Monday, January 27, 2014

Early influences: Marilyn Sachs and The Truth About Mary Rose (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

The books of Marilyn Sachs were some of my favorites growing up. I'm convinced that my reading habits influenced the purchasing decisions at the tiny public library I patronized back then. The librarians noticed that I checked out the Sachs books over and over (those were the days when they had to hand-write my library-card number on the check-out card, and stamp the due date on another card that fit into an envelope in the back of the book). They would tell me whenever a new Sachs book came in, and they said they recommended the books to other girls my age, based on my zeal.

Sachs wrote a series of books about linked characters: Amy Moves In; Amy and Laura, about the original Amy and her sister; Laura's Luck, about the two sisters at summer camp; Veronica Ganz, about a girl who had bullied Amy and Laura; Peter and Veronica, about Veronica and her friend Peter Wedemeyer; and Marv, about a friend of Peter's. All of these books took place in New York shortly before World War II. It would be interesting for writers to look at this chain of books, because it's not quite a series, but rather a set of stand-alone books whose enjoyment is enhanced if you recognize the overlapping characters from book to book. From an author's standpoint, it's a way of building an audience and using a consistent fictional world without doing a formal series.

The character Veronica Ganz had a sister, Mary Rose, whom I liked because she had built an imaginary world out of magazine pictures. It was much like the imaginary world that I, a budding writer, had constructed for myself. (Also, I liked the character's name). Mary Rose was only a minor character in those books, so I was thrilled to find Sachs's book The Truth About Mary Rose in the library one day, because it promised to give a whole book to Mary Rose. In fact, this is the cover that my library's version had:



But The Truth About Mary Rose is set a couple of decades after all the other books. Veronica Ganz is grown now, married with three children, one of whom is named Mary Rose after her sister. It turns out that the original Mary Rose perished in a fire while still a young girl.

The book revolves around the second Mary Rose's quest to find out as much as she can about the girl for whom she was named. She hunts for a mysterious box that belonged to the first Mary Rose--the only thing that survived the deadly fire. Thus, Sachs uses an an authorial device I call the "mystery box". A device that works wonderfully, I might add. Along with the box, the second Mary Rose uncovers unexpected truths about the fire that killed her aunt, and she has to accept a certain amount of ambiguity about the events of that night.

For many reasons, this was my favorite of Sachs's books. It takes some familiar characters and shows them in a new light. It also differs from the previous books because it is told in first person, which helps eliminate the confusion of having two characters with the same name, and shortens the narrative distance. It covers family conflict in a humorous way. But mostly, it revolves around a mystery and a tragedy. It's about a passion to know the truth, and an acceptance that sometimes we can't know the full truth. It's about realizing that different people see us differently, that there is no one "true view" of ourselves in the eyes of other people. 

This book was first published in 1973, and it's interesting to see how short middle-grade books were back then--this book is only 159 pages. (In the pre-Harry-Potter era, MG books were about that long, and YA books were about 175 to 250 pages). Since it's also set around 1973, some of the references in it may puzzle today's readers--does anyone still know what a peignoir set is? But if you can find a used copy of this book floating around, it's worth checking out because it is, quite simply, an example of a darn good story: a story that has stuck in my head for years.

10 comments:

  1. Interesting post, Jennifer! I have never read any book by Marilyn Sachs, but you made me want to check them out. It looks like there are a number of re-issues.

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  2. Oh Jenn! As a kid I LOVED Marilyn Sachs and read them over and over. Like you, my favorite was The Truth about Mary Rose. It was the twist that got me. I loved how you could read the book thinking one thing and then realize there could be a whole other story going on under the surface. I've read this book as an adult and it's just as good as I remembered.

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    1. Me, too! Some of my old favorites have lost their luster, but not this one.

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  3. I love Marilyn Sachs too, but I couldn't get enough of her contemp books. Class Pictures was my favorite!!

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  4. Thank you for your post. My name is Paul Sachs and I am the son of Marilyn Sachs. It is wonderful to see that her writing influenced your life. I came upon your post yesterday and I was going to forward it to her. She is 86 now and lives close to my family in Tacoma, Washington. She will be very pleased to see this post.

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  5. I am lucky to know Marilyn and to have had her advice and wisdom as a writer to learn from. Some of my favorites of her books are Call Me Ruth, a complex YA novel about a young immigrant whose dad is a labor activist, The Four Ugly Cats in Apartment 3D, and the Jojo and Winnie books, based on two very special girls I know pretty well.

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