The Turned-About GirlsJuly 21, 2014
Cathlin recently recommended The Turned-About Girls, by Beulah Marie Dix, and it was already sort of in the back of my head, because someone else — Mel? — was reading it recently. And I’ve been reading a whole string of things trying to avoid reading any more of Bulldog Drummond, so I started it almost immediately. And it’s really, really good.
The girls in question are Jacqueline Gildersleeve, a wealthy orphan on her way to spend the summer with her father’s aunt and cousin, and Caroline Tait, a poor orphan being send to live on her aunt’s farm. Neither of them has ever met the relatives in question, and neither of them is eager to. So when they meet on the train and discover they’re headed for the same town, Jacqueline, who’s just read The Prince and the Pauper, hatches a plan for them to switch places.
Both of them are clearly happier with each other’s relatives than they would be with their own. Caroline, who is quiet and dreamy and musical, gets pretty things and piano lessons and two women who come to dote on her. Jackie, who is active and fearless and headstrong, gets kids to play with, new skills to learn as she helps out around the house, and an aunt and grandmother who come to love and depend on her, which is more satisfying than the sheltering kind of love that Caroline gets from Aunt Eunice and Cousin Penelope.
If there’s a major flaw in The Turned-About Girls, that’s it. Dix alternates between Jackie and Caroline’s points of view, and succeeds in making both of them sympathetic, but as the book progresses, it’s hard to avoid noticing that Jackie is growing as a person and Caroline is not. Jackie is the one who does things. It’s not just that she’s working hard on Aunt Martha’s farm while Caroline is being pampered in town — Jackie is actively learning new things. Her new skills go with lessons learned. When she learns to cook, it’s not just a new skill; it goes and in hand with her growing desire to be helpful to Aunt Martha and Grandma. When she gets into scrapes, it’s because she’s learning to have consideration for other people’s belongings. Caroline makes use of and improves upon skills she’s already got — sewing, playing the piano — but there’s no corresponding character growth. The closest she comes to growing is prompting growth in Cousin Penelope. And she spends most of the book scared or hiding or on the verge of tears. Jackie acts. Caroline is acted upon.
I actually started out wanting to focus on Caroline, and getting impatient with Jackie’s sections. Caroline, I think, is meant to be the real protagonist of the book. But Jackie is the one that makes the book compelling.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, because the key thing is that the book is compelling. It just makes the ending a little less satisfying, because Caroline is the one who gets to stay with her family of choice. Jackie will help out the Conways financially, but I can’t be the only one who finished the book worried about how Aunt Martha was going to cope without Jackie or Caroline to help her out around the house. Right?