Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet

The titles: A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet
The author: Beverly Cleary
Publication: Yamhill: Dell, 1988; Feet: Morrow Junior Books, 1995
Got it from: Yamhill: The Barrow Bookstore, Concord, Massachusetts, 2013; Feet: Interlibrary loan

In honour of Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday this month, I thought it was finally time to crack open my copy of  A Girl from Yamhill, Cleary's autobiography, and its follow-up, My Own Two Feet.  (And I do mean crack open - my copy basically disintegrated while I was reading and pages started to fall out.  Oh well.)  I love autobiographies from the early 20th century, and this one was special to me for two reasons.  One is that she is a beloved author from my childhood, two is that she is a librarian and I was really interested in what library school and being a librarian was like in the 30s and 40s.  

Yamhill starts with Cleary's earliest memories of living on her family's Yamhill farm.  She remembers the bells ringing to mark the end of the First World War, at the tender age of two.  Life is difficult on the farm, and Beverly is constantly reminded (and irritated) by stories of her hardy pioneer ancestors.  Her family's story is really a mirror of the larger American story: the move from agricultural life to urban living.  When the farm becomes too much for too little money, the family moves to Portland, which would later serve as the setting of Cleary's books.  Many of the scenes from school and around her neighbourhood will be familiar to fans of Cleary's work.  Her childhood in the 1920s will seem both familiar and strange to children of today.  Material possessions were fewer, but fun and imagination remained the same.

(As a warning, it's not all innocent fun.  In one awful section, she describes being sexually harassed by a creepy uncle and being unable to tell anyone for a long time.)  

And then the Depression.  Unfortunately for Cleary, it struck just as she entered adolescence, already a difficult time for anyone. Her father lost his job, and her mother became a bitter, controlling, manipulative presence in Beverly's young life.  Those high school scenes of deprivation, hunger and unhappiness at home were particularly difficult to read.  On top of it all, Beverly was dogged by a wet blanket of a "boyfriend," a young man her mother encouraged she she couldn't shake for years, despite not being able to stand.  Yamhill ends with Beverly finally being able to escape by going to college in California.  

My Own Two Feet picks right up where Yamhill ends, with Beverly on the bus to her new life in California.  It's the middle of the Depression, but California is better off economically, and Beverly is finally out from under her mother's thumb.  In many ways this volume is easier to read than the first, consisting of a whirlwind of friends, dates and studies.  She describes living in San Francisco while the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were being built, being courted by Clarence Cleary and how her English teachers gave her writing advice that stayed with her and later helped guide her stories.  

Her library school experience was interesting to read about, especially as I couldn't help comparing it to my own almost 70 years later.  Some of it was familiar, some not so much - a teacher actually gave her a C even though she'd earned A's, because she didn't like the look on Beverly's face!  It's clear she loved her time working in children's departments, where the requests for books about "kids like us" would eventually lead her to write Henry Huggins.  Through the war, she served as a librarian on an army base and later a military hospital, where she had a front-row seat of the action taking place on the Pacific front.  In 1949, she finally settled down to write and the story ends with the successful publication of Henry Huggins.

Because it's a biography, the narrative doesn't flow quite like it would in fiction, and her breaking out from under her mother's thumb is a long, drawn-out process with a lot of frustrating setbacks.  Still, these books are fascinating glimpses into a fascinating few decades of American history, from the perspective of an (extra)ordinary woman's life.