There was a time, in the not too distant past a pernicious form of lexical sexism permeated the bookshelves. It constituted a whole different version of putting women in their place. By this I mean, their place on that self-same bookshelf. It went something like this: Tales where the protagonist was a male adolescent, i.e. Holden Caulfield and the subsequent flood of Holden Caulfield impersonators, were considered fit reading for adults whereas tales where the protagonist was a female adolescent, i.e. the gazillion novels not featuring Holden Caulfield, were deemed fit reading only for young adults.
In other words, men were for all, and girls were for children.
These days we’ve entered slightly more enlightened terrain and this is why we can all enjoy a novel like Sharon Short’s My One Square Inch of Alaska. This novel, set in the small-town fifties, rather than the Mad Men fifties, begins as a quasi-historical fifties family drama, exploring familiar teenage angst territory. Then it evolves into something of an adventure story, dotted with a post-war critique of class warfare, pro-labor sentiment and a proto-feminist sociological study. Wherever it takes us, it wears its heart on its sleeve.
My One Square Inch of Alaska tells the story of Donna Lane, budding fashion designer and full-time teenager. Told from the grown-up Donna’s perspective, though this thankfully fades as chapters unroll in real time, we first meet Donna facing an ethical dilemma about breakfast cereal with her little brother, Will. She’s a hothouse flower of ambition and brains, growing up in the little Midwestern mill town of Groverton, population squares, pearl-clutchers and wrong-side-of-the-trackers. Unfortunately for Donna, she doesn’t have the typical fifties, ultra square family. In fact, by conformist’s standards it couldn’t be worse: her mother’s dead, her father’s a drunk, she’s young, talented and broke and sole emotional caretaker of her little brother, Will.
Here’s Donna, at rich kid, high school hunk Jimmy’s Denton’s house, dining with his parents.
“Would gravy help, dear?” Mrs. Denton asked?
“Pardon me?” I said, hoping I had misunderstood her intentions.
“I thought gravy might make the meal more similar to what your grandmother probably serves at her diner…I haven’t eaten there of course, but the neighbors tell me it’s good for homey cooking. If you like that sort of thing.”
But Donna’s reaction is scarcely one of a mannerly mid-century teenager who might have chewed her Salisbury steak with a side of mortification. Instead she pops off a defense like a twenty first century kid might, complete with cutting dissection of the ambition-dimming prospects of those who fall down a class.
My grandmother had worked hard all her life to make a place beloved by people from Groverton. It wasn’t easy for her. She was an only child, used to fine things. Her dad was Dr. Winthrow, and he treated many of the mill workers…after he dies she reared my dad all by herself and started baking pies and selling them to neighbors and from there she started the diner…
Yet Donna’s hopes and dreams also appear to be the stuff of teenagers everywhere, she wants beautiful clothes, a date with a cute boy and a chance to cut class with her best friend Bab’s. She wants to know the truth about matters and she wants to be her own person.
Suddenly—yes! I wanted to learn to drive. And not to go to Dayton or to Paris or anywhere in particular. I just wanted to feel that steering wheel in my hands even more than I wanted to feel Jimmy’s hand on mine…
It’s entirely to the credit of this author that these tropes of gentle, small town adolescence angst have a fully dimensional, living breathing champion in the character of Donna. She’s not a walking polemic for stifled womanhood, but a well-written teenage girl with a smart mouth and the strong temptation to use it under inappropriate circumstances. Donna’s brains and curiosity, as much as her economic status, keep her from social acceptance, though she does manage to attract the interest of that cute rich boy.
Though there’s driving and song lyrics, proms and make out sessions and even a pilfered bottle or two, Short’s interest in these genre mainstays feels like it has its limits. One gets the sense some of these were spooned into the story to satisfy some conformist notions of their own. When the work shines, it’s because the author seems to really want to show a teenage girl who contains both light and shadow, sometimes in the same paragraph. Since Short is interested in complex characterization, it can be a disappointment when stereotypical heroes and villains are trotted forward in ways that feel artificial. Plot points possibly meant to appeal to modern readers—he’s gay! she’s a healer! — really only interfere in our pleasure in hanging out with Donna and the more interesting exploration of her courage concerning Will and that promise embedded in the book’s title.
This is a good story that moves at a smart clip and has that quality of what some would call a “fun” read. The race at end is exciting, and we’re really rooting for these two kids to make it. When a mad mountain man in the wilds of the Yukon attempts a rape, the mongrel Trusty takes him down:
“Shoot ‘im! Shoot the dog!” the man started screaming.
…I whirled around and the woman from the roadhouse just a few feet from me, holding a rifle aimed right at Trusty.
But she doesn’t kill Trusty, she aims for the rapist instead. “Fun” is how people recommend books like My One Square Inch of Alaska supposedly to distinguish them from serious works of literature. Without a doubt, there is room on the bookshelf for all. But the fact of the matter is that books like Ms. Short’s are only a fun read if they are written with intelligent readers in mind. Donna’s hopes, both dashed and realized, contain serious ideas about the aspiration of young girls to be both and less than their expected social roles. By placing the action in the fifties, Short is able to bend some of our preconceptions that we are past all that. We are never past all that. The only part we are past, one can hope, is dismissing young, female-centered novels as unfit for all-gender, all-adult, all-human consumption.
My One Square Inch of Alaska, by Sharon Short. New York, New York: Plume. 336 pages. $16.00, paper.
Merridawn Duckler has published fiction and nonfiction widely, the most recent forthcoming from Farallon Review and Cerise Press. She has published poetry narrowly, the most recent forthcoming from Five [Quarterly]. Her scripts have been performed from Oregon to Valdez, Alaska. Her residencies stretch from Yaddo to Jerusalem.