Prologue: Summertime, Peter Pan, and the First Blowjob
My father and his brothers built a cottage on Lake Superior back in the 1950s. Their sister and her husband bought the property next door. When my uncle who owned the land died in 1994, the place passed to my father, the last surviving brother. Up to the early years of this century, we always passed some summer time there.
I'm not certain exactly what summer I saw The Cheerleader, and I don't know who owned it. We were beyond the 1973 publishing date, but not much beyond. I opened it casually. I turned to one page: some teenage girls were discussing a TV broadcast of Peter Pan, which they planned to watch. That seemed unpromising. I turned to another page, much closer to the ending. A teenage girl was giving a boy a blow job. I found that more interesting-- I don't think I knew what one was before then-- but I immediately recognized I'd found one of those books a kid wasn't supposed to read.
The owner (or somebody) claimed it later that day.
Only recently did I discover that this book had developed quite a following, initially among women who had been teenagers in the 1950s, and then with YA readers. It almost became a TV series, and, after decades out of print, reappeared in the late 1990s.1 Fans connected online, and the author responded by penning multiple sequels. First editions of the original can go for hefty sums.
In December of 2017 I stumbled over a copy for $5.00 on ebay. I had free shipping with my order. Recalling a moment during a childhood summer, I ordered it. I checked some reviews online, and found readers who cherished their well-worn, much-thumbed copies. What arrived, then, much to my surprise, was in pristine condition, and signed by the author, Ruth Doan MacDougall.
To Gunthwaite, New Hampshire, then, 1955, where sophomore and JV Cheerleader Henrietta "Snowy" Snow hopes to get selected for the Varsity Squad.
Snowy hangs mainly with Bev, arty theater kid and her best friend since childhood, and Jean "Puddles" Pond, a newer kid in town, less inhibited than her friends, and a fellow aspiring cheerleader. Snowy dates various boys, but she has designs on Tom, a popular junior athlete. She also expects to attend college-- and an elite college, at that-- an aspiration which surprises some of the other characters.
Snowy's perspective dominates the novel, so much so that at times I wished MacDougall had just kept us in her point-of-view. The narrative side-trips into other character's brains tend to be brief, sporadic, and (with a few exceptions) unnecessary.
While The Cheerleader arrived as part of the tsunami of 1950s nostalgia that swept North America in the 1970s, it carries with it a little more debris than the rest. Yes, in part, we're seeing the past imagined by all those people then disillusioned by the Me Decade and/or the Sexual Revolution, and by all those people now who wear Make America Great Again baseball caps. We're in an excessively white community of an empire at its financial height.2 Gender distinctions are absolute and rigidly enforced, while sexual awareness gets filtered through the distorting lenses of teenage innuendo and ignorance. And yes, there's more than a little of Mary Sue in blonde Snowy. While MacDougall often depicts this world with a fair bit of affection, she also sees its dark side, much in the way its heroine once saw the local theater as "a palace, its chandeliers and gold scrollwork and dark-red curtains and plush seats so rich and wonderful that she couldn't believe she was let in for just twelve cents," but as a teen "saw its shabbiness" (72).
The saving grace is that this isn't media-modulated nostalgia. MacDougall lived the life of a small town girl and cheered for her school. She's reconstructing a version of that life from (mainly) the perspective of an adolescent girl who lacks experience of any other world. The woman behind that reconstruction understands more. As the novel progresses, so does Snowy, who was never wholly innocent or unaware. Girls in her world often get defined in terms of the boys and men in their life. Male primacy and sexism permeate the culture so thoroughly that the characters have difficulty seeing things any other way. Snowy is a different person by senior year, and Snowy will eventually rebel in a small and subtle way, but one that holds meaning.
The more serious and literary elements notwithstanding, one's interest in this novel will vary according to one's interest in small town 1950s adolescent life. MacDougall devotes pages to recounting the minutia of Snowy's existence. She takes us step by step through entire days, from class to practice to the local diner. Snowy and her friends study for tests, sleep over at each other's houses, moon over boys and fret about school clubs. They go parking with dates on country roads and sell tickets to the school show and put Noxzema on their faces before bedtime and snack on jam sandwiches with marshmallow fluff. They listen to pop records (only some of them the designated classic rock and roll we've come to associate with the period) and go to dances and after-parties and drink beer for the first time. They question whether it will matter in ten years whether or not they "know what x equals" (40) and get summer jobs and slowly explore their sexuality in a time and place where accurate information isn't always easy to find. The Kansas City Star's '73 review claims, "If future historians and sociologists are ever impelled to find out what it was like to be a high school student in America at mid 20th century, they will need go no farther than The Cheerleader for documentation and enlightenment." If you wanted to know how exactly to do the bunny hop-- "last year's fad, and usually they would have scorned it as old-fashioned, but they all were still in high spirits"(136)--, you could discover this valuable information in The Cheerleader.
Impressed by the novel's sales, Twentieth Century Fox optioned the rights for a movie that never happened. Instead NBC adapted it for television as a sitcom. The Cheerleaders (1976), a female-centered Happy Days, moved the setting from New Hampshire to California and significantly softened the content. Dark Shadows' Kathleen Cody played Snowy. "Puddles" apparently became "BJ," which is not a huge improvement. The pilot aired, but the subsequent series never materialized.
Ruth Doan MacDougall continued to write, though she never duplicated the success of this book. After the 1998 reprinting of The Cheerleader, she began churning out sequels. She's at eight now, mostly written in the current century, and covering the times in various characters' lives between the end of the original novel and the present day. I have no interest in reading further; many reviews, even by her enthusiastic fanbase, agree that the subsequent stories lack the power of the first.
MacDougall's reputation remains with The Cheerleader. She's no Alice Munro or even James T. Farrell, but her book about an ordinary life holds up passingly well. Snowy represents a cultural place and time, seen through the eyes of a girl who recognizes the dark side of her drive for popularity in school and worldly success after graduation. Snowy "wanted to be famous because she knew someday she was going to die, and even when she was still attending Sunday School, she knew that death was the end. Bev's awareness of death caused Bev to want to have lots of fun along the way. Snowy wanted to be famous so she would live forever" (49).
1. It first went out of print in 1976. Online research reveals a really bad cover for that year's edition, a tawdry image very much at odds with the tone of the novel-- occasionally tawdry subject matter notwithstanding.
2. At the underwater-themed junior prom (were Enchantment Under the Sea-themed proms actually common in the 1950s?) the principal notes the presence of a redhead mermaid among the decorations, and Snowy replies that "Bev thought we were discriminating, with just blondes and brunettes"(231).