Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: A House for Jonnie O

A Fair Trade Book

Title: A House for Jonnie O
Author: Blossom Elfman
Date: 1977
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0-395-24901-5
Length: 175 pages

Quote: “She was sixteen, and alive, and a mother’s daughter—and she had made choices.”
Joanna Olson, known to her friends as Jonnie O, is the most articulate of four teen mothers who have met in a special school program. Three of the four girls are intelligent; even intelligent enough to care about the fourth one, whose brain damage is obvious. None of them has much use for school, teachers, or formal studies. They think they’re in love with their babies’ fathers. They’re really in love with their babies, with the idea of being mothers and having something of their own. What they think they want is a house of their own. A House for Jonnie O is the  sad and funny story of what happens when they try to rent the house.
Blossom Elfman taught in a program like the one she describes, and a number of the scenes in this hormone-soaked novel involve the English teacher at the fictional school.
Jonnie: “I don’t need advice! I need a house for my baby. Now if you can get me that, I’ll listen!”
Teacher: “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Jonnie! What did Robert Frost mean when he said that home was a place where, when you had to go there, they had to take you in? Think of what that means to you and your baby!”
Jonnie: “You think I haven’t! Home? Don’t ask Robert Frost about home! Because Robert Frost wasn’t almost seven months pregnant, was he! And alone! And stuck in a house where no one wants him! I know what home is!”
It’s hard to escape the feeling that this book was written as an apology. Yes, the girls have done one of the original, archetypal Stupid Things Women Do that Mess Up Their Lives, but they’re not as stupid as the teachers and social workers are forced to be by the requirements of their irrelevant jobs. No, the girls don’t listen to older people. Why would they? Older people don’t want to tell them what they want to know. A day may come when they’ll appreciate Frost, but not as a result of adults shoving Frost in their faces when what they want to do is build their nests.
A particularly revealing illustration of why Jonnie considers the teachers “aliens” who “lived in a different world” begins on page 135, with the instructional movie of the day, Self-Protection for Women. They watch a woman stomp on an assailant’s foot, knee him in the groin, and scratch his face. “The voice of the commentator rose over the cries of the attacker, who was fighting off a barrage of hair spray. ‘Always go for the eyes.’ The class was shouting encouragement. ‘Get him! Kill him! Fix him good!’ The teacher came running out of the office. ‘Turn that off!’...The nurse turned on the light. ‘I misread the title. I thought it was contraception’...The teacher held her ground, righteously indignant...‘I will not have my classroom used for survival training. It’s life I’m preparing you for, not combat!’ But this was life! This was the way it was!”
The teacher wants to sweep the reality that some of these girls have been raped under the rug of poetry. Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Renascence” is a peculiarly repulsive choice in this context: if there ever was a poet who could wait to be discovered by excitable teenagers, surely it was Millay. The teacher steamrollers on, probably ruining “The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide...” for these kids forever. “No! They wanted the nail file!” The girls refuse to be steamrollered. The teacher “begs”: “‘I’m not saying...that the world on the film does not exist, but do you have to admit to it? Fight it! Do not go gentle into that dark night! Don’t learn the rules of the game! Don’t re-create it for another generation! Make the world as high as your soul is high! Let your babies know that this high world exists, at least.’...There was no other world! It was a lie...” In the end “everybody was depressed, even the teacher.”
At the end of this scene I can relate to their feelings. I’m wondering how many of the girls, in the real school on which Jonnie’s school is based, were pretending to be in love with vague, awkward, unsupportive boyfriends because their babies’ real fathers happened to be married to their own mothers. The truth that the sensitive parts of men are more vulnerable than their own is what could set these girls free to experience their own “renascence” moods, which are part of adolescence and deserve to be savored. The teacher’s pious denial that reality isn’t always nice is keeping them locked in denial, barred from joy. Elfman doesn’t allow the teacher to see this truth, and I find myself turning against her book, emotionally, because I think the teacher's denial is Part of the Problem.
Teenagers’ rights include the right to discover Millay, all by themselves, without interference from clueless teachers and brain-damaged classmates. When a sixteen-year-old awash in estrogen reads “Renascence” by and for herself, the poem is even true. It may narrate a hormone surge rather than a true spiritual experience, but it is, in any case, something teenaged girls feel. The teacher’s heavy-handed way of presenting this poem is the worst thing that could happen to it.
In a novel where a poem about being an excitable young girl is handled in such a way as to depress, rather than exciting, a bunch of young girls, you can probably guess how the girls’ dream of a group house is going to be handled. However, not everything Elfman has to say to teenagers is crushing. One of the girls is asked to choose between her boyfriend and her baby; I wish every young woman faced with that choice could read the scene where Elfman’s heroine makes the choice. Some of the girls’ mothers can’t understand why their daughters aren’t eager to get back on the yuppie track; Elfman’s protagonists do a good job of explaining this, too.
A House for Jonnie O is especially recommended to social workers who don’t understand why people who either reject or accept “public assistance” tend to look down on social workers, even if they never sat in a college classroom where it was explained that those at the head of the class would become research psychologists and those at the foot would become social workers.
It’s also, of course, recommended to high school teachers.

And it’s also recommended for use in reality-based sex education programs, which (if they actually exist) would have to concede that some teenagers might not be intelligent enough to choose abstinence, but would have to concede, equally, that most teenagers do choose abstinence. More of them would be able to make that choice if they spent some time thinking about the practical awkwardness and unpleasantness of being a teenaged single parent. Obviously the inconveniences Jonnie O and her friends face aren't exactly the ones single parents face today, but it might be useful for teenagers to do the research and find out what has and has not changed.

According to the Internet, the writer known as Blossom Elfman is alive and editing a web site at, which this computer, for some reason, utterly refuses to open. A House for Jonnie O is, therefore, a Fair Trade Book. To buy it here, you send salolianigodagewi @ $5 for the book + $5 for shipping (one shipping cost covers whatever can be shipped in one package), and we will then send Elfman or a charity of her choice $1.