Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Review: Someone Slightly Different

A Fair Trade Book 

Title: Someone Slightly Different

Author: Judy Frank Mearian

Author's web page:

Date: 1980

Publisher: Dial

ISBN: 0-88037-8371-X

Length: 197 pages

Quote: “[I]t’s not like being different because you’re the best at something or the smartest or the richest or something. This is weird different.”

What Marty means is not “weird” in the sense of “mysterious, inexplicable, eerie,” but “less desirable.” What she’s complaining about is, specifically, that her father has moved out, her mother is driving a taxicab, and—in the small oldfashioned town where the doctor will still come out and diagnose Marty’s flu-type symptoms as scarlet fever—people still whisper about the divorce, and kids tease Marty about it. 

Mearian’s decision to write Someone Slightly Different in the first person is unfortunate; although there were and still are plenty of twelve-year-olds who use words as inexactly as Marty, and the novel sounds like a middle school kid talking, Marty never does clear up exactly what she means. She gives enough details that adults can guess, but not necessarily enough to help middle school readers understand what she’s trying to say.

The action in the book occurs when Marty’s mother wishes for the functional equivalent of “a wife” and Marty’s grandmother moves in. With her grandmother at home, Marty can invite friends over after school again—even a boy, whom (another indication of how small and oldfashioned her town is) nobody mistakes for a “boyfriend.”

At this point some Electronic Age readers may be thinking, “In 1980?” and here I stand to testify that, yes, because Someone Slightly Different is set in Kentucky, these details are not anachronistic. TV hadn’t completely taken over the cultures of small towns, especially in the mountains. Twelve-year-olds who wanted to be teenagers and talked about sex were not considered “mature,” but simply vulgar and undesirable; nice girls and boys could be study buddies. Doctors still made house calls if a patient was sick enough, and still diagnosed a mild, generalized strep infection as scarlet fever. And most people who vowed to love and honor each other until death did them part seriously intended to do so...and, in the absence of TV constantly screaming at them that most marriages failed, most people actually did. Marty’s fictional life is less fortunate than most of ours, but her home town and culture have much in common with mine.

This is not, of course, absolutely entirely good. Marty’s grandmother brings with her two elderly cats, Cynthia and Friend. When Cynthia dies, Friend and the grandmother mourn. Marty decides to surprise them with a new kitten. When she wavers, she’s told that the owner of the kitten’s mother has threatened to drown the kittens if they’re not adopted fast. When the grandmother recommends spaying cats as an alternative to killing kittens, neither Marty nor this horrible man even recognize the word. That also used to happen. If I'd written the novel I would have tried to arrange for the owner of the kitten's mother to get drowned; I didn't write this novel.

The blurb on the jacket of this book promises that the grandmother is “remarkable.” No, that’s not meant to be what a normal, non-gifted, twelve-year-old would say. It is what an adult victim of ageism would say. In 1980, not so much in small mountain towns where active senior citizens dominated social life, but in mainstream U.S. culture, there was a perception that after age fifty, if not age forty, people were supposedto be disabled or act as if they were. Actually, although Marty’s grandmother’s drinking bourbon and watching horse races are Kentucky Things that might have raised eyebrows in other states, she’s a pretty generic grandmother—recently retired, free to give up conformism, only occasionally complaining about arthritis, and very fond of her grandchild. If a great-grandmother, age 85 or 90 instead of 55 or 60, had been doing the things Marty’s grandmother does in Someone Slightly Differentthat would be remarkable. 

Marty’s grandmother is, however, fun to know, and will definitely help give young readers a more realistic sense of what “two mommies” families are like than Heather Has Two Mommies did. (Realistically, families that consist of two women and one or more children are more likely to be parts of one extended family—mother and grandmother, mother and aunt, aunt and grandmother, and so on—than to be a lesbian couple who wanted to be mommies.) This book was of course written to give children of divorce some positive expectations about living with one parent and one other relative, and might still be useful for some children in that situation.

This book was not a bestseller; my copy, discarded by a library, was apparently checked out three times in ten years. It’s a nice little story about a nice little girl that will entertain other girls (possibly boys) for a day or two. Adults who grew up in small towns might enjoy reading it, once, with a child, before talking about things that have changed; people who’ve lived with one of those peculiar-looking but clever and lovable Siamese-mix cats will appreciate the character of Friend. I’d be surprised if it became the “very favorite” book anyone read over and over, but some readers will enjoy it.

Judy Frank Mearian is still alive, although writing novels about the sort of grandmother she wanted to be in 1980 was not her primary career. Therefore Someone Slightly Different is a Fair Trade Book: if you send $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to the address at the very bottom of the screen, we send $1 to Mearian or a charity of her choice. If you buy as many additional books as fit into the package--in this case three more books--you pay only the one shipping fee, which often adds up cheaper than buying the books directly from Amazon.