THIS YEAR Holden Caulfield will have been with us for 30 years. Judging from my own teen-ager's reaction to his story, he is alive and well. But he is no longer alone. Since The Catcher in the Rye appeared in 1951, the number of novels in which the pain of adolescence is related in first person by a teen-aged narrator is beginning to rival that of the stars in the heavens. As a supersaturated adult reader, I tend to dismiss most of these books as "phony," to borrow one of Holden's critical terms, but I am quite aware that the form continues to engage young readers. They respond to the immediacy, while I am reacting against a shallowness of perception which so often results when adult writers adopt an adolescent voice.
Paula Fox has never written a phony book. But when I realized that this 1978 Hans Christian Andersen Medalist had come out with a novel in which a young narrator tells about her life in the year and a half following her father's sudden death, I was both wary and fascinated. I knew Fox could write a powerful first-person tale. She did that in the Newbery-winning The Slave Dancer, but would her wise and compassionate vision be too constricted when funneled through the sensibilities of a contemporary 13-year old?
For the most part, the answer is "no." In Victoria Finch, Fox has given us a real person, bearing very little resemblence to the breezy kid narrators who people most young adult fiction. Victoria is already a freshman in high school, which implies precocity, and the fact that she has a struggle with algebra word problems confirms rather than contradicts her highly creative nature. I kept wondering if she were left-handed.
An only child of intelligent, loving parents, she has taken family comfort and happiness as her due in life, when suddenly she is plunged into the loss not only of her father but of the life his death has snatched away. Victoria and her mother must sell their lovely old home in Boston and move to a chicken coop of a house in a suburban village in order to survive financially. The process of grief, both Victoria's own and that which she observes in her mother, is the bass accompaniment to the story. Sometimes it swells, taking over the narrative, the rest of the time it subsides into a dark, rhythmic background against which the main story is played.
"A month after my father died, when we were still in the old house in Boston [my mother] had come to my room in the middle of the night and shaken me awake. I'd sat straight up in my bed, my heart thumping. She'd turned on my bedside light and we had stared at each other, neither of us saying a word. I remember how terrible the feeling was that we weren't anywhere we had been before -- and morning wasn't going to come, and we were in danger. Suddenly, Ma had said, "We'll be all right.' But that time she'd grabbed my hands and asked, 'Won't we?" I don't remember what I said, if I said anything. One thing I knew though was when Ma started telling us we'd be all right, it meant she was feeling we wouldn't be."
Into this terrible emptiness, this place far apart from any she has ever known, there comes a boy. The first time Tory sees Hugh Todd it is from a long distance. He has come from his huge house by the river to the hill at the end of her street to fly a great scarlet kite that he has made. We, like Victoria, fall in love with him at a distance, and it is only when we see him at close range that we realize how dangerous this affection will prove. It is not that Hugh at 16 seeks any sexual advantage over the younger, adoring Victoria. That would have been almost healthy. What Hugh exerts is a power over her spirit. In one particularly chilling scene, he introduces a game in the woods. Designating a decaying log as "rotten Harry," he throws it into the muddy pond and begins to attack it.
"'Loathsome dog!' he suddenly screamed and threw a handful of stones at the log.
"'Fat, dirty hog!'
"I was spattered with mud and laughing so hard I was staggering as I tuned here and there, bending, and scrabbling at the earth to find objects to hurl.
"'I got you going, didn't I?' he said in a light voice."
And this is what Hugh is about -- the operation of other lives by remote control. He chooses associates who for whatever reason are not quite in control of their own lives and retains them so long as they seem able to enhance his own coldly calculated self-image.
In addition to Victoria and Hugh, the other characters of the book are strongly drawn, especially Victoria's mother, a competent, likable woman who at first finds herself debilitated by grief, but who gradually works her way back to health. There is also the friend, Elizabeth, in whom Victoria confides her deepest secrets, except those which include Hugh. And Elizabeth, true to adolescent nature, pours out her soul to Victoria, but somehow without ever meaning to, betrays her because of a boy, an awkward, boastful lout who is in no way worthy of her. And finally there is Tom Kyle who wears jeans that still have their creases and who, to his peril, replaces Victoria as Hugh Todd's special project.
This is a strong, well-written book, but in the end, a troubling one. Victoria, we know, has moved far enough from her father's death and out of Hugh's grasp to assure us that she will indeed be all right. We can even imagine that the pathetic Tom will move towards a kind of wholeness. But Hugh simply disappears. We may guess that he has been hurt, but there is no indication that he will every be healed. It is a measure of the author's skill that we care what happens to Hugh who seems banished to a place so far apart that we fear his exile is permanent. Perhaps another ending would have been phony. But, still, I long to ask the wise and compassionate adult author a question I could not expect her young narrator to answer. Is there any hope for Hugh? I need to know because I used to know him, many years ago when I was young and alone.