Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bab: A Sub-Deb

Original Publication Date:  1916

Genre:  Humor, Coming-of-Age, Romance, America

Topics:  Gilded Age, Debutantes, Lives of the Rich


Bab:  A Sub-Deb is about Barbara Archibald- a beautiful, slightly ditzy, 17-year-old society miss who is quite annoyed that her "barely older" but officially "out" to society sister Leila gets all the attention (and new clothes and party invites) while Bab must suffer through boarding school for two more years before she can become a debutante.  She is, in her own words, a sub-deb, and it's a rough life.  The problem is that Bab is a very pretty girl who draws all sorts of male attention and gets into a ridiculous number of scrapes and then does her very best to get out of them without any help.  She rarely succeeds at this goal, but gosh, it's fun to watch her try.

The result is a terrifically entertaining romp through pre-WWI (and WWI), upper crust America, with good-hearted, naive "naturaly truthful, as far as possible" Bab, who can't spell to save her life, as our rusted tguide.  From the first adventure (making up a fake fiancee who, to her horror, comes to life and into her life) to the last (saving her father's weapons munitions factory from German spies), I was thoroughly and wildly entertained, often laughing out loud and noting down my favorite lines.

The best thing about Bab is that she balances so well between being a very realistic, overly dramatic teenager and being one of the funniest and most endearing narrators you've ever encountered.  I generally hate ditzy girls in books because they are so overblown and ridiculous.  But I love Bab, even though (or perhaps because) she says things like:
"I shall now put down the events of the day, as although the Manual says nothing of keeping a record, I am sure it is always done. Have I not read, again and again, of the Captain's log, which is not wood, as it sounds, but is a journal or Dairy?"  
I think that's because even though Bab is a little naive, you know that she is also a very resourceful and extremely determined girl.  Even as she gets into mishap after hilarious mishap, she always bounces back and does her best.  She also has fantastically clever methods for getting her own way.  "All is going well, unless our Parents refuse, which is not likely, as we intend to purchase the Tent and Unaforms before consulting them.  It is the way of Parents not to care to see money wasted."

I can tell this is a review that will be littered with quotes everywhere, but I really want you to get a feel for just how wonderful Bab is.  For example, here's a scene Bab describes when she feels that her whole family turned on her when she most needed them (spelling errors and capitalizations are original to the text):
Father was the first down.  HE CAME DOWN WHISTLING.
It is perfectly true.  I could not beleive my ears.
He approached me with a smileing face.
"Well, Bab," he said, exactly as if nothing had happened, "have you had a nice day?"  He had the eyes of a bacilisk, that creature of Fable.
"I've had a lovely day, Father," I replied.  I could be bacilisk-ish also.
I love the way Bab interacts with her family, whom she loves even though she doesn't think they understand her.  "It is always thus in my Familey. They joke about the most serious things, and then get terrably serious about nothing at all, such as overshoes on wet days, or not passing in French grammer, or having a friend of the Other Sex, etcetera."  She particularly loves her father, who is her "only Male Parent and very dear."

I also appreciated how Bab, like all 17-year-olds, confronts some universal fears even in the midst of her crazy escapades.  For example, Bab spends a lot of time contemplating whether she has the capacity to love, "not the ordinery atachment between two married people.  I mean Love - the reel thing."  She sometimes feels like she is a cold-hearted woman because she doesn't feel strongly for any man in her acquaintance.  This is a very real worry for her, and it hints at the broader question of how much a beautiful girl of the early 20th century is allowed to flirt with boys without being deemed a flirt or an ice princess.  But Bab makes sure we don't become too philosophical by ending her contemplation of romance in her life with this rejoinder:  "The terrable thought has come to me that I am fickel.  Fickel or polygamus - which?"

My favorite theme of this book, though, was how feminist it became, without losing the humor and consistency of the character.  Honestly, if Rosie the Riveter were to be made flesh and blood, I think she would come to life as Barbara Archibald.  Bab immediately becomes involved in the war effort, leading a group of girls to form a sort of drill team, learning flag signals, practicing target shooting, and pressuring the young men in their lives to enlist in the war.  Mary Roberts Rineheart was very involved in the war effort, actually going to the front as a reporter, so it was very telling to see her take this light-hearted book and infuse it with some very strident patriotism.  This sometimes bordered on disturbing as Bab suspected all immigrants of being anti-American.  For example, she has a heated exchange with a servant who hails from Germany, and says, "The Emblem of my Country, and I trust of yours, for I understand you are naturalized, although if not you'd better be, floating in the breese AFTER SUNSET."

It's a very humorous exchange in which Bab is bested by said naturalized servant, but also quite telling when you know how Americans acted towards foreigners (particularly the Japanese) during the world wars.

But really, these hints of the very true and difficult problems faced by women and immigrants in the United States during the early 20th century only served to reinforce my love of this book.  It is not only thoroughly entertaining and absolutely hilarious, but it also touches on issues and situations that have universal resonance.  I loved every bit of it, and if I could quote the whole book to you here in this review in the hopes of getting you to download it, I would.  But instead, I will leave you with this slightly longer section:
"Mother, were you ever in Love?" "Love! What sort of Love?"
I sat up and stared at her.  "Is there more than one sort?" I demanded.
"There is a very silly, schoolgirl Love," she said, eyeing me, "that people outgrow and blush to look back on."
"Do you?"
"Do I what?"
"Do you blush to look back on it?"
Mother rose and made a sweeping gesture with her right arm.  "I wash my hands of you!" she said. "You are impertanent and indelacate. At your age I was an inocent child, not troubleing with things that did not concern me. As for Love, I had never heard of it until I came out."
"Life must have burst on you like an explosion," I observed. "I suppose you thought that babies——"
"Silense!" mother shreiked..
I highly recommend that you read this book any time you feel the need for a pick-me-up or a big, hearty laugh.  It's so much fun, and I hope you love it as much as I did.