“It was probably just a silly rumor, but I’d heard that nuns had their heads shaved, and I was afraid they relaxed by taking off their veils and running around bald, something I certainly did not want to see.”
A lot of this book reads like a “silly rumor”. However, some of it is true-to-history, and how is a young adult reader to tell the difference? Were Catholic schools and Catholic nuns back in the 1950’s really repressive and threatening? Probably some were. Were some people blacklisted for Communist sympathies in Hollywood during the so-called “red scare”? Yes, some were. Did those who were blacklisted become so intimidated and frightened by the questions and the pressure from the FBI that they committed suicide? Not unless they were already disturbed and depressed. (The author’s note in the back of the book says that “at least two” of those Hollywood types who were blacklisted committed suicide, but I can’t find any names or independent verification of this fact.) Did children really learn to fear The Bomb and the Reds so much that they worried that airplanes flying overhead might drop a bomb on them? I’m sure some imaginative children did.
Author Karen Cushman lived in California during the late forties/early fifties. I didn’t. She attended a Catholic school. I didn’t.
She says she was taught to “duck and cover” in case of a nuclear attack. I wa taught to go out into an interior hallway and cover my head in tornado drills, but by the time I went to elementary school in the 1960’s, no one was talking about nuclear attacks or fallout shelters to schoolchildren in West Texas. At least, not to me.
So, I’m giving the events in this book the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to read as a straight story. It felt more like a series of caricatures: the angry nun teacher, the poor Jewish liberal actor blacklisted as a consequence of his compassion for the poor and downtrodden, the friend who speaks out and gets herself into trouble, the pious goody-two-shoes who wants to become a nun, the empty-headed teenage sister who’s only interested in fingernail polish and boys, and the bumbling dad who can’t figure out what to do to protect his family from godless Communists and atomic bombs.
Only the narrator, Francine, felt like a real person. Francine is conflicted; she wants to be friends with Sophie, the afore-mentioned outspoken defender of lost causes, but she doesn’t want to get in trouble. Francine is a self-described coward. She’s become accustomed to being overlooked and ignored, and some part of her likes to be unnoticed. The nuns at school and her family at home never ask for her opinion on anything, so Francine isn’t even sure she has any opinions of her own. Francine’s supposed to be a representation of the American public, silent in the face of McCarthyism and persecution of Hollywood Communists. But Francine is more than a symbol. As a character, she insists upon being more complicated and interesting, just as I’m sure the politics and culture of the 1950’s were more complex and multi-layered than this simple presentation would indicate. And the ending is confusing and would be epecially so for those “imaginative young people” to whom I would think this book is targeted. What happened to Sophie and her father? Did the Big Bad FBI put them in a dungeon somewhere? Did they emigrate to Russia? Did they just decide to move and start over elsewhere? The uncertainty is realistic, but annoying, perhaps giving young people the idea that America in the 1950’s was a place like Chile in the 1970’s where people just disappeared never to seen again except as bodies in a mass grave somewhere.
It’s a middle school/young adult novel of one author’s experience of the 1950’s, the red scare, and growing up to become a person with thoughts and ideas of one’s own. There’s some humor in the vein of the opening quotation, a decent plot, and one very engaging narrator. In Texas idiom, I’d call it “fair to middlin”.