throat-"lesbians hated men."
"Well, we don't. But what's that got to do with you going after Mid? And don't tell me it was just because he hurt me because I won't buy it."
Christ stood up, shuffled back and forth at the end of the bed. Then he said, "I thought if you saw a guy do something good, you know, kind of breave....well, I thought maybe you wouldn't think all guys were so bad."
"Oh, Chris." Jaret loved him more then than she ever had.
I started this review talking about how this book was brain-searing simply for its depiction of an adult romantic relationships, and I think that's true, for an eight-year-old read. But what I find so interesting as an adult is not the depiction of the romantic relationship, which, happily, seems very normal to me now, or the depiction of the rape, which, unhappily, also does, but what passes between all the family members once Jaret and Peggy come clean, and then when Jaret is assaulted. Both are huge bombs dropped on the people who love them, but Instead of making the family and friends betray the girls, Scoppettone instead deals with the ways they feel they are-and especially why they feel they are. No family members, including Peggy and Jaret, are at fault for anything. That's a good lesson to know. But, in a novel where all of the relationships are as complex as Peggy and Jaret's love, it's nice to know that, in one author's view, family is not a fault.
• • • • •
Guys, I am sorry the columns of late have been SO RAPE-Y! Seriously, no mas. Stranger With My Face has bodily invasion but no raping, and I am assured The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has neither. Whew!
Moving right along, Australia/France or no, once again you Plotfinders (that's a designation and an appellation) pulled through! The solution was Hating Allison Ashley, and the winner, by email, was one un-hateable Andria A. Andria, write me at email@example.com to claim your prize of the choice of one column.
This week's Plotfinder comes from reader Patricia C., and is the last misery I will do before embarking on a summer of happy happy happy:
a teen whose parents own a gym
her father actually tries to get her to miscarry by throwing one of those gym balls at her hard
she leaves home
gets forced into prostitution after having her baby
i'm guessing it gets worse for her (how can that be?)
so she goes back home to the gym leaves her baby on the floor and drowns herself in the hot tub.
Our gym teacher really did throw gym balls-HARD-at us, but just because this was the days before they made them stop doing that kind of thing. I will not throw anything at you if you guess this incorrectly. Answers in the comments or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and fame and fortune to the first in.
For your reading information, next week is Lois Duncan's...
Stranger With My Face
and the following week the marvelous Laura Lippman guesting with...
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase!
I haven't yet decided on where we'll be after that. I have all of your WONDROUS suggestions, but if you want to really really get me when I'm vulnerable, be all vociferous and shit for your desired work, and I will probably be swayed. As ever, send your requests, valedictions and remonstrations to email@example.com.
Also, you may have heard: There is to be a book! Do you want to read all about it? Do you have a better title for me than "Read All About It"? Fantastic! To be on the mailing list for any events and news regarding the upcoming creation, send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the words I'LL HELP YOU THINK OF A TITLE in the subject line and I'll put you on it.
(One last thing: here is one commenter who has asked several times if anyone has heard of Constance C. Greene's Beat the Turtle Drum and remained unanswered. I can't stand to let anyone wander in the wilderness this way. Reader: I read it. It was one of my faves, too, and I will try to get it into the column soon.)
Happy Endings Are All Alike
Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag]
Earlier: The Pigman: A Day No Friends Would Die
•Julie Of The Wolves: The Call Of The Wild
• Deenie: Brace Yourself
•A Wrinkle In Time: Quit Tesseracting Up
•Love Is One Of The Choices: No, Not That 'Sex And The City'
•The Girl With The Silver Eyes: Little Pitchers Have Big Pharma
•Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself: Springtime For Hitler, Part II
•Summer Of My German Soldier: Springtime For Hitler, Part I
•From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: City Of Angels
•A Gift Of Magic: Totally Psyched
•Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan
•The Secret Garden: Still No Idea What A Missel Thrush Is
•To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie: No Telephone To Child Services
•The Westing Game: Partners In Crime
• The Moon By Night: Travels With Vicky
•My Sweet Audrina: The Book Of Sister And Forgetting
•The Long Secret: CSI: Puberty
•The Cat Ate My Gymsuit: A Pocket Full Of Orange Pits
•The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
•Are You In The House Alone? One Out Of Four, Maybe More
•Jacob Have I Loved: Oh, Who Am I Kidding, I Reread This Book Once A Week
• Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Close Your Eyes, And Think Of Jersey City
•My Darling, My Hamburger: I Will Gladly Pay You Tomorrow For A D&C Today
•All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn
•Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
•Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
•The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die