Honestly, (to borrow this book’s theme), does anyone believe they are 100% truthful at all times? Apparently our naive little Canby Hall friends do! So let’s take a gander …
Housemother Alison’s cousin is a psych major at Boston University and wants, for her final project, to conduct an experiment in which all the Canby Hall students sign a Truth Pledge promising to tell nothing but the truth for 48 hours. Shelley’s attitude is indicative of everyone’s. “No problem. We happen to be very honest people to begin with.” Honey, don’t worry, I’m sure your self-assessment will not be altered in any way! Everyone is eager to sign except Casey and Pamela. Casey is embarrassed not to, so she goes ahead. Pamela doesn’t. (I hate to be a wet blanket here, but peer-pressuring minors into joining a psychological experiment without informed consent forms and without the permission of their parents cannot have been legal even in the ’80s. I refuse to believe it. I have spent way too much time fighting with IRBs for approval of research much less invasive than this to let it go. Deep breath.) During this meeting, Pamela vows to get back at Casey for a crack Casey made (which didn’t seem any worse than any other crack made by anyone else, but I suppose plot propulsion is necessary.) Casey is oddly frightened.
The first day of the Truth Pledge, the 407 girls are patting themselves on the back for being such honest people that the Pledge poses no risks to them or their friendship. As proof of their solid bond, Shelley insists the other two tell her something they don’t like about her. Not being total idiots, Dana and Faith refuse, but Shelley badgers the life out of them until they admit that she always uses their shampoo, to which, of course, Shelley promptly takes offense. Later, Pamela lords it over them that they’re under the Truth Pledge and she’s not, so to shut her up they start saying truthful things about her, including that Faith has seen her exact shade of hair in a Miss Clairol ad. Pamela flounces off, and “it was obvious they had struck a nerve, somehow.” By implying that she dyed her hair? Isn’t every blonde over the age of 12 an artificial one? Or is it that Miss Clairol is a drugstore brand? I’m confused.
Anyway, in their writing workshop, Terry presents a depressing science fiction story that Dana hates. He forces her to give her opinion on it in front of the class, which she has to do honestly, and he then gets angry when she does. While this is going on, we find out our smooth-talking friend Sheff has not given up on his Faith-seeking ways. He says to her regarding the Pledge, “I don’t tell too many lies anyway. I do like to tease my roommates, by telling them outrageous stories, but I’ll just forgo that for two days.” Faith: “Did you say you don’t tell many lies? That means you do tell some? That’s a shocking admission to make, Sheff.” Sheff: “Oh baby, don’t act so holier-than-thou.” Words out of my mouth, Sheffie. (Well, in a manner of speaking.) He then proceeds to “brush a wisp of hair from Faith’s forehead” and ask her out, which she declines due to a previous date with Johnny (you know, her boyfriend) but she suggests perhaps doing it another night. Sheff says he might be busy himself some other night and strolls away. Faith berates herself for being as fickle as Shelley. I join in.
Meanwhile, Pamela tells Mrs. Merriweather, the head cook, that the 407 girls have formed a “Food Grievance Committee” and want to tell her all about what they think of the Canby Hall food. Mrs. M is inexplicably thrilled and tells the girls she can’t wait to hear what they think of her meals, and that she’s already talked to the headmistress PA who agrees the girls should do this. Truth Pledge Dilemma Alert! But really, couldn’t they just tell the cook and PA that Pamela lied? Secondly, why would Mrs. M be excited to hear their opinions? The name of this fictional task force is the Food Grievance Committee. She even says she’s overheard the comments students make about her food, and if Canby Hall food has really been that legendarily bad for that many years she has to at least suspect it’s not popular. So why would she think the feedback they’d have for her would be positive? And Pamela tells Mrs. M the girls will want to give her their opinions by Saturday night at the latest (before the Truth Pledge ends and the 407 girls are no longer bound by honesty.) The cook knows nothing about the Pledge. The girls really can’t stall her past this arbitrary deadline?
As an aside, Keith asks Dana to help him become more “fashionably coordinated” so he can take Casey out for a nice birthday dinner. She agrees to secretly help him go shopping. I don’t think any misunderstandings will arise out of this arrangement.
Shelley, in an impulsive decision she will live to regret, is out taking a walk and decides to detour through PA’s private garden. There, she hears someone calling and finds PA collapsed on the ground. ** ELEVATED TRUTH PLEDGE DILEMMA ALERT ** PA has been having chest pain and needs to go to the hospital. However, she does not want anyone to know about it, so she will not allow Shelley to call the school nurse or 911. Her solution is that Shelley, who cannot lie about having a driver’s license, will drive her to the hospital. You kind of feel sorry for Shelley, who like all the students at Canby Hall is intimidated by their regal headmistress, and is forced to go along with PA’s commands. Anyway, she takes her to the ER. Eventually PA is admitted and Shelley is allowed in to see her. PA reiterates that she wants no one to know where she is. Conveniently, her secretary and housekeeper are both away and won’t miss her. She will leave her car keys with Shelley so Shelley can drive back and pick her up when she’s released. Shelley will be the only one who knows the headmistress is in the hospital.
The other girls have gathered in the lounge to head out on a group date. Randy and Dana are now just friends. Tom is wondering where Shelley is. Johnny says “Sounds like you’re in need of a good detective here.” Does anyone else find high schoolers who harp on their intended career obnoxious? Especially since the ones that do, invariably seem to end up doing something else? Pamela sweeps into the lounge and informs the waiting guys about the Truth Pledge, and that this is their big chance to ask the girls anything they want and get an honest answer, and that Johnny especially should take advantage of this since Sheff is still chasing Faith. Now, how can this be news? How did none of these girls happen to mention the ongoing experiment to any of their boyfriends? (Also, Pamela is a sociopath.)
Unsurprisingly, Johnny gets Faith alone and asks her to honestly tell him whether she has any interest in Sheff. When she stammers on about their similar career goals, Johnny concludes her mild interest in Sheff means she likes Sheff better than him and exits stage left. That’s just in time for Sheff, who has been eavesdropping on this convo, to emerge onto the scene and declare that Faith is “my chick from now on.” Sophisticated guy, my backside. Faith comes to her senses and tells Sheff to get lost.
Meanwhile, everyone is wondering where Shelley is. (Yet no one even mentions that this is particularly concerning given that one time she was, you know, kidnapped.) Then she is seen driving PA’s car alone into PA’s garage. Chaos ensues, but Shelley refuses to tell anyone a thing. She says she can’t say why she was driving PA’s car, and if she could she would, because she’s never kept secrets from them before, has she? Dana and Faith recall a couple of instances (and you can too, by spending two seconds scrolling through this blog) including that minor instance when Shelley was dating Dana’s boyfriend, which is now spun as having been a temporary problem between the two girls and “upsetting for the confused Randy, as well.” Way to excuse Randy of any responsibility there! How confusing is it? He’s dating two girls — one of them must be off-limits!
The whole dorm remains in an uproar about why Shelley was driving PA’s car. Shelley keeps repeating that they’ll just have to trust her. I sort of agree with her on this — she’s generally been a good kid, so why is everyone jumping to the conclusion that she’s committed a crime, instead of that she might have been helping PA in some way? Since no one can find PA to get her input, Alison has no choice but to ground Shelley, since Shelley admits to having driven PA’s car but will not say why. Alison says “Pamela went over to PA’s house but her house was dark.” Why didn’t Alison take that opportunity to tell Pamela to butt out of other people’s business? Shelley’s upset because now she’ll have to miss seeing a play with Tom, and he’s thinking about taking Elizabeth instead. Wow, he doesn’t waste any time! Nice relationship you have there, Shel.
Truth Pledge Dilemma #42: Casey finds out the old, beloved maple tree outside her window is about to be cut down, so she stages a protest. The groundskeeper holds off on the tree until he can find out from PA what he should do, but of course since PA is nowhere to be found, the protest gains traction. Soon half the school body is gathered around their tree, adoring Casey, their impromptu leader.
While this is going on, Dana goes to the library and, for apparently the first time in her worldly, literary, uber-sophisticated life, discovers that there’s an entire section on science fiction and that Terry is not its only fan on Planet Earth. Mind duly opened, she decides to apologize to Terry. By dressing up as Chewbacca the Wookiee. What is it with these girls and dressing up as hairy creatures? Anyway, she is successful, and all is forgiven and forgotten. Except by me. I never forget sins of lame humour, except my own. Later, Mrs. M corrals the girls to get their Food Grievance Committee report. She’s so excited to hear what they have to say that she’s actually dressed up for the occasion. The girls hem and haw, leading Mrs. M to believe her food is actually OK despite the rumours she’s heard, so Shelley finally grows a spine and tells her they actually do complain about the food but they know she’s doing the best she can. Mrs. M decides that maybe she should poll the students on what foods they’d like to see served, and then bustles off full of energy and enthusiasm over her new venture. (I don’t encounter that many people who’d be eager to take on more work at work, but maybe I need to seek employment at a fictional girls’ boarding school.) The girls pat themselves on the back for having effected change, outwitted Pamela, and stayed true to the Truth Pledge. Shelley sneaks some chop suey into a bag to take to Casey, who’s still sitting singing inspirational songs in the condemned maple tree. “You actually stole some of this chop glooey?” Dana asks incredulously. It makes them wonder whether Shelley has turned irrevocably to a life of crime.
Meanwhile the Save Our Tree participants have been wondering why PA hasn’t shown up to the scene of this campus ruckus. Someone comments that perhaps she has a hot and heavy date, since being MIA since the day before is kind of scandalous. Shelley overhears that and gives the gossiper a piece of her mind, saying they don’t know what they’re talking about. Dreamy guidance counselor Michael Frank just happens to be nearby for this exchange. (How much eavesdropping goes on at this school?) Alison then shows up and tells Casey that she has been informed (by Pernicious Pamela, naturally) that Casey has used the maple tree in question on numerous occasions to sneak out of the dorm after hours. Because of the Truth Pledge, Casey cannot lie about it. Once the gathered girls hear this, they are disillusioned by the fact that their cause is not so noble after all and rapidly disperse.
The 407 girls and Casey discuss their problems and realize that though it’s easy to blame Pamela, they were really responsible for most of them. How insightful! Shelley slips out to call the hospital, and although they confirm that PA is a patient, they say they can’t give out any information about her. Um, I think you just violated patient privacy anyway, Ms. Receptionist. Talk about an uneven application of HIPAA.
Truth Pledge Dilemma #87: Dana takes Keith shopping for new clothes. Beforehand, Keith wants to show Dana his nicest outfit, sent to him by his Aunt Sadie, who passes on to him clothes that his cousin Barney outgrows. The ensemble is an oversized shiny dark brown suit with a too-big blue shirt and a tie with green and mocha polka dots. Dana suggests that they go shopping immediately, because that outfit is just “too much like cousin Barney.”
“‘But you don’t even know my cousin Barney,’ said Keith, puzzled.
‘Oh yes,’ said Dana firmly. ‘I believe I do.'”
So they go downtown and she picks out new clothes for him. He then insists that she pick out a sweater for herself as a thank-you and a blouse for Casey’s birthday gift. It’s chilly, so she puts on the new sweater. Conveniently, the amazingly omnipresent Pamela happens to be walking by, sees them, and hurries to beat them back to school. Of course, when Dana and Keith get back, Casey is there waiting to accuse Dana of stealing her boyfriend. Dana cannot lie about having gone to town with Keith, but can’t say why she did either. Casey threatens to throw herself off a cliff, so Dana makes Keith reveal the birthday surprise. “Before we went shopping, he showed me some of his outfits, like this one, to see if they would be appropriate,” Dana says. “Naturally she told him this brown one was just the thing,” Faith says with a straight face.
All is well again with Casey and Keith. But soon after, Michael Frank shows up at the girls’ dorm room because an anonymous caller who he believes to be Pamela called him and told him Casey was suicidal and needed expert psychiatric help. WHY’D SHE CALL MICHAEL FRANK THEN? He’s no M.D.! Nevertheless, the girls start telling him about their Truth Pledge problems, except Shelley who continues to refuse to talk. Faith wants to send an apology note to Johnny, so Michael offers to deliver it for her on his way to visit a friend at the hospital (with a broken arm. The things you could get admitted to the hospital for, back in the day!) Shelley’s reaction is extreme. She tries to casually ask what floor his friend is on and Michael says the 2nd, watching her closely. PA is also on the 2nd floor. Shelley can’t figure out what Michael knows or has guessed.
Michael delivers the apology note to Johnny and then goes to the hospital and, on a hunch, asks to see PA. The receptionist says, “Oh yes. Room 233. But she’s not having visitors.” HIPAA, people, HIPAA!!!! So Michael realizes his guess about Shelley’s situation was right and heads straight to PA’s room, where she’s furious to see him. But he tells her all about what Shelley’s been suffering. PA is full of righteous indignation and vows to put this right. Michael thinks to himself that when all this is over he wants to have a talk with PA about a “certain troubled girl named Pamela Young.” Why, oh why, do you never get around to having this conversation before graduation, Michael??
So PA calls Alison and tells her the whole story. Shelley’s punishment is lifted. The girls go to dinner and find out that the student body has voted unanimously in Mrs. M’s poll for pizza, with the exception of Pamela Young, who voted for beef Wellington. Johnny has flowers delivered to Faith at the dining hall (how could he possibly have known she’d be there at that moment?) forgiving her. PA decides to excuse Casey and save the tree and just trim its branches instead.
Now that things are wrapping up nicely, the opportunity for revenge on Pamela without violation of the Truth Pledge falls conveniently, if utterly illogically, into Casey’s lap. As Casey tells Pamela, P’s California boyfriend Wilson Marchand III (“Willie” to Casey) called the dorm and Casey answered the phone. He was heading out on a college tour, so would be unreachable for the next couple of weeks (cell phones, what problems you have ended!) but wanted to know when he could come visit Pamela at Canby Hall. He had 3 dates available. One was the coming Friday, but Casey explained that there was a biology field trip that day. She did not explain that Pamela didn’t actually take biology. Another possible date was the following Monday, but Casey explained there was a test on Tuesday. She was thinking of the Presidential Fitness Test, which she figured Pamela would need to study for. And the last possibility was the next Wednesday at 9, but Casey assumed Willie meant California time, which would be midnight Massachusetts time, which would be past Canby Hall curfew. So no rendez-vous for Pammie and Willie this time. Retribution achieved.
At the book’s close, everyone gathers for their exit interview with Alison’s cousin. Their conclusions on what they learned from the experiment? They were shocked to find out that they do tell white lies, but maybe the white lies make them better people, and sometimes honesty is the best policy. Someone alert the media!
My favourite quote of the book, when Pamela is swinging her foot near the head of Keith, who is sitting on the floor:
Casey: “Pamela dear. Just a word to the wise. If your foot lands on Keith’s person in any way, you’re going to find out rather quickly what it’s like to be an amputee.”
Join me next time, when our newly enlightened friends get to go back to lying and deception. Canby Hall gets back to normal!