Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East is a sequel to Susan Allen Toth’s warmly received memoir, Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood (1981). That book, which evoked the world of “Sue Allen from Ames, Iowa,” was praised both for its rendering of the American Midwest in the 1950’s and for its look at mothers and daughters and girlhood friends in the decade before the feminist movement.
Sue Allen left Ames in 1957 to attend Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Ivy Days recalls the experiences of a small-town girl at an Ivy League school as seen through the eyes of an older-but-wiser Toth—now an English professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the divorced mother of a teenage daughter. Readers will find that Ivy Days, like Blooming, is well written and a pleasure to read. Those who attended college during these years will enjoy Toth’s lively descriptions of student life, and readers of any age will appreciate her amusing and often poignant struggles to grow, to understand, and to be accepted. The book is given added depth and richness by the framing evidence that Toth employed so effectively in Blooming: Preceding each section of Ivy Days is an italicized passage written from Toth’s present-day vantage point. These passages yield insights acquired with maturity and show how her college experiences resonate in her present life. By turns analytical, philosophical, sympathetic, and gently mocking, these additional layers of thought lend a realistic and satisfying complexity to the reader’s perception of Toth’s life.
Instead of a chronological account of her four years at Smith, Toth divides her recollections into thematic groupings: “Out East,” “Learning to Live with Women,” “Intellectual Butterfly,” “In the Swim,” “Summa,” and “Up, Up and Away.” The first chapter, “Out East,” describes the Iowa girl’s fascination with the sophisticated East Coast. Before she left for Smith, Sue Allen’s impressions of New England had been formed by the Currier and Ives calendars a local insurance company had given her mother, by her admiration for women poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Amy Lowell, and by photos of poised, smiling Ivy League coeds that she found in Mademoiselle magazine.
Sue’s preparations for college centered on her wardrobe and revealed her naïve attempts to “fit in.” The pictures in Mademoiselle showed clothes and activities outside her experience. Eastern girls apparently played field hockey and lacrosse, went to mixers and fraternity dances, and attended cocktail parties. In anticipation of this new life-style, Sue stretched her meager budget to buy one all-purpose cocktail dress; four years later, as she packed for the last time, she would place the black dress, unworn, on the pile of clothing to be donated to charity. Clothing was a language that eluded Sue’s grasp for much of her stay at Smith; a limited budget and a lack of self-assurance conspired to make her feel different from the others. Her attempts to imitate the studied grubbiness of the Eastern girls usually fell short of the mark. Once, as she slouched up to the stage at honors chapel in a grimy trenchcoat, worn sneakers, and no socks, her triumph at being dressed just right outweighed her elation at receiving a prize.
Living “Out East” precipitated an attack of culture shock in an Iowa girl accustomed to a small-town setting and a down-to-earth life-style. Sue felt almost claustrophobic in her small dormitory room on the beautifully manicured Smith campus with its lack of wide open spaces. New England’s aura of money, sophistication, and historic significance fed her feelings of alienation. Ill at ease with her classmates, she defensively dismissed many of them as “typical Smithies”—shallow, prep-school snobs. Years later, she would get to know one of these “Smithies” better and discover how superficial her label had been.
Too proud to acknowledge her adjustment problems, Sue wrote determinedly cheerful letters home to her mother, all the while counting the days until Christmas vacation. Finally, her inner distress produced physical symptoms, and she became ill. The housemother, Mrs. Stevens, took her temperature and pronounced her able to attend classes, but a casual inquiry about Sue’s mother suddenly produced a flood of tears, leading Mrs. Stevens to suspect that her illness might be emotional. Mrs. Stevens sent her to the student counselor, Miss Poynton, but after two awkward conversations, Sue and Miss Poynton agreed that no further visits were necessary. For the remainder of her four years at Smith, Sue was embarrassed whenever Miss Poynton greeted her on campus; she was afraid that her friends would realize why they knew each other.
The Christmas-holiday vacation brought a long-awaited reunion with Sue’s mother and with high school friends but also a growing awareness that she had reached a parting of the ways. When she returned to Smith, Sue was surprised to realize that she was happy to be back, that Smith was where she now felt that she belonged.
“Learning to Live with Women” describes life in Sue’s residence, Lawrence House, and the ups and downs of living under stressful and crowded conditions. Dormitory life fostered an intimacy she had never experienced outside her family. Such close association had its negative side—squabbles over the washing machine, jealousy over boyfriends, resentment toward those who ignored house rules or avoided their turn at communal chores—but it also provided emotional and academic support, insights into human behavior, and friendships that were likely to last a lifetime.
Adjusting to a living situation so unlike one’s own home required an emphasis on personal comfort and private rituals. What made Sue’s room her own was a pink-and-gray wool quilt, handmade by her aunt. Its coziness reminded her of home and family and saw her through occasional bouts of insomnia or depression. She looked forward to “sticky buns” on Fridays and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sundays: Food supplied not only emotional but also physical nourishment. Leisurely Sunday breakfasts in someone’s room, or tea with friends during evening study breaks, helped forge and strengthen bonds between Sue and her housemates.
One of the most important people in Sue’s life at Smith was her friend Sophie. After their freshman year, Sue and Sophie teamed up for their remaining three years. Living so closely together, they shared each other’s triumphs and disappointments; the support and consolation they offered each other were based on unqualified mutual affection and admiration that transcended their many differences.
Roommates who knew each other intimately...