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 'To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie', the 1982 story of Sylvie Krail, who hits the road for Hollywood with a hatbox and a dream.
I've always had a soft spot for Ellen Conford, one of the great unsung authors of the YA genre. (I'm not quite sure how you quantify "sung"ness, but let's start it at screaming when an author's name is mentioned, for one.) And why is she unsung? Because her novels, I think, are so skilled and vibrant, she's prey to the solid-A syndrome: so dependable, readers forget she even exists. By the time our daily reading has switched to matte-finish trade paperbacks, memory has already mistakenly shelved her work in with a favorite, showier author. (My particular mis-shelf is always to put And This is Laura, her teen-psychic foray, into the Lois Duncan section.)
To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie — set in the 50s, peppered with references to Sen-Sens, James Dean, and oddments spelled "Teena"—is particularly vulnerable to such unjust switcheroos, as its subject matter hits notes from favorite by several heavy hitters: After veering vaguely into Judy Blume's Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself territory, we pivot momentarily off Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier, then careen for a moment into Francine Pascal's Hangin' Out With Cici.
But though the book bears glancing similarities with those others—a young girl obsessed with Hollywood, crappy father figures, Eisenhower-era signifiers — its entirely its own animal: a comic quest in which a 15-year-old tries desperately to get to Hollywood before a series of foster fathers and assorted other creeps get their hands on her.
When I originally read the story of 15-year-old Sylvie Krail, however, I'm not sure the complete direness of the situation — IF YOU WILL FORGIVE ME — penetrated entirely. Taking place over the course of 5 days in which Sylvie escapes her last foster home in New York and almost makes it to California (had it been written from the point of view of the eponymous heroine, I would have to add Lolita to the probable mixup file now), the book could basically stand beside Transamerica in the Humorous Heartwarmers For Adults That Begin With Really Unpleasant Sexual Encounters, Actually department.
When we meet Sylvie, who is exactly good-looking enough to invite perpetual trouble, she's that strange, singularly adolescent mixture of precociously cynical and totally out to lunch, deftly avoiding being routinely pawed by her yucky "Uncle" Ted while simultaneously spending $14.99 (=$3,455 current deficit dollars) of her hard-earned $137 runaway dollars on a hatbox, have-to model's gear, in preparation for her flight:
I figured I had about an hour and a half before they came back from church. I wished I could take a nice, cool shower, but there wasn't time. Everything had to be packed and my hatbox and suitcase had to be hidden before they got back from church.
Church. That was a laugh. Uncle Ted going to church and singing the hymns and praying to God and looking all Christian and holy five minutes after trying to tuck me into bed. What if they knew what he was really like? What if Aunt Grace knew? I bet she'd drop dead right in the middle of her paint-by-numbers oil picture of the last supper.
But maybe she wouldn't. Maybe she'd look straight at me and say, "Sylvie, you must be imagining things." That's what had happened the first time, when I was twelve.
So...bring on the screen tests! Unfortunately, Sylvie's preternatural knowledge of trademarks of the stars — "[Natalie Wood is] my ideal. We have practically identical eyebrows. The first thing I'm going to buy when I get my break in the movies is a gold slave bracelet" — does not translate into a similar knowledge of how to protect your money while on the road to Jericho. Because somewhere around Springfield, Ohio — right after Sylvie has settled on the screen name "Venida Meredith", swiped admirably from a "Venida Hair Nets" ad — she too is set upon by thieves:
I reached into my pocketbook to get a dim. I felt around, but there was so much stuff in there, I couldn't get to my wallet. I started taking things out and lining them up on the table: my compact, my lipstick, tissues, my pink scarf, the sunglasses with the white plastic frames I'd gotten at Woolworth's, my pad and pencil for letters to my mother and Judy....Faster and faster I grabbed for things, and the more stuff I took out, the more frantic I got. I should have been able to get to the wallet by now...
AH! I cannot even *write* the whole thing, and I don't mind telling you that actually when I REMEMBERED Sylvie's wallet gets stolen, I had to skip ahead to the actual moment because I could not bear reading her sitting next to this nice old lady for 5 pages, knowing full well she was going to swipe her wallet and leave Sylvie at the rest stop with nothing!!! (Anyone want to play name the "money stolen at a critical scene" game now? Thelma? Anyone?)
Luckily, at Sal's Roadside Rest, Sylvie too finds her Good Samaritan, a certain Walter Murchinson, who offers to drive her the rest of the way in his "Pontiac Chief Star Catalina." He is, luckily...:
A Bible salesman! At first I felt this kind of twinge of disappointment that he wasn't a reporter, and wouldn't be doing a story about me...[but] what could be safer than riding with a person who was in the Bible business? Maybe I shouldn't have gotten into the car with a strange man, but if I had to get into a car with any strange man, I was certainly lucky that I had picked Walter Murchison.
I'm going to begin to refer these as Sylvie's "slave bracelet" moments, partially because the bangle symbolizes the dreams to which she's tethered to her very great detriment, but mainly because I have no idea what a slave bracelet is and it is therefore a handy marker for cluelessness in general.
(At this moment I am going to refrain from recounting the scene where Sylvie realizes, after they've embarked in said Pontiac and blown past Fort Wayne, that's she's left her suitcase — WITH EVERYTHING SHE OWNS IN IT — on the Greyhound, lest I need to break into my Klonopin. I'm just going to say it occurs on page 79 of the hardcover edition, if you need to gear up too.)
Although Walter has the irritating habit of constantly getting single hotel rooms, he is one hell of a salesman, something Sylvie has much occasion to witness as they stop off in rural for Walter to unload his uplifting stock:
"All God's work is handsome," Walter said. "But if you don't mind a little humor, Mrs. Fitch, the Good News Bible is the deluxe edition of God's work. Now, tell me the truth. Isn't this a Bible you'd be proud to have in your home? Isn't this a Bible that wouldn't be stuck on a shelf somewhere, but would deserve a place of honor right out on a table in your front room? Please look at the gold-tipped pages too, Mrs. Fitch. This isn't just the holy word of God..."
I forgot how hot it was. I forgot my suitcase, my three scratchy crinolines, and changing my name to something other than Venida. I kept looking from Walter to Mrs. Fitch and back to Walter again. This was like a Ping-Pong game and I couldn't figure out who was going to win.
What's striking about this, and about most of the interactions in the novel, is how they are almost entirely adult — not only in nature, but in terms of being literally only comprised of adults. There's no sassy best friend for Sylvie, no helpful older sister — not even Queen Bee to make her life miserable. Her closest pals are found in her Photoplay magazines, and her day-to-day is an ongoing quest to slap on enough makeup to manage to look 18 for her Hollywood arrival, the sooner to hang with Natalie — while making sure the sitch doesn't go all Splendor in the Grass.
And I wonder if a more complex interaction the adult world — an acknowledgment, basically, that teenagers aren't only in the classroom or camp bunk, and that adults aren't only kitchen-table sages or Amex-wielding enemies — are part of what makes novels from this period so remarkable. Walter doesn't exist in the novel just as a sideline to Sylvie or an aid to her development. In fact, that's the problem—as he tries to get her into bed and to the altar, he's so bent on muscling Sylvie out of the starring role and into a role alongside him, the heroine herself is in danger of being sidelined into his story:
Was it just that...Walter was old enough to be my father and had a big Adam's apple and a bow tie and wore his belt so high that his pants were practically hitched halfway up his chest?...I started getting confused again. Maybe the only thing that would unconfuse me was to start concentrating on my movie career, which I hadn't thought about for what seemed a very long time.
No worries, Sylvie! Your love interest is coming...NOT. But a savior of sort does occur in the form of Vic, a lifeguard Sylvie stumbles upon in Las Vegas. Vic is a young, handsome psychiatrist-in-training who takes an interest in Sylvie, both intellectually and emotionally—although, unlike all the others, he is able to put aside the latter for the former.
(And I'm going to admit right now that Vic is a very convenient character and generally lifeguards are not psychiatrists-in-training who pick up young girls and solve all their problems in a few hours while also taking them on tours of Vegas and loaning them their sister's peasant blouses and those guys are generally creepy too, okay?)
However, I don't care. Because when Sylvie finally confesses that she wasn't most afraid of Uncle Ted, but of "myself. I was afraid — I'd let him. I wanted him to," Vic stunningly replies: "I don't think that's so unusual."
*blowing my eight-year-old mind*
And then continues to drop the knowledge:
"...So you have these feelings, but what can you do about them? Now, here's Uncle Ted acting affection toward you, and no one else in your whole life ever has. See what I'm getting at?"'
"Not exactly. If I went out with boys I wouldn't feel this way about Uncle Ted?"
Even in the dim, flickering light from the TV screen, I could see Vic was frowning. "I'm not sure. Maybe. I told you this was complicated. I'm just trying to figure it out from what's in my psych books. But why I said it was natural was because you always wanted somebody to love you, and Uncle Ted's acting like he loves you—or, at least, wants to make love to you. And one part of you says that's wrong, but another part of you wants it."
"But that's not love!" I cried. "That's sex."
"Sometimes people don't know the difference."
Yeah — a lot of those other people cracking psych books are STILL trying to figure that one out. But it's striking that Conford took Sylvie that seriously, and that she took us seriously enough to let us chew on that, with Walter's Sen-Sens, for awhile. Because while growing up in a YA novel is one thing, Sylvie grows up just enough to realize she's still a child. They should make a bracelet for that.
***Last week's challenge was to get me up to speed on which novel has a father who gets the bends. As many of you IMMEDIATELY informed me, it was, of course, Alexandra, by Scott O'Dell. The most rapid informer was Hillary K., however, who responded immediately and added the following gloss: "About a Greek-American family in Tarpon Springs FL, who are sponge divers. Her father gets the bends, so she has to start diving." Well-played, Hillary! You win the right to put a novel you want done at the top of the queue to be reviewed sometime within the next month, if I have read it. Write me to claim your booty, and congrats.
This week's challenge is similarly bare-bones: In brief, what's the novel where best friends are split when one girl moves to NYC, and when the other visits her they buy matching dresses in blue and orange, but not before she's been told that it's Sixth Ave, not "Avenue of the Americas"?
Answer in the comments or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. I have faith in you!
Earlier: 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
•Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan