Lenora Mattingly Weber published Beany Malone, her sequel to Meet the Malones, in 1948, two years after the end of the Second World War. Still, it feels like a wartime book. There’s an earnestness, a sober cheer and valorization of spunk and capability, both moral and pragmatic, that feels more of a piece with the war effort than the sunny 50s.
The book, which details the adventures of the four Malone children while their father convalesces in Arizona, is part of a trend in sentimental realist children’s books, the most well-known of which is probably the beloved Betsy-Tacy series. The two series share many similarities: both have multiple installments, (14 in the Malone case), both feature ordinary but vivacious heroines from loving and tight-knit families, both are set (at first) in Mid-Western towns, and both feature a cast of characters who, muddle as they might, desire both to do and be good. It’s hard to think of a current analogue, given that children’s and young adult literature is currently dominated by fantasy and dystopian adventure, respectively. The closest correspondent might be the stories published by the American Girl Doll company.
Beany Malone feels strange in some ways. Mattingly Weber (herself a papist) obviously set out to portray a big, warm, Irish American Catholic family, but the lack of influence religion and extraction exercise over social circle, preferred venues of civic participation, and general milieu is puzzling at first to someone used to East Coast clichès.
That’s a matter of adjustment. So too are the 40s idioms, and more importantly, 40s norms. High school graduates get jobs at the local newspaper after they graduate, or attend college in their hometown; older sisters go to college for one year and drop out to get married, then live at home with their newborns while their husbands are at war. The strangeness of such a recent world is part of the book’s charm, but it makes entering into the heroine’s concerns largely a matter of guesswork.
What is really at stake when “the Delts” might drop Mary Fred for standing by her returning GI sweetheart, who has disgruntled upperclassmen by refusing to take part in gentle and innocuous hazing traditions? What did it mean to be “in the swim,” or, alternatively, to be ignored by the “frat fellows” at a small mid-western college in the 1940s? Is the emotional weight these questions are given an attempt to keep on privileged and trivial ground, and thus render the moral conclusions pleasant? Or am I dealing with social structures and ways of making one’s place in a community that I don’t understand?
Certainly there’s some attempt to tame a persistent melancholy in the book’s malt-shop problems. There’s something tremendously sad and a little threatening in the figure of the returning soldier, fresh from the horrors of the concentration camps and the destruction of Europe, who no longer has time to waste on wholesome small-town frolics. But all this is addressed only indirectly, through the dilemma it presents his popular girlfriend, and so the sadness and the threat are present, but kept at bay.
The book tames smaller-scale harshness in the same way. The mother of one of Beany’s classmates provides a quite clear eyed look at the ugly, and sometimes abusive, results of refusing maturity and clinging to youth; but the climax provides revelation, reconciliation, and the resolve to be a better mother. It’s odd, and jarring, to have the stakes of the novels’ moral arc presented so clearly, then so tidily whisked away.
Still, the moral arc is real one, depicted with feeling–the dangers and rewards of responsibility, the necessity of facing pain in order to grow and to love. It’s a bigger and more honest and more challenging set of concerns than adolescents are usually offered, even though their theater is much safer and more inconsequential than in an apocalyptic adventure story. Perhaps that’s the appeal of the malt-shop plot, though–that one might cut one’s moral teeth in safety, and on problems small enough to chew.