Book Review: Seventeen
Author: Booth Tarkington
Date: 1918 (1st ed.), 1963 (my copy)
Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap (1918), Bantam (1963)
Length: 184 pages
Quote: “‘They said she was goin’ to bring a girl to visit her,’ Johnnie began...Baxter interrupted. ‘Makes little difference to me, I guess!’”
Baxter is, of course, about to fall in love with their school friend’s visitor, Lola Pratt, a blonde who affects “baby talk” and enjoys lots and lots of attention from every young man within range. The year, unspecified in the text, may be earlier than 1918; the purpose of falling in love is to get married, which is how the author describes Baxter’s fantasies. The effect of falling in love before he’s old enough to get married is to cause Baxter to spend the summer feeling embarrassed.
Among the humiliations Baxter suffers are having to help the yardman with errands, not having enough dressy outfits, having his friends meet his ten-year-old sister, inadvertently sitting on a wet paintbox in dressy white trousers, and being allowed to make extra money only by doing odd jobs even when he could sell some of his and his family’s things. All the compensation he gets is that sometimes, when he’s competing with his friends for her attention, Lola Pratt calls him “Ickle Boy Baxter” and lets him pet her dog.
How nice is Lola Pratt, anyway? Booth Tarkington doesn’t seem to have worked that out. When a new boy joins the crowd, a fat boy who suffers from “perfect trust that he was as welcome to everyone as he was to his mother,” the way Miss Pratt leads him on and sets him up for humiliation is cruel, but Tarkington seems unsure whether to give a girl credit for enough sense to realize that. All he tells us for sure is that Lola Pratt is one of those females in whose presence male students’ I.Q. scores plummet, and she knows it, and seems to enjoy it.
What makes this book seem embarrassingly dated, however, is the description of the yardman. He’s African-American. For his time and place, Booth Tarkington was actually sympathetic to African-Americans, calling them “an amiable and interesting race,” but although the little Black boys (and the little Jewish boy) in the Penrod trilogy are the equals of the little White boys, Genesis is a shuffling, illiterate laborer Baxter describes as “that awful-looking old” (word we no longer care to print). All the characters’ words are written “in dialect,” like almost all comedy of the period, but Genesis seems to be hamming up his unpretentious act.
Tarkington was, in this book and in most of his successful books, making fun of all the characters impartially, but in a benign, empathetic way. Every character, including the teenagers’ parents (whose English is the kind Tarkington considers standard), is a stereotype, although drawn with affection. Baxter suffers the most embarrassment of them all, because he thinks most about his feelings and what others think of him. Mrs. Baxter, too genteel to discuss whether Genesis’ shirt was actually meant to have been an undershirt, and Mr. Parcher, who dutifully chaperones Lola’s conversations with the boys while muttering softly “Word! Word! WORD!”, and even the dogs Flopit and Clematis, are early forms of the character types later found in Little Rascals movies and “Tom & Jerry” cartoons. All are basically nice; all become ridiculous whenever they become the focus of their own attention. There are no mean people in this fictional world. There are no intelligent people, either.
The humor in Seventeen is lifelike, never straining belief, and despite Tarkington’s penchant for S.A.T. words the humor is accessible to readers as young as twelve or thirteen. I was twelve or thirteen when I discovered this book. I enjoyed it. If you’re looking for a good clean comedy, free from hate but faithfully describing a time when most people accepted ethnic stereotypes as valid, Seventeen may be for you.
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