Judy Blume was some kind of genius, wasn’t she? She was able to bring issues facing children and teenagers to light, in a non-lecturing, entertaining way. I first read Deenie when I was in Grade Five or so; it was first published in 1973, but I would estimate I read it in 1985. I don’t remember it feeling old or dated at all; in fact, it holds up very well to a re-reading as an adult.
Throwback Three’s Memories of Deenie
Strangely, I remember it as a book that made me (kind of, sort of) want a back brace. I know. I know. But there was something very appealing to my 10-year-old drama queen self about being a beautiful girl forced into wearing a back brace to stave off deformity. That sounds terrible, but as we all know, 10-year-olds don’t tend to be the most rational or informed people out there. It’s that strange attraction to being an invalid that girls who read way too many stories about Victorian-era heroines have. I’m not alone in this! Hannah also (kind of, sort of) wanted a back brace when she read this book. Allison did not, but she did remember the masturbation parts – which I had forgotten, and which made Deenie a banned book back in the Seventies. I did remember that the mother in the book was portrayed as being a crazy stage-mother, and that Deenie’s sister, Helen, was incredibly smart. I also remember that junior high was very realistically written about – unlike a lot of books aimed at that age group, it did not gloss over or glorify the junior high experience. So let’s get started, shall we?
Deenie – The Pre-Diagnosis Chapters (1-4)
Chapter One: When first we meet Deenie, we find out the following: a) she is beautiful, so lovely that she is interviewing at modelling agencies, b) she was named after the Natalie Wood character in Splendor in the Grass, although these details are only alluded to, and c) she has a crush on an eighth-grade boy named Buddy. Buddy! Does anyone name their sons “Buddy” anymore? There actually was a Buddy in my high school and he was a total drip. I wonder if Buddy was short for something.
I just googled it, and apparently Buddy is short for both Donald and William. What? How is that possible? Anyway, Deenie’s a Jersey girl who is going to an interview at a New York City modelling agency with her overbearing mother, who is very disappointed when the agency does not offer Deenie a contract. The woman at the agency declines to sign her to a job when she sees Deenie walk across the room; Deenie’s mother thinks that she is slouching on purpose.
This is one of those things that really got to me, both as a child and now, that her mother doesn’t see that Deenie is trying her best and just accuses her of ruining the interview with her bad posture. As a mother, I realize that it IS hard, not living vicariously through your children; however, stage mothers are an entirely different breed. It really is hard, when your children go in a different direction than you had hoped, and yet, I still want to smack Deenie’s mother, Mrs. Fenner.
Mrs. Fenner mentions that once Deenie starts working as a model, she’s going to be MONEY, baby. Instead of taking the bus, they’ll be taking taxis. It made me think how much things have changed since this book was written; would we ever, now, consider our children as potential wage-earners? The Fenner family is portrayed as a regular, middle-class family, which back in the Seventies and Eighties meant something different altogether than today. They are a one-income family – the father owns a gas station/ garage, and the mother is an obsessive housekeeper. The girls have nice clothes and a comfy life, but it’s different from today’s standards. Back when I read this book, it would have been pretty descriptive of most families I knew. Nowadays it would be fairly rare to think of one of our children as potentially adding significantly to the family income, unless we are starring on a reality show or similar, but money and Deenie’s earning potential is a recurring theme in this book. The truth is that most of us who grew up in the Eighties did, as teenagers, have part-time jobs for spending money, and I find that to be increasingly rare these days.
Chapter Two: We are introduced to Deenie’s two best friends, huge and athletic Midge, and cute, perky Janet. We are also introduced to Harvey Grabowski, the best looking boy in the ninth grade, Class President, and football player. Of all books I read when I was young, this book really does describe teenage relationships in a realistic way. Deenie and Janet are going to try out for cheerleading; Deenie is doing this without her mother’s knowledge, because although she really wants to be on the squad, she knows that it could compromise her ability to go to modelling interviews.
We also discover, in this chapter, that there is a large disparity in the way Deenie is treated by her mother, and how Helen, her sixteen-year-old sister is treated. Her mother insists on good nutrition, and especially a good breakfast, for Deenie, but Helen runs out the door with a black coffee. The reason? As we know, what we eat affects how we look, and in Mrs. Fenner’s mind, who cares how her academically-gifted daughter looks? I’d like to tell Mrs. Fenner that what you eat also affects your brain functioning, but maybe in the Seventies that wasn’t a well-known fact. Things have changed in forty-two years, so I don’t know.
Although no one cares if Helen eats a balanced breakfast or lives on black coffee, they care enough about her teeth for her to have had braces. Maybe she had really terrible teeth; maybe she had jaw issues. Not many people had braces, back when I was a kid – if you had them, it meant that you had really, really crooked teeth. My brother had them, and a few friends, but it was the exception, rather than the rule. Now it seems like all the kids get orthodontic work; there was a boy in my younger son’s SECOND GRADE class who had braces. In any case, back in the day braces were expensive and rare, and we find out that it’s a relief that Helen’s is through with orthodontia because it used up all of the family’s savings. No wonder they’re hoping Deenie will make it as a teen model.
A girl on Deenie’s street, Gena Courtney, takes the Special Bus to school, because she was hit by a delivery truck in first grade and now attends the Special Class. Although she and Deenie were friends when they were small, Deenie has never stopped by to say hello, post-accident because she wouldn’t know what to say or how to act. This will become significant later on, but more than that, this really shows that Judy Blume knows what goes on in kids’ heads. She knows that it would be hard – especially back then, when being in a Special Class was quite a stigma – for a kid to continue a friendship in such a situation. Today, we would make special efforts and have classroom meetings to discuss it, but back then, being in a Special Class was not something celebrated or talked about.
Chapter Three: Deenie doesn’t make the cheerleading squad, and much to her chagrin, Janet DOES. Deenie is not happy for her friend, and wishes that they could be unhappily non-cheerleaders together. It is kind of hard to be happy for someone when you’re jealous, isn’t it? Even as an adult, it’s hard, but as a teen it’s brutal.
Did you have cheerleaders at your school? I wonder if this is an American thing. We did not even have a football team until high school, and even then there were no cheerleaders. I have a cousin from Alabama who went to cheerleading camp as a teenager, but then again, football is a much bigger deal down in the States, especially the Southern ones.
Chapter Four: After finding out that she didn’t make the squad, Deenie goes to see her dad at his gas station. He’s very kind and understanding and drives her home. Now, my dad is awesome. He’s a great dad, but in no way EVER would I have confided to him that I didn’t make the (theoretical) cheerleading squad. My dad wasn’t someone who I would bring my emotional issues up with. I would be much more likely to sob to my mother, but then again, my mother wasn’t pressuring me to become a teenage model in order to bring the family fame and fortune. No judging, I just can’t relate to this part of the story.
And this is the chapter that we get to know Aunt Rae, who is not an aunt but a family friend who has way too much time on her hands. Aunt Rae is strangely invested in Deenie’s potential modelling career, and has somehow arranged for her to get a very important interview with a very important modelling agency. Maybe it’s Ford! I don’t know. Anyway, over dinner Helen lets the “Deenie-tried-out-for-cheerleading” cat out of the bag, and her mother gets very upset. Cheerleading is not important! Modelling is. Get it straight, Deenie.
The next day Deenie does something we’ve all done: self-effaces to preserve her dignity. She tells her friend Midge that she completely messed up her cheerleading tryout, laughing the whole time. She also says that she couldn’t be on the team ANYWAY, because she has all these modelling interviews lined up, so there. Oh, Deenie. We all feel your pain. Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside, just like a sad, beautiful clown.
Why didn’t Deenie make the cheerleading squad? Why isn’t she getting modelling jobs? We find out next time! Stay tuned.