Friday, May 14, 2010

The Reading List: Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret

People give lip service to the junior high years being hard, but even so I think it's common to forget how genuinely hellish the passage from childhood to adulthood really is. Early adolescents are afforded a humiliating lack of even the most fundamental personal autonomy. When to wake up, eat, and sleep, what to wear, where and how to spend every hour of the day, how to manage one's personal space: all of these are subject to the strictest parental control. Even when one's preferences are ratified, the degradation of gratitude is implicitly expected, and one is always mindful that the luck might not run so well again next time. The essential tool that one uses to navigate the world and to arrange one's environment to one's liking -- I speak here of money – is always in ludicrously short supply. One's possessions are quite literally, by law, limited to those few square inches inside one's head, and even that little enclave of thoughts and knowledge is continually being probed, sounded, and assessed by all-too-savvy, if hopefully well-meaning, adults.

This abject condition is bearable if one is blessed with a good and stable home in which to wait out the misery among kind people who make clear their interest in your immediate and future welfare. But one is also forced, during this awful time, into a savage world occupied almost entirely by one's peers. In every junior high school across the land, there exists a social environment akin to the horrors of marine biology, where human animals whose sense of zero-sum social ranking has been fully activated but whose capacity for empathy, restraint, compassion, and the gentle art of letting things slide are still a few years from even starting to come online. The result, for nearly everyone making the passage, is a daily misery that would be simply unendurable to we adults who have pushed through to relative safety and forgotten much of the day-to-day trauma we endured, back then.

The Message of Hope

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is, I think, intended as a message of hope to young adolescents, particularly those of the female persuasion. It is a promise that much of what they are going through has been experienced by others, that it is endurable, and that the ride will, with luck, eventually even out a bit.

The first-person heroine, Margaret, is a remarkably well-adjusted young woman who works her way through five major issues, by my count, over the course of the book. She 1) is confused about religion, having been raised by parents who are lapsed, one from Judaism and one from Christianity; 2) is forcibly relocated to suburban New Jersey from Manhattan by a family move, and thus plunged into an alien social environment and stripped of a grandmother who is her closest adult ally; 3) is moderately freaked out about the physical changes she's expecting her body to start going through; 4) is trying to figure out how to deal with her emerging heterosexuality; and 5) is exposed to the ways that people tell brazen lies about themselves and conduct cruel campaigns of propagandistic slander about others in order to establish or preserve their place in the local hierarchy of social status.

Now it's certainly true that we adults generally spend plenty of time furrowing our brows over religion, proximity to loved ones, body issues, mating, and social infighting. All of us know quite a few other adults who wrestle with one of these themes as the central narrative of their existence. But on average, a healthy adult suffers far less angst about this kind of thing than even the happiest of early adolescents. We've made our choices, eliminated options, gotten used to a certain quantum of daily bullshit, learned how to avoid, glad-hand, or browbeat our more toxic contemporaries, or just found other things to worry about. So it's hard to really feel the impact of AYTG?IMM in the same way as an adolescent might. Reading it as an adult is like chatting with your neighbor the trauma surgeon. He seems like a nice enough guy, but kind of unremarkable; you are aware that he saves lives as a matter of course, but fortunately you don't require his specialized skills at this particular moment.

What I'm saying, I guess, it that this is a book skillfully written for young people of a specific age, and that it makes no sense for me to evaluate it as a piece of fiction when I am reading in early middle age. The Goodreads website, where I log my reading, will want me to issue it one to five stars, but I won't. I could give it one star, saying that it was simplistic and offered me no new insights into the human experience, but that would be foolish and kind of cruel. I could give it five stars as a book that, as I understand it, shaped a whole genre of young adult literature that actually addressed aspects of the young adult experience, but that would be a rating of its reputation, not its merit. I can't tell how good it is; I didn't get to it in time.

A few of you are thinking "yes, dumbass, and you're also MALE." It's a fair point. But males also -- this particular male, anyway, and I suspect almost all of them -- also go through puberty ravaged by insecurity about their physical sexual development. Now, whether the nightmarish worry and wondering about the adequacy of one's penis, about that organ’s humiliating ability to move and change form and betray your thoughts against your will; whether that is trivial compared to the wondering and waiting for breasts and menarche, I have no idea. I very much doubt it's worse, but neither am I completely sure it is a whole lot better.

Margaret, Then and Now

AYTG?IMM is -- if you will forgive the unintentional but acknowledged pun -- a bit of a period piece. Judy Blume is recognizably a progressive of the early 1970s. Clearly in tune with the concerns of young people, she however slips up a few times and lets Margaret notice details about her suburban environment (that the houses and trees, for instance, are all the same age) and about the intrusion of commercialism into schools (a presentation about menstruation is sponsored by a tampon company) -- things that, although of interest to adult progressives, would completely fail to register on a sixth grader’s cultural radar. The New Jersey town that Margaret lands in, too, is a broad caricature of social conformity, literally possessing a choice of a Protestant social club and a Jewish social club, one of which everyone is expected to attend unless they are, like one minor character, Catholics who exist on the margins of society.

I'm curious how popular the book is today. I imagine it must be read a lot, if only because it will have been placed before many or most girls by mothers and aunts and mentor figures who found reading it a revelatory experience back in the day. Does it still retain its power to palliate the process of adolescence in the information-soaked matrix that puberty is currently lived in? My guess is that it can still compete, at least among some readers, with the vampire crap -- "Young Adult Paranormal," I believe the genre has been branded -- that is so fashionable/well-marketed in the early-teen market sector of today. A few minutes on the Wiki can yield all of the information about puberty and adolescence that anyone could know what to do with, but a story about puberty and adolescence in which a character encounters something resembling the actual terrors found there, and shows hope of surviving the ordeal -- well, that must be an awfully compelling narrative to a reader of a certain age.


LegalMist said...

I read the book and loved it when I was in 7th grade (along with a bunch of other Judy Blume books). It was compelling and fascinating, even if Margaret's obsession with growing breasts didn't resonate so much with me.

I re-read it a couple of years ago (after opening a box of old books and sorting through to decide which to keep, which to donate to charity) wondering about whether to give it to my daughter to read, and found it (as you noted) simplistic and offering no new insights.

I don't know which judgment is "correct," but I do know that I have re-read other books that I found just as compelling as the first time through.

In the end, I didn't recommend it to my daughter (wouldn't want to kill my credibiity if she found it uninspiring and less-than-compelling), but kept it around in case she might pick it up one day and decide to read it, and like it as much as I did, back in the day.

Good review.

The Calico Cat said...

Great review. While I remember "Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing" & "Superfudge", I have no memory of this Blume tome... & I am not really sure how I feel about that. I do know that on a recent ladies night as the conversation ebbed & flowed, we got onto "this" subject & many of my peers read & have "fond" memories of this book. They can recall how all of the important sections were underlines & the pages bent over - so even the least readerly amongst the group would not miss out on the "lesson."

Elaine said...

Well, I had never read this book, and as I am about to celebrate #63, I feel doubtful that Margaret is going to address the appalling changes which are 'the gift of age.' However, very, very sorry about your junior high school years, M5000. (7th grade in Hawaii was the topmost class of elementary school; 8th grade in DeKalb County, GA, was 'subfreshman' year of HS.)

Jenners said...

I was so dying to see your review of this book and I have to say "Well done." Only you could write a review of this book in quite this way. (Though ... FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE SPELL THE AUTHOR'S NAME CORRECTLY -- BLUME - NOT BLOOM).

I have to say, I wasn't sure which way you were going to go with your review. In the end, I'm glad you chose the thoughtful respectful route ... as this is a book of some importance to young girls (as it was for me when I read it ... it got to me "in time." In fact, this was my beloved cover.) Judy Blume is a master of pinpointing certain moments in the kid-eat-kid world of early middle school and I think her work holds up today. If I had a daughter, we would be reading this together.

DrSchnell said...

There's also a sort-of parallel book Blume wrote for the XY chromosome set called "Then Again, Maybe I Won't." I haven't re-read it in years, but remember re-reading it many times as an adolescent, for many of the same reasons as the XX part of the species read and re-read "Margaret."

Anonymous said...

My growing-up (I was Margaret's age in the late '90s)was mildly hellish, but in different ways. So the basic preoccupations never resonated with me, and I also read it as a period piece. Some elements were very dated.

mrs.5000 said...

I never read this book, but can testify that as an elementary school kid I was exceedingly attuned to the fact that the trees and houses in my suburban Chicago neighborhood were all exactly the same age. This was reinforced by the fact that a) the development was pretty new, only nine years old when we moved in, b) every yard had exactly two maple trees, all in a row, and c) the streets were all named after trees (Balsam, Birchwood, Shagbark, Hickory, but no Maple) that were conspicuously absent in reality. When we moved to New Jersey, several streets in our subdivision were named after the Lenape Indians, also conspicuously absent in reality. Looking back, I dunno, maybe I just had a thing for this kind of irony, but it seemed an early clue that the world was shaped largely by people with limited means and imagination.

Michael5000 said...

LegalMist: Interesting... Thanks for the thoughts.

CC: Yeah, I think a lot of women think of it as one of the most important books in their reading history.

Elaine: Oh, I survived my j-high years. I had a stable home environment, a steady supply of classical music and detective novels, and the ability to survive school. No complaints.

Jenners: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, THANKS. I was thinking of Molly Bloom. I corrected the one instance of the author's name I could find.

Don't I usually choose the thoughtful respectful route? I TRY to be nice.

I wish I had used the phrase "kid-eat-kid world"....

Doc: Interesting. Maybe I'll read it! Then again....

eavenmoore: Testimony! But now I want to bounce it off of a panel of 10 precocious seventh grade girls and see what they think. Maybe I'll ask the Nieces if they read it.

mrs.5000: Remember that scene where Sonny disagrees with The Godfather in front of all the rival gang leaders, thus embarrassing the family and revealing an internal weakness that can be exploited as a vulnerability? THAT'S WHAT YOU'RE DOING HERE.

Jennifer said...

Man, I'm behind the curve again. Looks like all the commenting's been done. But that's not going to stop me!

The whole menSTROOation aspect of the book was the one I consciously focused on when I read it as a pre-teen, but, thinking back on it, I was pretty interested in (and affected by) the other elements too.

As for the first, I know this is weird (and announcing this to the world when I'm currently pissed at facebook for their privacy violations is arguably inconsistent as well as TMI), but the book actually made me want to have my period. Since then, too, I've always been a little confused when I see somebody referring to it as "the curse" (or using another negative term). The positive attitude just kind of stuck with me, which is pretty darn valuable.

Also, I'm going to have to join Mrs5000 (it's okay because I'm not part of the family, right?): I can't comment about trees being the same age, but this was one of the first times I became aware of brand issues on my own. The day in elementary school (I forget which year--I want to say 4th grade) when they split the class in two and had little kits for us with booklets explaining about menSTROOation, it was absolutely clearly sponsored by one of the major manufacturers. And when I got my period, it was one of the first times I remember my mother letting me choose a brand of a personal item. (This may not be accurate, but that's the way memory goes.)

In fact, it is a cliche of that era (often giggled about in books) that magazine ads for "women's hygiene" products were unidentifiable except by brand. (That is, you couldn't tell what they were selling unless you already knew.)

Also--hey, I think I'm getting kind of long here, huh? I'll try to keep this short--the other elements were important too. Growing up in a not-very-diverse town, I didn't know (or didn't know I knew) anybody who was Jewish; I think I knew one girl who was Catholic. I think learning about what it was like to think about religion from inside somebody else's head, as it were, helped more with my learning about open-mindedness (not that it happened instantly) than studying "alternative" religions in Sunday School.

Even the idea of a store called "A&P"--which was totally absent from the west coast, as far as I could tell--was a learning experience. It hadn't occurred to me that not all states had the same stores. When I visited east the first time, I think I startled people by calling out, "Ooh! An A&P! I've read about them!!!" (And I was thinking of this book.) So I'd add awareness of regional difference to the list of Good Things.

Oh! Last but not least, I'm not the only one of my friends who gave this to their significant boyfriends to read for a little insight on what it was like to be a girl (and why groups of us would crack each other up by starting to chant "We must--we must--").

Kritkrat said...

The girl on the cover of that book has freakishly thick hair. I mean, it's distracting it's so thick.

sister jen said...

I think much of the power of this book--and of a lot of Blume's work--is that it was new; there had not previously been books written for adolescent girls about the experience of being an adolescent girl, not in this way. Breasts? Menstruation? !!! In many homes when the book first came out (1970), it was remarkable that the girls were allowed to read it at all. Many read it in secret. Whether it retains its power today may be partly a factor of how many other books have handled the same material in more updated ways. There's no question Blume's books blazed a trail, though.

Anonymous said...

There is something to be said for the serious, straightforward way Blume's characters view their lives. A lot of YA fiction now is relentlessly entertaining, full of quips and situational comedy.

Aviatrix said...

It was dated already when I read it, at the appropriate age, most notably for the technology used to deal with said menSTROOation. That was at least as baffling to me as the Judaism.

Also, if I were in charge of the world, it would be a criminal offense to tell anyone between the ages of 12 and 17 that "these are the best years of your life." Myself, I take every opportunity to reassure the teenagers I meet that it gets better, much better. Just hang on to your health and sanity and learn all you can while you endure it.

bermudaonion said...

I found you via Jenner's blog. I didn't read this book until I was an adult, and I loved it. Sure, people can tell you all about puberty, but when you're going through it, you think you're the only person all out of whack and I would think this book would give girls some re-assurance. We need to find a young girl to read it to get her reaction!

Michael5000 said...

Thanks for checking in, Ms. Onion. I recently took a poll of Nieces #s 1, 2, & 3 -- all teens -- and they were pretty much "eh."