The narrator of Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s superb novel, Greensleeves, reissued recently in Nancy Pearl’s Book Crush series, is one of my favorite waitresses in literature.
The daughter of a famous actress and journalist, eighteen-year-old Shannon Kathleen Lightley has an identity crisis after high school. She has lived all over Europe, speaks several languages, yet always longed for stability. She was thrilled when her divorced parents agreed to let her spend her senior year living with her aunt in the small town of Mary Creek, Oregon. But the year was such a disaster that she now doesn’t want to go to college.
Greensleeves, first published in 1968, was one of my favorite books in childhood. In Nancy Pearl’s fascinating introduction, she points out that realistic fiction for teens dominated the shelves during the late twentieth century, while today fantasy and SF books have ascendency. McGraw, the author of three Newbery honor books, was perhaps best known for historical fiction.
But the novel of McGraw’s that I’ve always been fondest of is Greensleeves, which explores issues that teenagers–especially teen girls–can and do identify with. Actually, given my own experience of reading Greensleeves, maybe you don’t have to be a teenage girl to enjoy it. I first became acquainted with Shannon Kathleen Lightley, the main character and narrator, when I was in my twenties. I loved the novel then, and, having just reread it for the third time in two years, I love it still.
Shannon’s captivating voice and wit make this a Y.A. classic. And Shannon reminds me of Vicky Austin, the awkward heroine of several realistic novels by Madeleine L’Engle, among them Meet the Austins and The Moon by Night.
Shannon, who had given up on life in Oregon, was sitting in the Portland airport with the intention of returning to Europe when her Uncle Frosty, a lawyer, tracks her down and persuades her to stay in Portland for the summer. He hires her to do light detective work: he is investigating the validity of the will of an eccentric old woman who left all her money to neighbors for whimsical activities such as sky-diving lessons, a weed garden, studying “useless things,” and a trip to ancient Greece.
Shannon finds a job as a waitress at the Rainbow Cafe and moves into a boarding house: she actually rents the late Mrs. Dunningham’s room. And she experiments with her identity, wearing her long red hair in an upswept bouffant hairdo, snapping gum, and pretending she is from Idaho.
Because of her bright green uniform, she is nicknamed Greensleeves.
Her descriptions of waitressing are hilarious. Another waitress, a college girl, Helen, hands over most of the work to Shannon, who breaks character to make a few sarcastic remarks. Unfortunately, a bookworm, Sherry, looks up and stares at her and later tells her he enjoyed “the performance.”
But she is too busy to worry about Sherry.
For several minutes I was extremely active, while Helen shifted her weight to the other hip and turned a hamburger. Two new customers sat down near the three boys as I was starting that way with a handful of silverware, and she added that I might just take those ladies’ orders while I was there. I succumbed once more to temptation and asked her nervously if she didn’t think it would be too tricky for me. She gave me a fairly sharp glance, but said only, “You have to learn sometime, dear, and I do have my hands full right now.”
Life in the boarding house reminded me of my own university days living in rented rooms. Shannon befriends her neighbors. As she gets to know them–many are the beneficiaries of the will–she understands that Mrs. Dunningham was one of those whimsical 1960s people who tried to foster freedom.
Two men are interested in her, Sherry, a brilliant college student who wants to study “useless things,” and Dave, a talented artist who draws weeds and wild flowers. She loves Sherry, but being with Dave is like being with a sexual volcano.
What I love about Shannon is that she doesn’t give in to pressure and insists on knowing more about herself before she commits to a relationship. So smart. (Were we that smart?)
A very witty book, the kind of thing readers of all ages love.
Do you think I dare risk rereading McGraw’s Mara: Daughter of the Nile, set in ancient Egypt?
Well, maybe not!