We’re reading our way across America…one romance at a time.
Wisconsin: Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly
There aren’t a lot of books out there that have literally changed the world. Best-sellers—even massive best-sellers—come and go. True game-changers? Not so common. But in 1942, Maureen Daly, barely out of her teens, wrote a novel that did exactly that with her timeless tale of first love, Seventeenth Summer.
Not a lot of people read this ground-breaking book today, but many scholars and historians remember Seventeenth Summer as the very first-ever Young Adult novel. There were children’s books aplenty, of course, but very little fiction that was written specifically for teenagers and dealt directly with their rich interior lives. Seventeenth Summer changed that, and suddenly tales for and about teens exploded onto the scene. Daly’s immediate spiritual heirs include Janet Lambert, Rosamund du Jardin, and Lenore Mattingly Weber—and if you have never read any of their work, it’s pretty likely that your mother did. It’s hard to overstate her importance.
But—seventy-plus years out—how does the book hold up?
Pretty well, as it turns out. Seventeenth Summer is the story of Angie Morrow, who comes of age in idyllic Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The summer before she is to join her older sister, Lorraine, at college in Chicago, she meets local basketball hero Jack Duluth. (Having attended an all-girls school at the edge of town, she had never really crossed paths with Jack before.) They fall in love over the course of one long, slow summer—but what will happen when autumn arrives?
This is an unusual story, particularly with respect to all the thousands of YA romances that followed, because—and here’s a very major spoiler—Jack and Angie don’t end up together. It’s obvious almost from the start that their relationship isn’t built to last; class differences (there’s an excruciating scene in which Jack has Sunday dinner at the Morrows’ house and does almost everything “wrong”) and family expectations ultimately form an unbridgeable gulf between the two. And indeed, at the end, Jack follows his family down to Oklahoma to help with their business there, while Angie leaves for college in Chicago as scheduled. There’s some vague talk about getting together over the holidays, but the reader is given to understand that that’s mostly just talk.
But the brevity of their relationship doesn’t make it any less real or less true. Over one magical summer, Jack and Angie go sailing on the lake, to parties in the woods, and to the cool kids’ table at the soda shop (to Angie’s delight). And while they don’t go all the way, it’s not for lack of desire:
The sun was warm on our backs and Jack stood with water drops running from his hair and glistening on his face. I had a sudden impulse to reach out and run my finger lightly over the even, dark arch of his eyebrows as he stood looking at me. But there was an odd look in his eyes, an odd, warm look that made my lips tingle as his eyes met mine, and I knew it would be better not to touch him, not even to talk to him, just then.
Meanwhile, Angie watches other romances play out around her. Her oldest sister is engaged to a friendly if boring sort, and seems content; the aforementioned Lorraine quietly makes herself miserable by throwing herself at a new man in town who treats her casually, even as—it is heavily implied—she squanders her virtue upon him. (This would have been a much bigger deal then than it is now, obviously.) Then there are longtime steadies Fitz and Margie, the perfect high school couple; but are they staying together out of true affection, or inertia?
Of course, there’s a lot of waiting by the phone, discussion of “necking,” and, interestingly, drinking and smoking among the younger set. (“I didn’t realize it then and I hate to admit it now, but I must have been a little tight that night!” Angie breathlessly confesses after enjoying a couple of beers with Jack.) Some people might consider that “dated,” but I prefer to think of it as “loaded with period charm.” Overall, it’s a simple story, but for anyone who has ever been in love for the first time, it’s anything but dull. As Angie says,
“Maybe you don’t know just what I mean. I can’t really explain it—it’s so hard to put in words but – well, it was just something I’d never felt before. Something I’d never even known. People can’t tell you about things like that, you have to find them out for yourself. That’s why it is so important.”
Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine.