I wanted to hate this book so badly but I just couldn’t. Who knows, maybe I just had a particularly good week, but as stupid and ridiculous as this book was (and trust me: it was) I couldn’t hate it as much as I hate most of the Sunfire books. (I.e., enjoyable hatred.)
Margaret, Jane Claypool Miner, 1988.
This book came out the year I was born and has a sticker on the back that says “PRICE 25¢” and I have no idea when it dates from. But at one point this book also passed through the Book Rack (locations in Arlington and Richland Hills, Texas) and cost $1.25 there. Check out this cover—Margaret is a spoiled, naïve little girl, but it’s impossible to hate anyone who wears a hat so jauntily with an expression of such clueless self-satisfaction. Also, her outfit bears a suspicious resemblance to the American Girl, Addy’s school outfit (and as I Googled this I discovered they changed it and now it’s not as cute anymore! WTF, this is what happens when Mattel just fucked up everything), just look at it!
Anyway, look at the other men on the cover: there’s a hayseed wearing a suspiciously sharp-looking blue shirt and jeans and suspenders; and a nattily-dressed youth in a striped tie and straw boater, and he and Margaret are embracing in the bottom corner and gazing into each other’s eyes. Now normally this is a giant honking clue as to who the main character will end up with, but I suspect not in this case because usually the richer the guy is, the more of a douchebag he is. Let’s see.
Margaret here is the wealthy orphaned daughter of a Chicago family, who’s grown up with her aunt and uncle in the lap of luxury. But she’s decided (and it is never fully explained why) that she wants to dump all of that and become a schoolteacher in Nebraska. Also not fully explained: how she found out about this town, how they came to offer her a teaching position, any of this. Whatever, it’s not really important, clearly, because by page 13 Margaret is off on a train to Nebraska. Ridiculously, apparently she spends only “eight hours” on the train between Chicago and Nebraska, which is blatantly stupid because it takes longer than that right now in 2016 to go between Chicago and Omaha. In 1886 that would definitely not be an eight-hour trip. I’m so confused.
Anyway, she gets there with her three trunks, and the man she’s boarding with, the head of the school board, is horrified that she’s brought so much luggage. While this guy is clearly an ass, it is fairly ridiculous that she’s moved to a teeny little town with a ton of fancy clothes, no? How many fancy occasions are there going to be for a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse? I’m already overthinking this, but it’s a sign that Margaret is already going to be in over her head here. Because no one is available to bring her trunks until later, on the first day of school she has to wear her traveling costume, which “was hot and heavy and might even frighten the children.” What??? They’re not horses! They’re not going to be afraid of slightly different clothes! What is this?
Unsurprisingly, she is a totally crappy teacher at first, because she is fifteen years old and has no idea WTF she’s doing. The kids are all acting out because they can see she is clueless, and the people she’s boarding with, the Wilsons, are also completely awful and half-starve her to death. Her worst student is a teenager named Henry, whose goal in life seems to be to mess up Margaret’s life by making the schoolhouse a disaster area. But after a week of nothing happening but chaos, Margaret decides she wants to have a well-run school, and it just…happens? Literally she walks in Monday morning, says she’s going to expect them to behave and…they do? What the hell? This is the most improbable part of this whole book. When has this ever worked?
Henry’s older brother, Robert, has come to school allegedly to keep Henry in line, but also because he wants to learn how to read. Robert is eighteen or nineteen, and Margaret thinks it’s totally improbable that he can’t read and he must be making fun of her. Why….is that improbable, exactly, Margaret? That a guy who grew up on a farm all his life wouldn’t be able to read? What a crap teacher.
In the neighbouring town there’s a teacher by the name of Gerald, who is a very fancy person indeed and comes from a wealthy family in New York. Also never explained: why Gerald is teaching in a small town in Nebraska. Apparently this is unimportant because it never comes up again, in favour of telling us all about how Gerald is extremely handsome and looks like “a china doll,” and has impeccable manners. He comes to call on Margaret to discuss schools and see how much they have in common, although the real point is basically to be a snot and talk about how teaching is easier for women because they’re so much more nurturing, and he’s just too smart for little kids. So, he’s an asshole, which should automatically rule him out of the “what guy will she pick?” game.
Margaret wants to have Gerald come to call again soon, but her annoying landlord and his wife nix that idea, which Margaret pitches a very mature tantrum about. But then she heads back to the classroom, where she argues again with Robert that he must be able to read, and when he’s like “no, I can seriously not read, you idiot,” she teaches him the alphabet. Then she moves him on to simple words like “cat” and bat,” and then is super surprised when he can’t move right ahead to the newspaper! Margaret, you’re the worst teacher! Get that man a primer!
Winter is coming quickly, and a storm blows in one afternoon while the students are all in school. Some parents turn up at the school and tell Margaret they’re taking their kids home, and one woman says she’s going to take all the town children with her because the storm is blowing in fast. Margaret keeps going “But wait! I didn’t dismiss them!” and Robert and the woman keep going right ahead with their plans, because it’s obvious to them that it’s going to be a bad storm and Margaret is clearly an idiot. But she caves, eventually, and goes with some of the last children to make sure they get home safely. She stays out the storm at the last house they go to, where the woman there conveniently tells Margaret all the dirt about the town—like the fact that Robert and Henry’s father is the largest landowner there and also super wealthy! Convenient! (I ain’t saying she a golddigger! Margaret actually isn’t a golddigger, she has her own money, but this really does change her perception of Robert from “possibly-faking-illiteracy hayseed” to “rich, actually illiterate hayseed.”)
Christmas comes, and Margaret is sick of boarding with the boring Wilsons who won’t let her have china-doll teachers from the next town come and visit, so she arranges to board with a widow instead—who turns out to be only a few years older than she is, with three stepkids that she now has the sole care of, and who could definitely use Margaret’s money. So Margaret goes home to Chicago for Christmas (that eight-hour train trip must be really killer), where her aunt and uncle gleefully tell her they’ve found a much better teaching position for her right in Chicago! Strike one. And then Gerald comes to visit her in Chicago on his way back to Nebraska from New York (Jesus Christ, Nebraska to New York is a long trip even right now, that’s a long-ass way to go in 1886 on the train in the middle of winter) and takes her to the opera. Which she hates. Strike Two, Chicago is not looking so great anymore.
So Margaret goes back to Nebraska, realizing maybe it isn’t as bad as she thought, and upon her installation at Mrs. Whitaker’s house, she discovers that Robert is her cousin! So Robert comes to call, and the three of them have a grand time together getting to know each other, and Margaret begins to notice that Robert is quite handsome! (Apparently he got much more handsome after she found out he was not the dirt-poor sod farmer she thought he was.) But then diphtheria strikes the town and closes the school, and because Margaret isn’t a monster, she goes to nurse her horrible ex-landlords back to health since she’s not teaching. But some of her students do die, including Henry, the asshole younger brother of Robert—and the Clark boys’ father as well. Robert meets Margaret when he comes into town for the burial of one of Mary’s children and THAT’S where he opts to kiss her. PICK YOUR MOMENT. THAT IS A TERRIBLE ONE. Good god.
The strangest part of this whole scenario is that Mary’s other children “talked a great deal about their lost sister for a few days, and then their lives returned to normal.” WTF???? This has nothing to do with anything, it was just bizarre. She was eight! She wasn’t an infant!
Anyway, Gerald comes to call again, and Margaret gets pissy because he’s paying more attention to Mary than to her. Uh, why? You’ve said repeatedly that you don’t like him, you think he’s a pretentious ass, and you don’t think he’s attractive. What, exactly, is the problem here, unless you can’t stand another woman getting attention? So when Margaret goes to school one morning, Robert is back again after his long absence, and declares he spent all the time studying reading and now he reads as well as she does! But all that spring, both Gerald and Robert come to visit Margaret and Mary, and they all socialize and Margaret declares that fine, she’s going to go to Antioch College with Gerald to learn teaching, too! (Mostly because she’s pissy with Robert.) It’s a trainwreck—the men don’t really get along, it’s awkward between all of them, and Margaret finally comes to the conclusion that both men are courting Mary and she’s just in the way.
So Margaret really does go off to Antioch that summer to learn about teaching, but she’s offered her Nebraska job back again in the fall. The whole summer, Gerald just asks Margaret about Mary’s letters and whether or not she mentioned him, and whether or not Margaret thinks Mary would make a good wife. Subtle, bud. But Mary eventually accepts Gerald’s proposal by mail, and suddenly Margaret has to find a new place to live. So she goes back to the Wilson’s house, but they’re still so grateful she nursed them back to health that they’re magically now wonderful and loving people.
After the first day of school, Margaret goes to the Clark farm to “lend Robert a book” (liar, you just wanted to see if he was still into you), but is stopped by a prairie fire gumming up the works. So instead she helps to fireproof a neighbour’s house, then drives back to the Clark farm—where Robert greets her by calling her “Meggie” and confessing he’s always loved her. Again: Is the immediate aftermath of a devastating fire really the right time to do all of this? Shouldn’t these people be more concerned with literal life-and-death events????
Rating: C+. That is a high rating for a Sunfire novel! It wasn’t the absolute worst one I’ve ever read, but it still had a ton of issues: terrible writing, annoying characters with very modern viewpoints, bizarrely anachronistic bits (I’m still stuck on that eight-hour train trip, jesus) and so on. But I couldn’t completely hate it. I don’t know why. I’m going to chalk it up to my abnormally good mood lately, because I can definitely see myself on a bad week giving this an F expressly for Margaret being such a dick about guys being interested in her friend instead of her.