Monday, September 6, 2010

"Very Junior Miss"

"Very Junior Miss" was one of John D MacDonald's "family stories," the kind he populated the pages of This Week with in the first half of the 1950's. It's very much modeled on the JDM template established for these kinds of tales, where a minor family problem seemingly becomes a bigger one, and where at least one of the parents -- usually the father -- is shown up to be either a fuddy-duddy or a fool. Here we have nearly every feature of this kind of story, including the JDM Suburban Family Unit, which consists of two parents and two children, one a boy, the other a girl. We are presented with a problem that seems intractable but that eventually works itself out in a humorous or lighthearted way, finishing with a wistful observation by one of the parents.

The story is primarily notable for being the first of four John D MacDonald works that would appear in McCall's Magazine over the years. McCall's was, of course, one of the "Seven Sisters," a group of women's magazines published in the Twentieth Century that were known for their vast popularity and influence. The publication began in 1873 as a small periodical known as The Queen, created by one James McCall to disseminate the sewing patterns he designed. The McCall's name was incorporated into the title around the turn of the century and in 1913 the magazine underwent a major redesign where the inclusion of fiction began. Like many other magazines of the time -- ones the modern reader may not associate with publishing quality fiction -- the list of authors whose work appeared in the pages of McCall's is a Who's Who of Twentieth Century fiction. Names such as Booth Tarkington, Zane Gray, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald all contributed original fiction to McCall's. In 1937 it became the first woman's magazine to print a complete novel in a single issue.

By the time "Very Junior Miss" appeared in the January 1952 issue, McCall's boasted a readership of 4.5 million, a huge audience for any author. This particular issue -- advertised as "Our Biggest Fiction Issue" -- contains one complete novel, five short stories and a single "short short story," which happens to be "Very Junior Miss." Yet with the exception of MacDonald, the names of the other authors -- Alice Douglas Kelly, Nadine Hoskins, Felix Noland, among others -- are known to only the most serious students of American popular fiction.

"Very Junior Miss" begins on a Sunday morning in the suburban home of the Morrows, where mother Laura is having another exasperating argument with her daughter Kilty. Three weeks shy of her sixteenth birthday, Kilty is still in the throes of tomboyhood, and her attire and lack of attention to her appearance is concerning her mother. Father Walter is sitting at the table, reading the paper and seemingly unconcerned with the dispute, throwing in a sarcastic remark every now and then. "She's your daughter, too," say Laura to her husband. "Most of the time Kilty looks like a -- like a coal-heaver." There is an outdoor buffet that afternoon at "the club" and Laura wants Kilty to wear her nice green dress and to wash her hair, despite the fact that Kilty will spend most of the day in the pool. Besides, Laura's friend Marie will be there with her daughter Sandra, and Sandra is always well-behaved and nicely dressed.

Admitting defeat, Kilty goes upstairs to change and Laura berates Walter for not showing more support. She tells him "I don't want my daughter to turn out to be one of those big back-slapping women." (I guess we all know what that means!) Walter assures her that all will end well and reminds her that she will soon come to pine for this time in her daughter's life.

"When Kilty starts to become highly conscious of herself as a member of the female species, Laura, I'm going to feel a little sad. It will mean that both of our kids have turned into adults. And after all these years of wishing the process would go a little faster, I'm now beginning to wonder if we won't feel just a little bit lost."

When the family arrives at the club, Kilty is properly razzed by her friends about her appearance. A sock in the arm from Kilty manages to shut up the boys, and the family heads for their table near the pool. It is then that they notice "a group of a dozen girls wearing identical coral-colored bathing suits" walking through the open poolside. It turns out that there is going to be a fashion show that afternoon, and the models are accompanied by a young man wearing "exceedingly bright clothes" and by a "chunky woman with short jet hair."

After lunch is served and prior to the show, Kilty manages to get permission to change into her bathing suit so she can watch the show from the pool. On her way to the locker room she encounters the models being instructed by the "chunky woman" on how to comport themselves, and as she stops to listen, the young man sees her and calls her over. After introductions the man says, "You've got good shoulders and good legs, Kilty... Go tell [the woman] that Carl says you can wear the white." It takes a moment for it to sink in that Carl wants Kilty to appear in the show wearing one of his creations. Kilty is horrified and refuses, but when Carl taunts her with charges of "stage fright," Kilty, behind "tears of frustration," agrees. She puts on the dress, takes a few quick lessons in how to walk properly, then gets ready for her turn to walk down the platform. Only then does real stage fright set in. "'I can't!' [she] said in a small, trembling voice. 'I never should have...'"

MacDonald had already sold two of these kinds of "lesson-learned" family dramas to the popular newspaper supplement This Week when "Very Junior Miss" was published in 1952. He would follow up this tale a year later with the far more adult (and superior) "Forever Yours" in the February 1953 issue of McCall's, relegating his subsequent family pieces (for the most part) to This Week. After "Forever Yours" was published it would be eight full years before his third McCall's submission would appear. By that time MacDonald was a far more mature author, still interested in this particular form of short story, but much better equipped to pull it off successfully. Not that "Very Junior Miss" is a bad work -- for what it was, it succeeds admirably -- but in the canon of MacDonald's output, it's largely forgettable.

"Very Junior Miss" was the only John D MacDonald story to appear in McCall's under the author's original title. As far as I know, it has never been anthologized.

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