OK, quiz question. Which of these three girls is the super-sophisticated fashionable Manhattanite (because that’s the only kind of Manhattanite there is, of course)? And which is the Midwestern, corn-fed, chubby hick? Ding ding ding! Dana, our stylish New Yorker I’m-a-fashion-buyer’s-daughter-as-will-be-repeated-ad-nauseam-over-the-course-of-this-series, is the … middle one? Yes, because a ruffled blouse buttoned to the neck with some sort of unraveling bow tie is super-hot. I’m pretty sure I just saw a picture of Gisele Bundchen in the exact same thing. And our supposedly overweight friend Shelley is … the one on the right? Unless my eyes deceive me — and they do not — she looks to have exactly the same build as the other girls. These 1980s YA cover illustrators either only knew how to draw one kind of person, or they thought portraying an image of a normal figure would send young readers screaming into the night. This pet peeve of mine will be a recurring theme, by the way. They never stop mentioning that Shelley’s a plump country girl, and at the same time she will never be shown on a cover that way.
As was the case for many teen series in this time period, the Canby Hall books were written by a series of ghostwriters, so that a new book could be popped out every month and the publishers could take bubble baths in piles of money. Unlike the Baby-Sitters Club books, which really were written by Ann M. Martin for the first thirty or so, or the Sweet Valley High books, which were at least created by Francine Pascal, Emily Chase of Canby Hall fame doesn’t actually exist. Does this sort of thing still go on with young adult books today? I’m dating myself.
So, plot recap: Three very different girls are starting as sophomore transfer students at Canby Hall, a girls’ boarding high school in Massachusetts, and are assigned as roommates to Room 407. (Can I just say that I thought it was fate that in my freshman year of college, out of all the rooms in an 18-floor dorm, I was randomly assigned to Room 407?) Dana is our aforementioned New Yorker whose parents are recently divorced. Shelley is our aforementioned Iowa girl whose entire life is her small-town boyfriend and her high school’s football games, and her parents think her horizons could use a little broadening. (Can’t say I disagree with them there.) Faith is our Washington, D.C. girl who is street-smart (this is 1980s code for “black”) whose policeman father was killed in a robbery. Oh, the stereotypes. They’re all nervous about going so far from home. Faith is worried that she won’t fit in because of her race and Shelley doesn’t want to leave her Norman Rockwell town. Naturally things get off to a bad start and they all hate each other. Sheltered Shelley offends Faith with her racial ignorance, Faith looks down on Shelley for her country naivete, and Dana gets annoyed with them both. Eventually their super-cool housemother Alison comes to the rescue and by Chapter 8 (of 20) they’re best friends. Who is this Alison woman? They could use her at the United Nations. (She’s a woman in her late 20s who lives in the dorm and is on call for teenage girl problems 24 hours a day. What kind of a job is that? Honestly, medicine is less taxing.)
Despite now being joined at the hip with her roommates, Shelley remains inexplicably homesick, writing embarrassingly gushy letters to her boyfriend every five minutes even though the dude forgets their scheduled phone calls (for which she has to use a pay phone in the lobby, and wait till after 11 PM for the long-distance rates to go down … oh the old days!) Faith becomes friends with a troubled girl named Casey who acts up to get the attention of her rich parents who deposit her at school after school and forget which one she currently attends. Dana falls for a boy (a student at Oakley Prep, a boys’ boarding school that’s conveniently located down the street.) Alison breaks the news to Dana that Lover-Boy Bret is actually the campus heartbreaker. Casey runs away, Faith sneaks out of the dorm to stop her and convinces her to come back, and then gets caught sneaking back in and gets into tons of trouble with the imposing headmistress Ms. Allardyce. Faith is all upset because the school is going to notify her mother, but eventually Casey comes clean and clears Faith’s name, and all is OK because it turns out that Allardyce hasn’t written to her mother yet. Seriously? Even in 1983, you would have put pen to paper about that and wouldn’t have just picked up your curly-corded phone?
So this book was actually disappointingly normal and mature and even somewhat witty up until this point. That’s probably why I liked this series best when I was a kid. I didn’t have to feel like an idiot for reading it. (Cough, SVH!) But you know, when you’re my age and in the present day, you want some material to snark about. However, don’t you worry, Self. Here some comes.
So predictably, Bret cheats on Dana by not calling her for two weeks and asking some other girl to the fall dance. When Dana finds out about this, and Alison suggests “a little light revenge” (excellent example-setting for someone who’s on the school’s staff), this is what she comes up with: she, Faith, Shelley and Casey dress up in gorilla costumes, surround the new couple on their way to the dance, and yell “Booga-booga” all the way there. Wow. That is almost as impactful as George W. Bush invading Iraq because Saddam Hussein fought with his daddy.
After that, Bret, who recognized Dana as one of the gorillas, comes back to beg her forgiveness. He says he was just scared of how real what they had was, and was running away from his feelings. Yes, I have always found there is no better way to show your love than by asking some other girl out. At first, Dana does womankind proud and refuses. She tells the jerk she never wants to speak to him again, which is exactly what she should say. However, this is a 1980s YA book, in the end, and all of them do what even as a 7-year-old drove me crazy: teach girls, essentially, to accept poor treatment from guys. Dana up until this point has behaved exactly like a girl who respects herself and has solid self-esteem. Why on earth would you stick around to allow a guy to lie to you and treat you like a doormat? Why would you believe that he would ever change his ways? And in fact Dana asks him this, and Bret answers with the classic emotional abuser’s line: “How can I prove I won’t [mistreat you] if you won’t give me another chance?” Nice one Bret. I see what you did there. Dana does the right thing and refuses. But inexplicably, the supposedly level-headed Faith sees how depressed Dana is over the breakup and convinces her to call him again. “So he made a mistake. He said he was sorry. Give the guy a break. Call him.”
A mistake? Uh, a mistake is forgetting your birthday. Asking another girl out and not telling your current gf, when you have a history of doing the exact same thing over and over again to other girls, is called “a pattern.” What kind of good friend would advise anything other than “Run?” Also, if this took place a couple of decades later, “Un-friend him on Facebook”?
So Dana gives up all the power and respect she has earned to this point, calls him, and they get back together. The book ends with her thinking something like a relationship “between two strong people can be a battle of wills.” THAT’s the lesson from this absurd episode? Bret wasn’t a cheater, he was just a person with a nice muscular will? Heaven help me if my kid ever believes this kind of nonsense.
Oh and the book ends with sappy homesick Shelley finally convincing her parents to let her leave Canby Hall and go home to Iowa, doing all the packing and paperwork to withdraw from the school, saying sad goodbyes to Faith and Dana, and then … showing up again the day after Christmas vacation. She decided she was wrong, she actually belongs at Canby Hall now. This girl changes her mind like her underwear. Only this time it’s for reals, guys! She means it!
Oh and I can’t forget the hip and stylish makeover Dana and Faith give their country bumpkin roommate! In their words, she wears her hair “like 1958” (which was only 25 years ago at the time this book was published! Egads) and wears hideous things like lime green jeans. Man, if I was from Iowa I would have been irate about these ridiculous stereotypes. Especially because the fashionable city girls’ idea of upgrading Shelley’s look is buying her, and I quote, “baggy pleated jeans.” You know, I always wondered whether anyone ever thought baggy pleated jeans were a good idea, and now I have proof that in fact they did. I’m pretty sure not too long from now we’re going to feel the same way about jeggings. Which is why I have not invested in any.
But I digress. Book #1 ends as the girls are taking a picture of themselves in front of the Canby Hall front gates with cheesy thoughts going through each of their minds about their personal journeys over the past semester. Little do they know that Book #2 is on its way, with the most incongruous plot of the entire series: Shelley gets kidnapped. You heard me right, kidnapped. And it’s not so they can do a Japanese-straightening treatment on her hair.