by Helen Diehl Olds
My first job was with a small-town weekly newspaper. Thatís one of those backgrounds you never really get away from, and in this case, it meant that reading about Barbaraís adventures was a nostalgia trip. True, my first job, although a while back, was not as far back as the events in the book by about thirty years, but small towns and their newspapers didnít change a whole lot in the meantime, however much theyíve changed since.
As for how Barbara (aka Babs), age almost-sixteen, manages to become a newspaper editor -- well, her mother owns the business. But itís not really that simple; Nell Benton is about the only white working woman in her small Texas town. (She points out that itís okay for her to work, since sheís a Yankee -- but Southern ladies are different.) And she owns the paper because when her husband died and left her only some non-oil Texas real estate she invested the proceeds in a business she knew and could operate with two small children underfoot.
Some years of this have taken a toll on her health, and she feels secure enough now to hire a temporary manager and spend the summer recuperating with relatives in California, leaving Babs to mind her nine-year-old brother. Well, you know what happens next. The manager is a crook; a political syndicate is trying to take over small town papers; the boy next door runs away from home; Babs little brother gets in some cute small-boy trouble; and to top it all off Lost Baby Syndrome strikes. (Has there ever been a heroine with journalism ambitions who hasnít got stuck with a homeless baby at some point? It even happened to Beany Malone, as I recall.) Babs triumphs. The paper survives, the town gets paved streets (she gets to break a bottle over the prow of the first piece of paving equipment), the runaway returns, and so does Nell, having written a book and found a publisher for it. Babs is just as glad to be going back to school in the fall after all -- itíll be a lot easier than what sheís been doing!
And along the way the reader gets a nice chunk of East Texas life in 1930. Itís a hundred miles to Houston, so when you get to make the trip you grab the chance to go to a talkie; El Tampaís school is new and up-to-date, including radios in each classroom so the students can listen to the Damrosch concerts from New York on Fridays; they have birdscares (scarecrows) guarding the rice fields; in the three-generation house next door, Grandma and Grandpa suffer the tyranny of their daughter (who thinks "retired" ought to equal "unoccupied" -- Grandma would rather be running a nursery school); nine-year-old boys are able to buy guns "that really shoot" without anyone questioning it (and are allowed to keep them when they get home!); and through it all the El Tampa Leader faithfully reports the color of the flower arrangements at Mrs. Smithís tea, who attended the Jones girlís wedding, and the outcome of last weekís near-accident between a dog and a bicycle on Main Street.
Ah, yes. I wrote a lot of stories like that myself. Why donít we get news like that any more?
© 1996 Jo Anne Fatherly
(This review first appeared in The Whispered Watchword, the newsletter of The Phantom Friends)