Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Problem #1: Pregnancy

I think my next several posts are going to focus on a long-running standard of YA Lit--the problem novel.  The problem novel is one that tackles those juicy, scary situations that are much easier to think about in fiction than in reality.  One of the most common problem novel subjects is teen pregnancy, so let's start there.

 Teen pregnancy isn't anything new, and in the 1950s the slang term for it was to say a girl was "in trouble."  That's the title of Ellen Levine's novel about Jamie, a sixteen-year-old girl, whose best friend gets"in trouble." As Jamie tries to find a way to help her friend, she faces her own very serious problems.  It's supposed to be a big surprise but I could tell almost from the first page that something bad had happened to Jamie, and it was probably rape.  Indeed it was, and I hope I haven't spoiled anything for future readers, but really, it was very obvious.  Anyway, pregnancy and rape.  Problem novels are heavy, dear reader.

I've read a great many teen novels about teen pregnancy, and what I found different and interesting about this one was its historical setting.  In the 1950s, the options for pregnant teens were pretty grim.  Roe v. Wade hadn't happened yet, and medical alternatives were oftentimes downright scary.  For Jamie's friend, Elaine, the "option" is a home for pregnant girls where the girls are shamed (after all, the phrase used is "in trouble"), the baby daddy is totally absent, and the expectation is that the baby will be given up for adoption despite whether or not the teen mother wants to keep her baby.   I say "option" in quotes because Elaine isn't actually given a choice.  Her parents ship her off, and though she waits, trustingly, for her boyfriend to come for her, he seems not to be arriving in any particular hurry.

On the flip side, Jamie's family is incredibly supportive.  By the way, an added element to the novel is the return of Jamie's father from prison.  Hardened convict?  No, a victim of McCarthy-ism.  Jamie's father returns from prison a different man, but despite this, hers is a close knit family, which is quite unusual in problem novels.  Often the problem of a problem novel is one's hideous family.  Not so in Jamie's case.

Sometimes Jamie's narrative is a little clunky, and one character (Paul) seemed not to have much place in the novel (he petered out toward the end and his role in the book seemed to have been lost) but this is a brief glimpse into the 50s and what it might have been like to be a girl "in trouble."  Fun fact that the author makes very clear:  the boys in these teen pregnancy scenarios were never "in trouble."  All responsibility fell upon the shoulders of the girls---note Elaine's absentee boyfriend.  I think the author could have gone deeper still and I wish Jamie had been more focused at times, but I liked the story and the different perspective on teen pregnancy.  It's historical but it's also interesting to ask yourself what has changed and what hasn't changed from Jamie's time to our own?

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