Sunday, January 18, 2015

Alice in Lace

It has been a long, long time since I wrote about Alice.  My last post was here, two years ago!  I feel like I should apologize to Alice - I had a new book read and ready to blog right after that.  It just took a really, really long time for it to make its way to the top of the pile!  I am really looking forward to continuing in this series, particularly since while I was taking that break, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor published the final book in the series, Now I'll Tell You Everything  . I can't wait to see how Alice grows up.

How could Alice be old enough to get married?  It hasn't been that long!!  She isn't, really... but their eighth grade calls is doing a unit in health class called Critical Choices.  As part of that unit, students are given hypothetical situations to learn about.  They have a new teacher, Mr. Everett, and he tells them "' Your grade will depend not necessarily on how you deal with your problem, but on the larger view you take.  I'll want to know how your solution affects you, the people around you, society, the works.'" (p. 2)  It's interesting that even though Mr. Everett explains that they'll be assigned hypothetical issues, everyone is worried about how they'll handle it, or how this hypothetical situation will be judged by others.  Alice's best friends, Elizabeth and Pamela, are total opposites - Elizabeth is more conservative, a little pious, and uncomfortable with the way things change as they grow up.  Pamela is free-spirited and slightly devil-may-care.  The two girls are both thinking about the same potential assignment, and their responses couldn't be more different.  Pamela jokes about the possibility of pregnancy being assigned to her.  "But Elizabeth worried that if she got the assignment for teenage pregnancy, she might have to go to the doctor for her first pelvic exam just so she could write it up for her report.  She's hopeless." (p. 3)

When the assignments are passed out, Alice and Patrick (who is Alice's boyfriend) are assigned to be married.  Mr. Everett's assignment asks them to plan a wedding, honeymoon, rent an apartment, find furniture and create a realistic budget.  Alice thinks this is an exciting idea, but Patrick isn't quite so thrilled.  Their friend Pamela is supposed to be pregnant, just the situation she joked about, and luckily Elizabeth is only buying a car.  Pamela asks Mr. Everett what she could possibly have to decide if she's already pregnant, and he chides her "'There are 'what ifs' all over the place.  That's what this class is about.  Thinking thinks through before they happen.  Planning your life instead of letting events decide things for you. '" (p. 7)

Alice's ongoing story throughout the series (if you haven't been reading the series from the beginning like I have) has the added theme of grief.  Her mother died of cancer when Alice was five.  Alice barely remembers her, but her older brother Lester (who is seven years older) remembers her much more vividly.  In Alice in Lace, Lester turns 21, and Alice and her father celebrate with him.  Lester asks them: "' Do you remember the way she always brought a Kleenex to the table when she carried in a birthday cake with candles?' Dad looked puzzled for a moment. 'Now that you mention it, I guess I do.' 'I always thought that it was because she was emotional about our growing up and had a tissue ready in case she cried', Lester said. 'I didn't find out till much later that the smoke from the candles always set off her allergies, and that's why she blew her nose.'" (p. 39).  They all laugh at this idea, and the story brings back warm memories.  But Alice can't help wishing she remembered more about her mother, so she can participate in these conversations too.

With Alice planning her hypothetical wedding and Lester turning 21, their mother is never far from all of their hearts.  At the end of the unit, the class decides to throw a wedding for Patrick and Alice.  While trying on dresses at Pamela's house, Alice thinks of how this might have been different.  "I was thinking how, when the big day really came, if it did ever come, my mother wouldn't be a part of it.  She couldn't help me choose the dress, couldn't help with the flowers or invitations, wouldn't be there smiling at me in the first row.  I reached up and wiped my eyes before anyone could notice, but I felt a big hole in my chest, an empty place that nothing could fill." (p. 134).  What I like about Naylor's depiction of the family's grief is that it is very natural.  The waves of their sadness come and go, and it's at "big" moments where she is particularly missed.

One very poignant moment happens late in the book.  Alice is trying to grasp a little of the realities of a wedding and a honeymoon, and late one night she goes in to her dad's room to talk about it.  "I was just about to knock and go in when I saw him standing by his closet, his back to me. ...And he had his face buried in it, like he was, well, drinking in the scent.  I couldn't move.  I couldn't go backward or forward.  It was Mom's robe.  I don't know how I knew, but I knew.  And after a long moment, I saw his shoulders rise, as though he were taking a deep breath, and then he slowly hung it on a hanger again, and put it at one end of his closet." (p. 143-4)  This scene helps readers understand that the cycles of grief continue on, and that sometimes you need the support of that person, even after they're gone.

There is one other component to Alice in Lace.  Naylor quite often weaves social issues into her plots.  I mentioned earlier that Mr. Everett is a new teacher at their school, but not how young and cute he seems to his students.  "Mr. Everett was probably about thirty and really tall, maybe six foot five, wore Dockers, and rolled his shirtsleeves up above his elbows.  A younger version of Brad Pitt, Pamela described him.  His smile was what got to us.  It was warm.  Friendly.  You couldn't call it flirtatious.  He just gave the impression of really loving his job." (p. 1-2).  A cute teacher, talking about hypothetical life situations including marriage and this setting off alarm bells yet?  One of the female students, Jill, decides she doesn't like the assignment she is given (to plan a funeral for her grandmother) and asks to have it switched.  Mr. Everett very diplomatically refuses.  She goes to see him after school to ask again, and he again refuses.  Alice is in the room when it happens, but Jill doesn't see her.  Alice, however, describes what happened.  "He tucked his papers under one arm, and gave her a quick hug  with the other as he headed for the door. 'Come on now, Jill. You can do it.' he said, and he was gone." (p. 93).  Jill wants to punish Mr. Everett for not allowing her to change her assignment, and she tells the other students that Mr. Everett made comments about her body in the conversation Alice observed.  Then Mr. Everett is suspended for the alleged actions, and Alice realizes that she has to speak up about what she saw that day.

All of these plots, which sound very disparate and isolated, actually come together in a very realistic way.  I continue to love Alice' growing-up journey.  Even as an adult, many of the things Alice and her family go through resonate with me.  Does that mean I've never grown up?  On the contrary, I prefer to think that Naylor's books just continue to be relevant.  Looking forward to Alice's next experiences.

Alice in Lace.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1996.

from my own collection.

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