Thursday, July 6, 2017

Book Review: New Boy in Town

Title: New Boy in Town

Author: Jan Nickerson

Date: 1960

Publisher: Funk & Wagnalls

ISBN: none

Length: 214 pages

Quote: “There was a new boy in the senior class. Nancy Jo Marshall, seated diagonally behind him, studied his profile.”

And, in spite of the “senior panic” that twelfth grade students really felt back in the 1950s when not all of the ones who wanted college degrees could get them, that new boy is Nancy Jo’s main subject of study all year.

Nancy Jo has never liked history before. This changes when she learns that the new boy is called John Quincy Adams Forbes, and his father, Professor Forbes, moved his family into their town in order to do more research on the Adams family. To impress John, Nancy Jo chooses to write a paper about Abigail Adams, then finds herself actually enjoying the subject and becoming interested in New England history...although, typical of pre-feminist “girls’ books,” we don’t see her actually reading much more of it. Jan Nickerson could so easily have taught young readers much more about New England than she does here.

By the late 1970s, when books like New Boy in Town filled up school libraries, I remember being underwhelmed by the whole genre. As a teenaged girl I already thought my life, and my school friends’ lives, were so much richer than poor little paper-doll characters like Nancy Jo who didn’t have anything on their minds besides wanting to have a steady boyfriend—not even because they were interested in sex yet, poor drips, but just for the sake of having boyfriends.

As an adult with a sense of history, I now think I did characters like Nancy Jo wrong. I would have hated to have had a sister as shallow and insecure as Nancy Jo, and I wouldn't want to have a daughter like Nancy Jo—but in historical fact a lot of women were like Nancy Jo, and there were reasons for this. Their parents were still reacting to “The Depression” and their memories of having been poor. Nancy Jo’s parents are no longer poor, and have told Nancy Jo they’re not poor, but they still think and act like poor people. That means that, although Nancy Jo really has no reason to fear that she won’t be able to go to college, she won’t be going to a big-name college unless a huge unforeseen scholarship is handed to her, and she’s living in fear of the “College Boards” or “Aptitudes” tests, the forerunner of the S.A.T.’s.

What happened after girls like Nancy Jo took those College Board tests? Well...their society was still trying to puff up the boys’ egos by pretending that males were more intelligent than females, so if a girl did well on school tests it was because girls matured faster, or this girl tried harder, or, if the girl had a real undeniable talent (which Nancy Jo certainly isn’t “different” or “daring” enough to have), she was a freak. A lot of jobs were frankly not offered to women. A woman could run a little gift shop, like the one in which Nancy Jo earns Christmas money, and possibly earn enough of a profit to justify keeping the store open. Or she could get some sort of teaching or office job, with the understanding that she’d be paid less than male colleagues (who were “breadwinners” after all) and certainly not rewarded for doing better work than they did. Unless she became a movie star, which is not an option for Nancy Jo, a girl could be considered “successful” only if she married a rich man and became a full-time mother. About the time girls of Nancy Jo’s age reached their full adult size, thousands of them would discover that being a full-time mother felt like “success” only about as long as it took the children to get too big to hide under Mommy’s apron.

Also...though all females were automatically expected to adore all babies, even in 1960 there was considerable unspoken debate, fermenting away all around the world, about whether it was either possible or desirable for women to like sex, or even like men, except as means to obtain babies. There was still a feeling that although the survival of the species depended on men enjoying sex at least a little bit, the species could get along just fine, and the lives of aging husbands would probably be easier, if all Nice Girls ever learned about sex was that, in order to have babies, they had to go through a few odd, embarrassing procedures, all of which could be compared favorably with having a broken tooth drilled out of the bone, but none of which was supposed to be as exciting as knitting a new sock pattern. “Femininity” was also supposed to prevent Nice Girls from  being really interested in anything that interested Real Men. This view of life left no reason for girls to like boys—young women were supposed to enjoy being pursued by young men, with compliments and invitations and flowers and so on, but Nice Girls were supposed to wish they could go to all-girls schools.

This conflict between the ideal of girls like Nancy Jo taking no interest in boys at all, and the grim reality that if they didn’t attract the right sort of husbands their adult lives were likely to be less enjoyable than their childhood years, is what’s being expressed in one of the scenes most likely to make no sense to younger readers today. Pages 137-138:

“Bill” [Nancy Jo’s younger brother] “looked at them in surprise. ‘Why shouldn’t he enjoy it? He’s her boy friend, isn’t he?’

Nancy Jo turned on him fiercely. ‘Don’t you ever say that where anyone can hear you, Bill Marshall!’

‘For Pete’s sake! I thought you liked him.’

‘I do,’ declared Nancy Jo. ‘That’s just it.’

Bill shrugged and turned his attention to his food. ‘It’s beyond me!’

‘Women are often incomprehensible to mere men,’ his father explained to him.

‘If there’s nothing more I can do, Mother,’ said Nancy Jo with strained dignity, ‘I have got homework to finish.’”

Poor Nancy Jo knew very well that, according to the mores of her time, admitting to any particular interest in John—much less, heavenforbidandfend, any conscious physical attraction!—was supposed to be the most effective way to turn him off. Any hint of sexual feelings, even curiosity, would brand her as a Bad Girl who might be sexually exploited but wouldn’t be considered suitable for marriage. Any acknowledgment of any practical interest in finding a husband who could support her as a full-time mother would brand her as a gold-digger who wouldn’t be considered suitable for marriage either. In order to get what she so desperately wanted, Nancy Jo had to convince everybody that she couldn’t care less about it.

So, no, Nancy Jo is no role model for teenaged girls. She worries too much, she’s too self-conscious, she’s living in denial of her real feelings—is she a thoroughly repressed heterosexual, or a thoroughly repressed asexual? She seems to have been born intelligent, then systematically bullied into choosing ways of thinking that were and still are stupid.

In order to give some conflict and suspense to the story without (unrealistically) allowing Nancy Jo to break through all the cultural stupidity that was doing so much harm to girls her age, Nickerson gives Nancy Jo a Worst Friend, Trish. All the girls at their school want to be claimed as somebody’s official girlfriend just as a social status symbol. All it apparently means in their crowd is who dances with whom or, at most, exchanges a peck on the cheek now and then. Trish has an official boyfriend, but would be delighted to hand him down to Nancy Jo if she could latch on to John, who has both the “background” and the talents that, in a town full of working-class Yankees, identify him as the real prize most likely to be able to support a full-time mother. Nancy Jo actually likes Trish’s boyfriend well enough, as an old school friend, but wants to think she saw John first. The resulting competition is sort of funny, and altogether pitiful.

However, Nickerson knew real people like her characters, and she knew what redeemed them—if anything did. New Boy in Town was a mainstream novel, marketed by a publisher best known for reference books, never (at the time) identified as a Sunday School book or a Christian romance...but Nancy Jo and John are Christians. At a critical point in the story John sends Nancy Jo a Bible verse. That’s more than enough, if this story were being printed today, to put it into the “Christian” publishing ghetto. At the time it was better understood as pure realism. People like Nancy Jo didn’t lead glamorous or thrilling lives; their recent ancestors’ lives had been positively bleak, but they did find comfort, and sometimes even inspiration, in their religious faith.

Some living people are currently using the name "Jan Nickerson" online. None of the book-tracing sites, however, links any of them to the author of this book, so this is not a Fair Trade Book. The usual rules apply: send $5 per copy, $5 per package (you could fit at least three more books of this size into the package), and $1 per online payment, to the appropriate address at the very bottom of the screen.