Stony River

Of Easy Girls and Book Covers

In the Fifties, what a girl wore branded her as Easy or Good.

Good Girls wore bobby socks and saddle shoes. Easy Girls wore ballerina slippers and ankle bracelets. They had pierced ears. A Good Girl clasped a charm bracelet on her wrist and a circle pin on the side of her collar that indicated she was a virgin. (I could never remember what side that was.) A Good Girl wore her boyfriend’s letter sweater, an Easy Girl her guy’s leather jacket with a tight skirt and sweater.

Good Girls could get away with form-fitting sweaters, but skirts had to be loose enough to slip easily over hips and butt. Calf-length circle skirts with crinolines underneath were great for jitterbugging because they swished and swooshed when you did. For all the talk of poodle skirts, I never had one. I did know someone who had a battery-rigged skirt with a felt appliqué Christmas tree. She’d squeeze a bulb and the tree lights would come on.

Good Girls aimed to convey a kind of sexy innocence. From their point of view, Easy Girls were too obvious. They didn’t leave themselves the option of virtuous outrage if a boy made an unwanted move on them. With the way they dressed and held themselves, they would have been “asking for it.” Girls were schooled early in this way of thinking. In Stony River, Tereza Dobra knows exactly what she’s doing when she struts around in short shorts and a tight sweater.

That understanding made me initially flinch at the cover design for Stony River. It’s gorgeous and evocative of the era, all right. But in that era, many would have considered the model’s pose a sexual invitation. Would readers think that’s what the book was about? I checked with others. Those who reacted with sentiments like “whoa” were either my vintage or had read the manuscript and were expecting something darker. Younger ones found the cover beautiful and compelling. “I’d pluck it off of a table of other books first,” one said, and wasn’t that the idea?

I reconsidered the cover from a more modern perspective: why couldn’t you lie with arms behind your head and legs drawn up without someone judging you as asking for it? When I realized that my character, Miranda, whom the model resembles, would have no understanding of what provocative meant and could easily picture herself lying “on soft grass, garbed in gossamer and sunlight,” it felt right. Now, I can’t imagine Stony River with anything but this cover.

Stony River goes on sale July 24. For suggestions on what to wear on book club night, see Dress the Part on the Flashback page.

The Genius Of A&P

In anticipation of Stony River’s release I’ve been posting behind-the-scenes glimpses at the book. This entry is about the A&P. Check out the old ads in Flashback. (Ads and photos used by permission of the A&P Historical Society.)

When I was a child, my grandmother would dispatch me to a small, dim shop that smelled of pickles, a few blocks from her house. There, I’d hand the white apron-clad shopkeeper a list and he’d pull the items from shelves behind him. If they were too many or heavy for me to carry, he’d deliver them personally in his ancient black car. Not for Grandma the self-serve style of grocery shopping A&P had pioneered.

When Stony River’s Buddy Jukes started working for the A&P in 1950s New Jersey, the country’s first grocery chain already was an American icon, the largest food retailer in the US with over four thousand stores across the country and in Canada. It had begun in 1859 with just a few retail tea and coffee stores in New York City.

I have vague recollections as a child of the old-style A&P in my hometown, a small, crowded store with a dark awning emblazoned with The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. That store was replaced farther out of town with a larger store and a big parking lot, reflecting, it seems to me now, the post-war growth in family cars. The newer store resembled the one in the picture on this page. (Note the issues of Woman’s Day for sale in the picture. A&P launched this still popular woman’s magazine in the 1930s as a way to sell groceries and sold it exclusively at its stores until 1958 when a publishing company took it over.)

This picture is also how I envision Buddy’s workplace and the A&P he and Tereza visit in New York City.

…the same gray and canned salmon colored vinyl tiles on the floor, the same harsh fluorescent lights… Bert led them around the store, pointing out an expanded meats/poultry and cold cuts section. Buddy perked right up at the sight of marshmallows at the end of an aisle. “Exactly where we put ours,” he said.

Bert said, “Part of the master plan. Say a man working in Proctor and Gamble gets transferred from Chicago to Manhattan. His wife should be able to come in here, first time, and know exactly where to find her favorite products.”

“Genius,” Buddy said.—From Stony River (Penguin 2012)

The reason I could so easily “imagine” my fictional A&P stores was that I had enormous help from Walt Waholek, president of the A&P Historical Society. Walt has given generously of his time to enable me to write with confidence about what Buddy wore on the job, what shifts he worked, what his tasks were and many other details about A&P culture at the time—the type of details writers need to lend credibility to even a fictional work. He’s been waiting patiently for several years to see Stony River in print and enthusiastically cheering me on.

A side benefit of researching this novel was gaining Walt’s friendship and an appreciation for how a proud company has both reflected and contributed to our times. I’m pleased to say I’m on the A&P Historical Society newsletter mailing list and enjoying blasts from A&P’s past. (See this link for some of these blasts.)

One of the newsletters included the video below of old commercials. Check out the talking bean for A&P’s Eight O’Clock Coffee, which got its name way back in the 1800s because a survey showed that most people then drank coffee twice a day, once at 8 AM and once at 8 PM. (What would they name it today: 24/7?)

Chowing Down in Stony River

A behind-the-scenes look at what the people in Stony River chow down on.

Book clubbers: For themed refreshment ideas, see “Stony River Book Club Menus.”

You won’t find any culinary gourmets in Stony River. My characters eat what we call comfort food nowadays: tuna casserole and rice pudding, macaroni and cheese (baked, not from a box, and with real cheese), fried chicken and mashed potatoes, homemade pie and coffee. They drink milk delivered to their door in glass bottles with cardboard caps. When fruits and vegetables aren’t in season, they rely on the canned variety, as the world hasn’t become small enough yet for the fresh stuff to appear year-round. If they have lettuce, it’s iceberg. In the summer, families with cars head out to farm stands (they don’t call New Jersey the Garden State for nothing) for beefsteak tomatoes and corn on the cob that taste all the better for being available for such a brief time.

They haven’t yet been told red meat is bad for them. They grind thrifty cuts of beef into hamburger, using a hand-cranked meat grinder clamped to the side of a counter, or turn them into pot roast. My own mother’s pot roast went into an electric cooker with water, potatoes and carrots before we left for church each Sunday. It was often completely dry and the carrots caramelized when we returned, due to my father needing to chat with nearly everyone in the congregation after the service. We needed more than a dollop of gravy to salvage the meal.

Pizza was as popular then as now and Jersey thin crust pizza is the best I’ve ever had. Years ago, I asked a pizzeria owner why that was and he said the “secrets” were olive oil (not canola, etc.) and a particular type of mozzarella that arrived directly in New York Harbor on ships from Italy.

You can bet they eat a lot of Jell-O in Stony River, plain as dessert or dressed up with canned pineapple and shredded carrots for salad. It wasn’t unheard of for us to have waffles with creamed corn for dinner. My mother knew about stretching a dime. Tereza’s mother in the book knows about that, too; she serves “hot dog pieces, like chopped up worms, swimming in baked beans.” Once a week, Stony River kids might get a nickel to spend on penny candy in places like Rolf’s corner store: Hershey kisses, wax lips, licorice babies, banana chews and Tootsie Pops.

The closest we get to gastronomy in Stony River is to Betty Wise’s Baked Alaska. She makes hers with a slab of pound cake first topped with Neapolitan ice cream then covered with meringue and popped in the oven only until the meringue is brown. I like to think that if Betty had a blowtorch, she’d go for this updated version instead:

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On Linda’s Turntable

A behind-the-scenes look at what might have appeared on young Linda Wise’s turntable in Stony River. No point looking at Tereza Dobra’s records; she spent her money on the movies. And poor Miranda Haggerty had only a collection of old 78-RPMs to listen to: records with names like “I’m An Old Cowhand” and “Yes We Have No Bananas.”

The cost of a 45-RPM in the Fifties was anywhere from 89¢ to a dollar, about the same as an iTunes download today (although in the Fifties you got a song on each side of a record). Linda would have bought her records at a store in downtown Stony River, New Jersey. She’d have previewed them in a sound-proof booth before committing what might been as much as her weekly allowance to a purchase, despite having already heard the songs on the radio, a jukebox or, after 1957, TV’s American Bandstand.

In 1955 when the book opens, Linda is two months shy of age 12 when she was probably partial to songs like “Sixteen Tons” and “The Ballad of Davy Crocket,” songs she’d later consider “square.” In her 14th year, we find her in her bedroom where she’s set up her phonograph to endlessly repeat “My Prayer” by The Platters. She isn’t conscious of the impact the entry of black R&B music into white culture will have on her generation’s support for civil rights; only that it speaks to her soul and unmentionable body parts.

The Platters and groups like the Satins and the Penguins with their harmonies and high notes gave Linda goose bumps and caused her to lose her grip on the earth for a few minutes. Make-out music. She’d yet to make out with anyone…but whenever she heard a shoo do be shoo be wah she thought she knew what it would be like to have your heart all aglow. Honestly, sometimes it embarrassed her how badly she longed for it. — From Stony River (Penguin Canada, 2012)

She pines over a boy when she vacations with her parents in “boring” Kansas. I can imagine “Thousand Miles Away” playing in her mind on this trip and, later, when the boy moves, “Since I Don’t Have You.” Recalling how he claimed her figure was as “zaftig” as Peggy Lee’s, she might have added “Fever” to her 45s. (Not all white singers were uninspiring.)

After school Linda would have watched American Bandstand where ordinary kids like her slow danced to “It’s All In The Game” and “You Send Me” and did the jitterbug to “Rockin’ Robin” and “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On.”

Fifties music was full of double entendres that would have been lost on Linda. She might have bought “Chantilly Lace” only to learn her mother wouldn’t allow her to play it in the house. Betty Wise would not have approved of the Big Bopper’s, “Ooh baby, that’s-a what I like.” (She wouldn’t have liked “Fever,” either.)

But Betty isn’t here, so bop on over to “Flashback” right now and have a listen to the tunes on Linda’s Turntable.