When last we saw Deenie, she was sadly coming to terms that she didn’t need an operation for her scoliosis, but instead was going to have to wear a brace – FOR FOUR YEARS. Her mother kept oscillating between denial and blaming everyone else, Deenie was quietly withdrawing from her friends and crush Buddy, and her sister and father were trying to be as supportive as possible. This is a stressful time for her; she’s rubbing her velvet pillow every single night just to get some sleep. And now Deenie has the brace, and we shall see what life is like as The Girl In The Brace, as opposed to The Girl Who Is Going To Be A Teen Model.
Deenie gets home, runs to her room, and strips off her clothes. She faces the mirror; it’s just her and the brace. She’s ugly, ugly, ugly, she decides, and if she’s going to be ugly, she’s going to be ugly all the way. She grabs a pair of scissors and chops her hair off – starting with one side and just cutting and cutting until there’s a pile of hair on the floor. Let me tell you, Ma doesn’t react well when they see Deenie’s new hairdo; all uneven, with a couple long strands hanging down. Well, to be honest, it would be a pretty big shock to see your beautiful daughter with a haircut resembling something a crazy, blind hairstylist might create. This is before the avant-garde haircuts of the Eighties, remember; when this was written long, flowing, Allie McGraw hair was in style.
Deenie realizes a few things: it’s hard to eat or drink with the brace on because she can’t bend her neck, she can’t use the toilet in the same way, and the curse of womankind comes on at the worst possible times. First day of Brace Life when she gets her period, because isn’t that always the way? Always at the worst time. Helen offers to help her with her sanitary napkin, but Deenie is determined to do it herself, even if it takes half an hour and several deep knee bends. It’s noted that this is only the second time Deenie has had a period, so she’s not all that versed in the sanitary napkin arts yet. Probably it’s one of those belted things, which, seriously Universe, give the girl a break.
It’s Day One of The Brace and Ma has decided that there is no time for moping! Ma has invited Janet and Midge over for dinner – eggplant parmigiana night, Deenie’s favourite. Deenie’s excited about the food but less excited to see her friends, who are pretty nervous around her. They don’t look directly at her, but instead make awkward conversation about her new crappy haircut. It comes out that Ma asked the girls to please not talk about the brace, but it’s the elephant in the room. At first the girls put on a cheerful face – you can hardly notice it, it’s not so bad – but the truth comes out when Deenie presses them.
“Oh Deenie!” Janet finally said. “We don’t know what to say or how to act or anything. We were going to make believe we didn’t even notice.”
“And say that you looked swell, like always,” Midge said.
“But if you want to know the truth,” Janet said, “it was a real shock, even though we knew the doctors would have to do something because you can’t grow up with a crooked spine.”
Deenie tells them it’s NOT called crooked spine, it’s called scoliosis, and she has a new goal in life – to be an orthopedist. She never wanted to model anyway, TAKE THAT, MA.
Deenie realizes it’s really hard to sleep with a brace on – no kidding – and then the next day Aunt Rae comes over to take Deenie and Ma shopping for new, larger clothes to fit over the brace. As soon as Aunt Rae sees her, she bursts into tears, which sets Ma off, and the two of them sob hysterically over ugly, ugly Deenie. Anyway, they go shopping, and everything looks awful. She and Ma get into a fight in the change room because Ma is desperately looking for clothes to conceal the brace and, let’s face it, that’s not happening. Aunt Rae is Ma’s doppelganger, apparently, because she says to Deenie:
“You know, Deenie, your mother would do anything for you. She’s trying to make you feel better. It’s not her fault this happened.”
“Well, it’s not my fault either.”
Aunt Rae didn’t answer that.
COME ON, PEOPLE. AGAIN WITH THE FAULT TALK?
After all this drama, Deenie says she’s not ready to go to school tomorrow, but Daddy is not letting her off the hook. She has to go, it’s for her own good.
Deenie is realizing that wearing a Milwaukee brace makes her the target of much curiosity and many questions, but no one really cares about the answer. She gets to school, avoiding seeing Buddy, and Susan Minton tells her how much she loves her terrific new haircut! This nice compliment just solidifies Deenie’s belief that Susan is an idiot, which is not very kind of her, but hey, seventh grade girls, am I right?
As soon as Deenie gets to sewing class she remembers she was supposed to pick up a pattern and material for her big assignment. Did you have to take sewing at school? I was literally the worst in the class. I clearly remember going to pick out t-shirt materials and patterns with my mother, who really knows her way around a sewing machine. What I remember most is that my sewing teacher was pretty awful and apparently hated her job and all her students, and it seems like Deenie’s teacher is the same way. Maybe it’s a prerequisite for being a junior high sewing teacher. Anyway, the teacher doesn’t care about Deenie’s excuse that she was busy all weekend getting a Milwaukee brace. She’s giving her a zero on the assignment. Deenie is embarrassed and is made to just practice seams, which are more crooked than my spine because I couldn’t bend over to see what I was doing.
Deenie sees Buddy while she’s in line at the cafeteria and he asks about the brace and also wants to know if Deenie is coming to the seventh grade mixer? It’s an after-school dance, and he will be playing the drums. A drummer! Deenie’s got a crush on a drummer! She doesn’t know if she’s going to the damn mixer, because Life Has Changed. She has a brace now. Buddy also expresses regret that Deenie cut her hair, but she tells him she had to, because of the brace, not because she went nuts in her bedroom.
The vice-principal wants to see Deenie! Fear is struck into our hearts. Is she going to get in trouble for forgetting her sewing pattern and material? No, she’s just going to get forms for her parents to fill out as she is now eligible to ride the “special bus.” THE SPECIAL BUS, YOU GUYS. Deenie throws the forms in the garbage, because the kids who ride the special bus are not at all like her; they are always going to be “like that” but she’ll be fine in four years.
After receiving the disturbing news that as far as the school administration is concerned, she’s one of the “handicapped kids,” Deenie runs into Harvey Grabowski, the school’s alpha male, who is teasing Janet by throwing her jacket in the air. Oh, those Grade Nine boys. So incorrigible. Harvey takes one look at Deenie and asks what happened to her, and Deenie, in a moment of clarity, realizes that no one cares she has scoliosis. She tells him she jumped off the Empire State Building, and laughs.
At the bus stop, Deenie sees Old Lady Murray and tries to tell her of their common bond – crooked spines – but Old Lady Murray doesn’t care. Speaking of which, Susan Minton decides to make a common bond between her and Deenie by getting her hair cut in the exact same way, with long strands hanging down. I frequently feel sorry for Susan and her desperate maneuvers to make friends with Deenie, but come on. Copying her crappy haircut? Time to get some sense of self worth.
Time for gym class! We all know how Deenie loved gym, but now she’s dreading it because she has to change into her gymsuit in front of everyone. She does it quickly, but Barbara Curtis – a.k.a. Creeping Crud – sees her. Deenie realizes something else: she can’t tie up her shoes while wearing the brace. Barbara helps her, and then when they have to choose partners, Deenie grabs Barbara’s hand. This is significant, since Deenie was under the impression that touching Barbara would lead to rash transmission, although as we know, it’s non-contagious eczema.
The vice-principal tells Deenie that she seems to be managing very well, despite her handicap. Ma and Aunt Rae cook up a scheme in which Deenie will get to meet with the head of the prestigious modelling agency at age seventeen, which is not over-the-hill after all. Deenie says she doesn’t even want to be a model, to which Aunt Rae says that she can’t just waste the gifts God gave her, i.e., her face. Deenie says she’s not just a face, she’s a person! Tell it, Deenie.
Midge and Deenie decide to go to the seventh-grade mixer, although they are NOT going to dance. Midge feels like a giant next to the Grade Seven boys – I understand, Midge, I did too – and Deenie thinks she looks terrible, dancing in a brace. But they go anyway, and Deenie admires Buddy’s drum solo. Janet, by the way, is the Dancing Queen. She dances non-stop, “practically leading the Alley Cat,” which makes me smile. The Alley Cat!
Buddy catches up with Deenie after the dance, and asks her why she wasn’t dancing – he saw Janet really tearing up a rug! She says that Janet doesn’t care who she dances with, but Deenie DOES. Buddy wonders if she would have danced with him? Yes, she would. Well, he says, leading her into the dark locker room, let’s dance.
Deenie nervously dances, music-less, with Buddy for a few minutes, and then he starts kissing her. All Deenie can picture is the gym teacher bursting into this little love-nest and her getting into BIG TROUBLE WITH MA. No kidding. Making out in the locker room? Kind of a big deal. Buddy moves his hand to HER CHEST OMG. At this point Deenie freaks out because a) Buddy’s trying to cop a feel, and b) all he can feel is her brace. She runs off and catches up with Midge, whose mother is driving them home.
In the car on the ride home, Janet is excitedly chattering about the dance, but Midge is silent. It just occurred to me how crappy Midge might feel – no one is interested in her. Even Deenie The Girl With The Brace is getting some action, but Midge? Nothing. I forsee an eating disorder.
ZOMG BARBARA CURTIS LIED! Deenie wakes up covered in a rash which only means one thing: by befriending the Creeping Crud, Deenie herself has contracted creeping crud! Once Ma gets a load of the rash on Deenie’s chest and back, she immediately books an appointment with a dermatologist, even though Deenie balks at seeing yet another doctor. Ma will not back down – what if it spreads to Deenie’s face? HER BEAUTIFUL FACE!
So they head to the dermatologist who informs Deenie that what she has isn’t contagious and is not Barbara’s fault; it’s a rash from her brace. She has to take 30 minute baths with a special powder, rub cortisone cream in it, and wear an undershirt. NOT AN UNDERSHIRT! The reader will remember that the undershirt was Deenie’s line in the sand – she refused to wear it after being fitted for her brace.
Ah, but there is an upside to taking baths rather than showers, and that is that she is able to rub her velvet washcloth, so to speak. She’s still confused about all the “velvet rubbing,” and so she sneaks into Helen’s room to find her informational text on the subject. Helen’s not home, but apparently she’s never home anymore – and when she is she’s locked in her room, so Deenie hardly sees her. Something strange is afoot, because on her last report card, Helen got two B’s. I REPEAT: HELEN GOT TWO B’S. Poor Ma. Her smart daughter is bringing home B’s and her pretty daughter chopped her hair off and wears a brace.
Things come to a head with Ma soon enough. When Deenie sneaks in to find Helen’s sex book, she discovers a secret: Helen is in love with Joe, who works at Daddy’s gas station! Is this the reason for the B’s? Ma sure thinks so. Deenie doesn’t spill the beans but Ma finds out anyway; Helen was supposed to be studying at a friend’s house but SHE WAS AT THE GAS STATION MAKING OUT WITH JOE.
Shortly thereafter, Ma and Helen get into a huge fight, because Daddy fires Joe. It’s not what Helen thinks, though. He didn’t get fired for making out with the boss’ daughter. He got fired because Daddy cannot afford to keep him anymore. And here it is, the big moment: Deenie’s doctor bills have added up to the point that Daddy can’t afford to have help at the gas station. Deenie’s worried that Helen will hate her for it. Ma and Helen scream at each other: Ma doesn’t want her throwing her life away on a boy, and Helen says she isn’t a baby, she can do what she likes with her life, and it wouldn’t bother Ma if a boy liked Deenie!
That’s different, Ma says, it’s different because God gave Helen a special brain, and He would not have done that if he hadn’t intended for her to do something special with it…wait, does that sound familiar? That is EXACTLY what she says to Deenie about her face!
And here’s the heartbreaking part:
“Oh Ma…you’re impossible! God didn’t give me a special brain. You made that up. And you almost convinced me, Ma…you almost did.” Helen was really crying now. Tears ran down her face and everything but she didn’t stop. She said, “I used to tell myself it didn’t matter if I wasn’t pretty like Deenie because I have a special brain and Deenie’s is just ordinary…but that didn’t help, Ma…it didn’t help at all…because it’s not true! None of it’s true! Don’t you see…you can’t make us be what you want…”
Deenie burst into the room and interrupts them, to Ma’s chagrin. Ma says for her to keep out, this has nothing to do with Deenie! But Deenie says it does too have to do with her, because she’s responsible for all the doctor’s bills! Helen turns around. Deenie is prepared for her sister to hate her forever. But nothing of the kind happens; Helen hugs her and cries:
“It’s not your fault, Deenie…don’t let them make you believe that…it’s really not your fault.”
When I originally read this book, I was incensed for the girls, in a “your children are not your children” kind of way, but as a mother now, I kind of feel sorry for Ma. I mean, isn’t that what mothers do, plan and hope for our children? Granted, she’s overbearing and kind of horrible, but we do just want the best for our kids, don’t we? And I can see how, if I had one stunningly beautiful daughter and one ordinary-looking one, that I would focus on her other, non-appearance-related positives. And yet, I’m heartbroken for Helen. Poor Helen – she’s not beautiful, and she’s coming to terms that she is not extraordinarily smart after all. It’s kind of a comedown, to realize that you’re just a normal person when your whole life you were led to believe that you were extraordinary. This probably has implications for our generation of children who are brought up to believe that they are precious snowflakes, but that is a whole other topic. Back to Deenie!
Barbara has become part of the gang; Janet invited her to the party she’s having in a few weeks. Deenie doesn’t look away when she passes the Special Class because she’s growing as a person. Deenie and Helen have a sex talk; or rather, Deenie asks Helen what it feels like to have sexual intercourse, to which Helen responds that she doesn’t know and she probably never will! That’s because Joe skipped town after being fired, and didn’t even tell Helen. Maybe Ma was right about him after all! What a jerk.
It’s the night of Janet’s big party, and Deenie wants, just this once, to feel like a regular girl. She removes the brace. She puts on a cute outfit. Buddy’s going to be there and Deenie wants to knock him dead.
Ah, but Daddy. Daddy will NOT let her go to the party brace-less. He tells her to go upstairs and change, or no party for her.
Ma thinks she should be allowed to go like that, because she looks so pretty! But Daddy will have none of it. If he lets her go this once, it will be a slippery slope to non-brace-wearing and eventual deformity. So Daddy stays strong, and Deenie puts her brace on, but takes an outfit with her to the party, with the intention of changing once she’s there.
How often did you do something similar when you were a teen? Maybe your parents didn’t let you wear makeup so you put it on at school, or maybe your mom made you wear a dorky toque when it was minus twenty five and so you removed it immediately after rounding the corner on the way to school. Whatever the case, I can totally relate to this.
When Daddy drops Deenie off at the party he says he’s proud of her, for being so strong. This makes Deenie reconsider, and she doesn’t actually change because she remembers how her dad trusts her, and she’s never lied to him before. She goes down to the party, thinking maybe she’ll change later.
Deenie has fun at the party; there’s lots of food and dancing, and Buddy wants to make out with Deenie again! They go into the laundry room, and Buddy asks if she can take her brace off, for just a little while? Ew, Buddy, way to be obvious about your intentions to round second base. Deenie says NO. She can’t. She has to wear it all the time. They make out anyway, and Deenie is proud when her dad picks her up that she has stayed strong.
I think she’s going to make it, after all.