Sister of the Bride
By Beverly Cleary
Although to my generation she is best-known for her Ramona series, the beloved children's book author Beverly Cleary wrote several books for teens. (In fact, many bibliographies and articles about her don't even list her young adult novels, or list them with wildly incorrect dates.) Sister of the Bride is the last in an often-neglected line of four interestingly stylized and proper books about young women finding themselves and getting the guy.
The strange thing about these books is that they work on many levels. It's strange because on the surface, they seem to be the fluffiest little bits of fluff that ever fluffed. Consider the opening paragraph of the novel:
I guess this is just one of those days, thought Barbara MacLane on her way home from school one bright afternoon late in April. She was not alone. She was walking beside a boy, a very tall boy, but their thoughts were like those famous parallel lines that lie in the same plane but never meet.
On one level, this novel is a simple young adult novel about a girl who obsesses about boys and love and life. That was actually what drew me to these books once upon a time
- the idea that I was just getting a simple, mindless read. Fortunately, Beverly Cleary was never one to let herself be constrained by people's artistic expectations. Just as the Ramona
books are disturbingly clear looks into the workings of a young child's mind, (disturbing even to me at age seven), so are Cleary's young adult novels very clear (and often tongue-in-cheek-funny) portraits of the world in which her teenagers live.
Barbara sat down on the bed and put her fingers in her ears. This had been going on for weeks. Gordy and two of his junior high school friends had formed a trio to sing folk songs. Their ambition - in a year or two when they were really good - was to make records or, rather, "cut" records, as they were always careful to say, that would sell millions. Other boys not much older had done it. Why shouldn't they?
My god - it's Hansen!
I have always wanted to know everything I could about other people's lives, especially people living in different eras or areas. I can't imagine what the world must be like in the 1790s or in Singapore, and I devour any scrap of information that comes my way. Cleary's work here fulfills that hunger even more than many comparable works do, because it is about the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1960s: a different world which constantly licks at the edges of my 21st century Oakland life.
They live in Bayview, and talk about how all the little surrounding towns have grown till they bump into each other; today, Bayview-Hunter's Point is just another San Francisco neighborhood1. They distinguish between "sneakers" and "shoes." Fiancé Greg works at the "Rad Lab," the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley. ("Well, I guess the world is changing," their grandmother says sadly. "Young men didn't smash atoms in my day either.") Barbara's elegant and hyper-efficient maiden aunt is the buyer for the corset department in a large store. The teen love interest's mom is in advertising, buys her son a Vespa, and is always sharply dressed in contrast to "the housewives of Bayview, who were seen about town in comfortably baggy slacks on cold days and in cotton blouses and skirts on warm days."
These last two bits of local color reveal the third level of her novels. They are subtly, functionally feminist. She does not appear to come with any particular ideology or political argument; in fact, when the characters in the book argue about the upcoming elections, she skillfully leaves out any specific political information. She simply writes strong female characters who don't take any guff, and includes them in all aspects of her world.
This is actually what first struck me about this book when I re-read it as an adult. Beverly Cleary addresses all kinds of gender and generational issues - like the eldest daughter's lordly announcement that she won't have an engagement ring because it's "so middle-class," and her mother's observation that she thought a lot of things were bourgeois when she was young, too. Cleary gets the most mileage, however, out of a subplot about wives' clubs.
The mother and her friends have a club - Les Amies, which some wag of a husband nicknamed "The Amys" - which their daughters view as just plain silly. Both Barbara and her older sister Rosemary are inclined to moan that the Amys don't use their minds, that women get married and don't go to college and stop using their minds - much to the Amys' great amusement.
"Addie, do you ever worry about using your mind?" one Amy asked another.
"Using it!" laughed Addie Smith. "With four children it's all I can do to keep from losing it. Meals to plan, washing to do - why, just the laundry alone...."
"The chauffeuring to ballet lessons and dental appointments," continued another mother.
"The P.T.A.," chorused several.
"Brownies and Cub Scouts," someone added.
"But I used to feel exactly the same way as the girls," said one of the members, taking Barbara's side. "When I was first married I conscientiously went to the library once a week and followed a reading list on world affairs. I didn't want to stagnate, just because I was married. Until the children came, that is. After that I didn't have much time for world affairs. I was too busy on the home front."
Meanwhile, the Amys go on supporting each other, making corny jokes and Secret Pal gift exchanges and eating gooey desserts while talking about their diets, and with their many brilliant talents practically run the wedding. And eventually, Rosemary comes to look forward to joining a similar club at Berkeley. Beverly Cleary expertly (and repeatedly) shows how people's preconceptions about gender are hollow and pointless when compared with the reality of individual experiences.
Her teen novels operate on a fourth level as well: as guidance to the young adult reader in dealing with family and life. While each of these four teen novels has a different plot - the girl whose older sister is getting married, the Oregon girl who lives with family friends in California for a school year and expands her mind - they all share the theme of young women struggling with standing on the brink of adulthood. They are all, as my high school English teacher would have pointed out, rite of passage novels.
The book starts out with Barbara obsessing about boys, planning out how if she meets someone now and falls in love in a few months and goes steady for a year and is engaged for a year she'll be married at the same age as her sister. She has a complete, insecure, codependent fit about meeting her sister's future parents-in-law:
What had Rosemary told Greg about his future sister-in-law? She rummaged through Rosemary's secondhand psychology jargon for phrases that might fit. Something like, "Barbara's all right but she's terribly immature." Or, "Barbara's all right but she can't get along with Gordy. Sibling rivalry, you know. She feels insecure." Then Greg would pass this along to his family, who would arrive expecting a very young girl quarreling with her brother. Barbara resolved to stop quarreling with Gordy at once. When the Aldreges arrived, she would be so poised and so grown-up that they would leave, asking one another, "Was that the girl Greg said was immature? Impossible! She and her brother got along beautifully." Yes, Barbara was going to have to watch her step.
Although I was much crazier than Barbara when I was 16, I can't help but think that this must be a pretty accurate look into the spinning looney workings of the average teenage mind.
She's totally nuts; once she's decided to find a nice boy, she convinces herself that she's in love with the young man who gives her rides on his Vespa, and then that she has a broken heart when he doesn't arrange to see her over the summer. But by the end of the novel, amazingly, she has matured enough to let go of all her preconceptions about love and romance and relationships, and just enjoy life.
In short, Sister of the Bride is a fascinating sociological study of class, age, and gender in a 1960s California neighborhood. Or a fun short romp through a giddy family's rush toward marriage. Either way, there's something in here for everyone.
1. I lie, in a way: there is no such thing as "just another San Francisco neighborhood." Bayview-Hunter's Point is now "the last African-American neighborhood in San Francisco," and, coincidentally enough, is left off of many maps of the city. For plenty of neighborhood information from its residents, check out
http://www.brasscheck.com/stadium/bvhp2.html and http://www.bvhp-pac.org/
and for the history of Hunter's Point itself: http://www.zpub.com/sf/thepoint/point-h.html