Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly is widely acknowledged to be the first YA, young adult, novel. It was published in 1942 and Daly very likely did write it at age seventeen.
I found Daly’s book to be a great time capsule of certain aspects of the Midwestern lifestyle that my mother would have experienced. My mother’s family lived closer to the earth than the families depicted in the novel. My grandfather had six kids to feed on a laborer’s salary.
What rang true were Daly’s descriptions of gardens, trees, birds, and even the insects. She made the water in the lake and rain that fell on the roof come alive in such vivid reality that I had to marvel at the skill for such a young author.
Elm trees have been gone for so long that I’d forgotten about their lacy foliage. Likewise, walking across the grass and stirring up clouds of powdery-winged moths. I had to go outdoors in the early morning darkness to see if insects still swarmed around the street lights—they didn’t. It made me feel that my little section of suburbia was something of a desert for life forms other than humans.
However, I can’t say I liked how Daly treated her teens. They were so bound up with artificially formal rules of how to fit into that society there was no room for the different or adventurous young woman. They would be punished by being ostracized and shunned. The guys didn’t fair much better. They were two-dimensional and hardly real as they were slotted into their assigned roles.
This book was published after the attack on
Pearl Harbor and I couldn’t help
feeling the dread of knowing all this wide-eyed innocence would soon come to an
end in the worse possible way.
Yes, Seventeenth Summer was a window on an ideal, too perfect past. But it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of where we might have been … once. It can show us how much we’ve lost.