Marjorie Dean, High School Freshman by Pauline Lester (Facebook group reading challenge)


Published in 1917, this is a fairly standard early school story in which there’s a big falling out amongst the members of one form, someone tries to frame someone else for a crime they didn’t commit, and the truth all comes out in the end. However, it’s an American story, and different in several ways from the British school stories I usually read.  Apart from the differences in the actual school system, the girls often refer to each other as “Miss Surname”, and they seem to spend a lot of time going to parties.  There’s a Hallowe’en dance, a Thanksgiving party, a New Year’s Eve party, a post-Easter masquerade ball and a May Day picnic.  And they dance with boys – perish the thought of such a thing happening at the Chalet School or Malory Towers!    As in Daddy Long Legs and What Katy Did At School, there’s a huge amount of snobbery and social division, just as much as there is in many British school stories; and that’s actually the main theme of the book.

I know I sound as if I’m putting a British interpretation on it all – sorry, but I’m used to British school stories 🙂 . This one starts when our heroine, the eponymous Marjorie Dean, has to move from the city of “B” (Boston, maybe?) to the small town of Sanford (Maine?  New York?  Presumably not the one in Florida?) because of her dad’s job.  I think this is the first time I’ve come across an American book which just refers to a town or city by an initial, and it’s rare in any book written in the 20th century.   Charlotte Bronte famously refers to Sheffield as “S”, but I was surprised to find Pauline Lester doing something similar.  Oh well, whatever!

I expected “High School Freshman” to mean someone of around 14, but Marjorie and her classmates are 16, and studying for public exams. They only take a small number of subjects, and gym is not compulsory – hooray!  The book starts with Marjorie saying her sad farewells to her old friends, which is nice – new characters in school stories usually arrive with apparently no existing friendships at all.  Having said which, that’s life, isn’t it?  Or, at least, it was before social media.  I often think about all the people I knew at school, either primary or secondary, and wonder what’s happened to them all.  Anyway.  They present her with a butterfly pin, and we’re told that this is going to cause issues in the future.  There are a lot of comments along the lines of little did she/they know what problems something or other was going to cause in the future!  And a lot of adjectives and adverbs – it reminded me of my primary school headmistress’s obsession with “description”, and how we’d all use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible to try to keep her happy.

All the “Miss”-ing is rather confusing, because it’s sometimes hard to remember which characters were pupils and which were teachers. It happens to some extent in What Katy Did At School, but not to the extent that it does here.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that the school secretary, Marcia, is a similar age to Marjorie, and on the side of the snobby girls in her form.

Anyway! The main storyline of the book is the division amongst the girls in Marjorie’s form.  Marjorie takes a shine to a girl called Constance, but Constance is snubbed by the snob element because her family are poor.  The snobby girls, led by one Mignon, who’s supported by one Muriel (having so many “M” names gets confusing, as well) initially welcome Marjorie, and invite her to join their basketball team, but Marjorie’s friendship with Constance leads to a split in the form, and to Marjorie being pushed out of the team.

I’m not sure how any of them pass their exams, given that they seem to spend all their time going to parties, feuding and playing basketball; but, as characters in books do, they seem to manage quite well without doing much work!   The feuding deepens when Mignon accuses Constance of stealing a bracelet that she’s lost at, you guessed it, a party, and even more so when she fouls another girl during a basketball match, but her opponent is the one blamed for foul play instead.  As they do not have the benefit of VAR, this drags on for a while, before – at yet another party! – one of the older girls comes forward to say that she saw what happened.  The innocent girl is exonerated.  In a lot of books, this would have led to Mignon either being expelled or turning over a new leaf, but, probably more realistically, in this case it just makes her even nastier.

At yet another party, Constance impresses people with her wonderful singing, and it looks as if the tide of school popularity might be turning in her favour.  However, disaster then strikes!   Marjorie loses her butterfly pin, and Constance is seen wearing it.  Some of the girls assume that Marjorie’s given it to her, but Marjorie jumps to the conclusion that Constance has stolen it, and Mignon says that this must prove that Constance stole her bracelet as well.  Surely our heroine cannot have been so wrong about her new best pal?  Surely Constance cannot be a thief?  What can the explanation possibly be?

It transpires that it isn’t actually Marjorie’s pin at all. It’s just one that looks very like it, and has been given to Constance as a present by a hitherto unmentioned rich auntie who has suddenly got back in touch.  Let’s say that this wasn’t the most convincing of storylines!   Mignon found Marjorie’s lost pin and hid it, along with her own bracelet, in the hope of framing Constance – OK, that I could believe, but the rest of it was pushing it!

At the May Day picnic, the last of the many parties/outings, Marcia falls out of a canoe (it sounds like a very eventful picnic!) and is heroically rescued by Marjorie. Marcia and Muriel both acknowledge that they were wrong about both Marjorie and Constance, and everyone (except Mignon) vows to be bosom buddies for ever.  It’s quite strange that the main baddie isn’t actually redeemed, but probably realistic.  In my experience, school bullies do not suddenly turn over a new leaf and become best mates with their erstwhile victims, whatever might happen in some books.

Sorry if I’m sounding sarcastic – I do really love school stories, and it annoys me when people who don’t like them poke fun at them. But I love them, so I’m allowed to point out their foibles 🙂 . The storyline with the two near-identical pins was a bit silly, but the general themes of feuds within a form and, something both Elsie J Oxenham and Angela Brazil are also keen on, the effects of snobbery within a form and the need to try to overcome that, are good ones.  I’ve got an enormous pile of books to read, so I won’t be rushing to read the others in this series; but, should I ever get time (hah!), I certainly wouldn’t mind giving them a go.