Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume, 376 pp, RL 4
I was nine when Judy Blume's only novel for kids set in the past was published. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself debuted in 1977, sandwiched between Blume's better known novels for older readers, Forever and Wifey. Being just the right age in the 70s, I read the core cannon of Blume's books - Blubber, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Then Again, Maybe I Won't, Deenie and Iggie's House. Some 30 years later, Judy Blume is understandably beloved and revered by generations of women for writing books that presented real life, every day things girls experienced, from buying bras and getting your period to being teased and bullied to boys in a straightforward, accepting manner that was unheard of at the time. And, while I read many of her books as a kid (although not the Fudge books or the racy adult books) they didn't really float my boat. Even when I revisited a couple, (Blubber & Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret) I was appreciative but underwhelmed. The worlds that Judy Blume created in her books were just too familiar and mundane for me. As a kid, I read books to escape, to visit new worlds and learn new things. I was fine having the school nurse tell me and all the other fifth grade girls about sanitary napkins and didn't feel the need to read about someone else learning about this in a book. Realizing this, I understand now why Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself is my favorite of Blume's books and one that I would recommend heartily.
Like Blume's other books, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself is a "day in the life" story, a mostly quiet story. What enchanted me about Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself as a kid (a white, Catholic, middle class kid growing up in L.A.) was what seemed like a very exotic story to me. As an adult, I was engrossed all over again and pleased to garner a better understanding of certain adult aspects of the novel. Set in 1947, Sally is the youngest in a close knit Jewish family living in New Jersey. She has an anxious, overprotective mother, a doting father and a genius older brother, Douglas. When Douglas contracts nephritis, it is decided that the family (minus Mr. Freedman, nicknamed Doey Bird by Sally, plus Ma Fanny, Mrs. Freedman's mother, also nicknamed by Sally) will spend the winter in Miami.
Sally's life in Miami is filled with new people, places and things. She makes friends with children who are also transplants due to illness, their own or a sibling's. She suspects a neighbor, the friendly Mr. Zavodsky who always has candy for the kids, of being Hitler in disguise and writes notes to him that she never delivers. Sally wears sandals to school and wears her hair in braids like Esther Williams. She writes real letters to her father, who visits every couple of months. She gets a crush on Peter Hornstein, the boy who sits behind her and dips the ends of her braids in his ink pot. Sally takes dance lessons and gets the chance to try on the toe shoes worn by Margaret O'Brien. If they fit, she will win a trip to Hollywood! She gets stung by a Man O' War and rides in the Goodyear Blimp. She unknowingly drinks out of a Colored-Only water fountain in Woolworths and thinks about Ma Fanny's sister and niece who died in a concentration camp. Sally is pooped on by a bird and Ma Fanny, who is very superstitious, tells her that this is a sign of good luck. As a kid, I was fascinated by this superstition and trotted it out anytime someone was pooped on by a bird.
Sally also wonders if it will hurt to grow breasts after getting an accidental look down the front of the dress of a family friend. She asks lots of questions, frustrated that the adults in her life rarely tell her anything, and rewarded when she thanks Ma Fanny for finally telling her something that's "not a secret . . . just something I don't like to talk about." She can't understand her mother's extreme caution, but gets a few glimpses into the adult world when her father befriends a well-off, (unmarried) couple, Ted and Vicki Wiskoff. The Wiskoffs invite the Freedmans to fly to Cuba for the weekend and Sally watches as her mother, terrified to fly, steadfastly refuses, over and over, finally conceding and returning singing of the wonderful time she had. In confidence, Sally's father gently encourages her not to be scared of life like her mother. Sally also experiences difficult situations with friends and finds herself keeping secrets that cause hurt and finding ways to make amends.
Blume's book is titled Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself because Sally, a born story teller, makes up movies in her head. Sometimes she saves Lila, Ma Fanny's beautiful niece. Sometimes she is tracking down Hitler and bringing him in. Her fantasies are perfectly childlike and very familiar and, along with her letters, which are included in the book, make it clear that Sally is also destined to be a writer. An author's note at the end of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself reveals that this is a very autobiographical book. Blume, who is Jewish, was seven years old when WWII ended. She learned bits of Yiddish from her grandmother, just like Sally, and she even spent two school years in Miami after the war! If you've never read a book by Judy Blume and your an adult, there's probably a good reason why. If you want to know what all the fuss is about, I strongly suggest you give Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself a try - it's got all the classic Blume threads in it as well as the added glamor of Miami Beach in the 1940s.
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Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself!