1928: boys were boys, girls were girls, and never the twain should meet.
That might be the conclusion if you read the disparate literatures that were "boys' fiction" and "girls' fiction" back then. The boys laid claim to the high adventure literature of the day. Especially if your heroes were late high school or early college age (no "teenager" designation existing in those days), you could find them trudging through steaming jungles, endless steppes, silent woods, howling blizzards to face savage animals, inexplicable natives, treacherous guides, implacable enemies and wondrous sights never seen by those at home, safe by their firesides. Earlier generations in earlier stories had pioneered the prairie, the mountains, and the Yukon to homestead, hunt the buffalo, or maybe even find gold.
Conversely, girls had just emerged from an era when the majority of their fiction had them learning to be gracious women, mastering cookery or running a house, keeping their tempers, and becoming generous to the poor. The 1920s young woman, liberated by the First World War, could at least ride horseback, play tennis, row, and swim, dress smartly in the latest styles, even own and run property with only a brief sigh from their elders who simply shook their heads at "these headstrong modern girls."
Their adventures remained pretty tame, however. While machete-weilding, rifle-toting boys brought down wild animals on the run and fought with thieves and cutthroats to discover a fabulous gem or save the country from Bolsheviks, the girlsranging from age thirteen to eighteenwere involved in quieter mysteries: why was the girl next door so unhappy? What was in the boarded-up room of the old house? What did the cipher found in an old root cellar say?
A master of the girls' genre was Augusta Huiell Seaman, who wrote from the early teens to the 1940s (her later books were still being reprinted by Scholastic in the 1960s, so her style endured for years). Her heroineswell-to-do but not especially rich, occasionally related or "best friends"solved mysteries having to do with ciphers, secret rooms and tunnels, old diaries mentioning fabulous jewels, etc. Only in the post World War I fervor of hatred against the "Huns" was a Seaman heroine ever involved with gunplay and actual ruthless villains (not to mention a young man her own age): in "The Crimson Patch," spunky, motherless Patricia, with the help of a charming but "slangy" high-school boy named Chet, solves the disappearance of a drawing her military intelligence father tells her was vital to the war effort, all the while aiding a hapless Belgian girl escape the clutches of German spies blackmailing her.
After reading a few of these tales, including "The Crimson Patch," "The Slipper Point Mystery," "The Sapphire Signet," "The Boarded-Up House," by Seaman and similar stories by other women writers, I wondered what it would be like to write one of these period pieces myself: not simply taking place in a previous era, but complete with the language and the writing style of the time. (Perhaps adult magazines such as Punch, Judge, and The New Yorker featured more freewheeling characters and language, but the children's magazines and books of the time, including the venerable St. Nicholas, stayed with more formalized language patterns due to the tender age of their readers. Most parents of the era still loathed the use of slang and while the 1920s lads and lasses of St. Nicholas used more colloquial speech than previously, it was a far cry from the informal use of flapper-era literature.) (Note: the prologue and epilogue, which take place in the "present" era of 1939, are not written in the "flashback" language.)
After nearly a month of research with Stuart Flexner, Rhode Island historical books, and the 1928 issues of St. Nicholas, I was ready to begin my story. While Betty was a natural as a Seaman-type heroine, I wanted a bit more "exotic" setting than the Midwest. I therefore created some relatives in New England and returned to the best-loved place of my childhood, Newport, Rhode Island, and environs. My original intention was to have Betty and her cousin Kit solve the mystery of the missing shell pendant, but the characters pretty much took matters into their own hands. Kit's personality diverged from what I had imagined, and another character, intended only to help the girls briefly a few times during the story, carved a co-starring role instead. In fact, it was hard to keep both this character and yet another scene stealer, Betty's father, from running off with the entire shebang. <g>
I tried to stay true to Seaman, but the involvement of my unexpected co-starring character changed the ending a bit. The slam-bang 1920s ending is less Seaman and more a dollop of Samuel Scoville Jr (he of the everlasting exploring boys in the jungle/forest/steppes), Ralph Henry Barbour (sports and adventure tales), and even a little bit of Albert Payson Terhune (the writing hero of my teens; how I hated that his fulsome prose was considered old-fashioned!).
Ah well, even if the genres did become well-mixed and the mystery is not overly complicated, I hope you'll at least enjoy the supporting characters, the sun-drenched summer shores of Rhode Island, and the customs of more than half a century ago in lieu of them.
A final word: As I moved into the middle chapters of this "Epic" (its official nickname after a six-months gestation), something did begin to bother me. Back when I was small, my dad would come home with stories from his co-workers about their little daughters, how they loved to sit on daddy's knee, rushed at him when he walked in the door, made truth of that saying about "Daddy's little girl." It all made Dad a little wistful. I was the apple of his eye, but I was always "Mama's girl" from an early age. As I grew older, the gulf between us became evident: we were both too much alike, two shy, inarticulate introverts who got upset if you looked at us crosswise and forever melancholy about our social lives. When we weren't misunderstanding each other and occasionally bristling, in our timid ways we showed our love: he took me to places on vacation that I know now bored him silly, I drew him endless birthday and Father's Day cards about the adventures of a bowling pin and the bowling ball that chased it down (during one of the Apollo missions that hapless pin even fled to the Moon and the darned ball hitched a ride on the command module and thwacked him yet again).
It was with wistful surprise that I realized that when I was writing David and Betty I was actually writing Dad and I as he'd always hoped it would be.
So this one's for you, Dad.
The Shell Pendant Mystery is ©2002 by Linda M. Young
Ubiquitous disclaimer: Remember WENN and its characters are the property of Rupert Holmes, Howard Meltzer Productions, and American Movie Classics. No copyright infringement is intended; I just love the characters so much I want more...