Study Guide

M. E. Kerr

by Marijane Meaker

M. E. Kerr Essay - Kerr, M. E.

Kerr, M. E.

Introduction

M. E. Kerr 1928(?)–

(Pseudonym of Marijane Meaker) American novelist. Although she has only been writing young adult fiction since 1972, Kerr has firmly established herself as one of that genre's most popular authors. Her novels explore such contemporary topics as breaking free from parental guidance and misguidance and the recognition and acceptance of human fallibility. These concerns are presented with poignancy and humor, in novels that have been praised for their credibility and relevance. Some critics, however, look with disfavor on Kerr's contemporaneity, accusing her of superficiality with trendy plots and flippant dialogue. Kerr began her literary career as a mystery writer for adults, publishing her first mystery novel, Whisper His Sin, under the name Vin Packer, the first of several pseudonyms she has used. While writing steadily, Kerr began to teach creative writing on a volunteer basis at Manhattan's Central High. The background and characters in her first young adult novel, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, were based on this experience. She discovered the stimulus for her latest novel, Gentlehands, in her brother, a former World War II Navy pilot and Vietnam veteran who had difficulty in readjusting to peacetime. In an area where authors often stereotype teenagers' concerns, Kerr is noteworthy for her presentation of realistic situations and responses.

Don't be put off by the title [Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!]; this is not another anti-drug sermon and in fact Dinky does not shoot smack nor is she about to; she only makes the announcement, in Day-Glo graffiti throughout her Brooklyn Heights "community," so that her do-gooding mother who's into rehabilitating addicts will give her some attention. Refreshingly the only junkie in the cast is not a straw heavy constructed to bear the cautionary burden of pity or scorn, but a credible, humorously immature minor character—and an even greater relief from recent YA typecasting is the brilliant, fiercely reactionary P. John Knight, maligned by all the liberal Heights parents who should be pondering his favorite quotation, "don't understand me too quickly." Mrs. Hocker, who sabotages P. John's relationship with the overweight Dinky and his attempts to help her get thin, is in fact the only heavy here, but if mother's smug insensitivity is a little thick she's real enough to rouse your fury all the same. Dinky herself is a troubled girl who is never at a loss for flip and brittle words ("the meek inherit the shaft," she tells a black child she's working with at her mother's neighborhood center), and her friend Tucker who tells the story has some wry lines and risibly recognizable problems of his own. Unlike the tiresome bulk of Now novels, this view of the contemporary scene … is neither hostile nor hortatory nor exploitative. Instead Kerr's honesty, evident respect and consistently on-target wit will keep Dinky's and Tucker's contemporaries laughing and nodding agreement. (pp. 1152-53)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1972 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), October 1, 1972.

Jean Stafford

["Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!"] is not only a revolting and cryptic title …; it is, as well, a put-on. Dinky, whose perfectly reasonable real name is Susan, is not a hophead but a lunchhead, and hers is the story of the ups and downs of weight-watching with her obese and mossback boyfriend, P. John Knight, whose admiration for the late Senator Joe McCarthy is not less credible than this gobbet of dialogue:

"Does heroin give you pimples?" Tucker asked.

'All junk does. Junkies love sweets," Dinky said authoritatively. "I never met a junkie who didn't verge on bulbous acne."

The publicity people at Harper & Row are so struck with the verve and know-how of their heroine that they begin their flap copy with this come-on. I hope the original Harper Brothers have long ago become insentient mycelium. (p. 190)

Jean Stafford, in The New Yorker (© 1972 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Russell & Volkening, Inc., as agents for the author), December 2, 1972.

Dale Carlson

The pages rush by in ["Dinkey Hocker Shoots Smack!"] by M. E. Kerr, who has an ear for catching the sound of real people talking and a heart for finding the center of real people's problems….

The problems to be coped with are real, contemporary in a contemporary world. The writer is sensitive not only to the dialogue, but to the themes of today's preoccupations. You get the feeling it could all be happening next door.

This is a brilliantly funny book that will make you cry. It is full of wit and wisdom and an astonishing immediacy that comes from spare, honest writing. Many writers try to characterize the peculiar poignancy and the terrible hilarity of adolescence. Few succeed as well as M. E. Kerr in this timely, compelling and entertaining novel.

Dale Carlson, "Smack," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1973, p. 8.

Diane Gersoni-Stavn

Despite its pretentious title, self-conscious, first-person style, and some caricatures, [If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever?] is an interesting, entertaining novel. Alan Bennett—a handsome, popular, Protestant jock going steady with a beautiful cheerleader—anticipates a glorious senior year in high school. Then ugly, Jewish, unathletic Duncan Stein transfers in and unexpectedly becomes in, as do his passion for poetry and belief in unrequited love. Going steady—and Alan—are suddenly out…. [Alan] can't decide if love is the warmth of going steady or the excitement of a brief encounter, a comfortable feeling for a contemporary or admiration for someone older. Can love be distinguished from human weakness or need? Is a strong person one who pulls out of an unsatisfying marriage or who works to make it better? When is parental love selfish? At the end of the story, Duncan falls in love with Alan's former steady; having now experienced rather than intellectualized love, Duncan decides he wants to go steady too. Ephemeral love as a school fad dies, but Alan retains his new-found awareness of its power and appeal. The turnabout's a bit too pat but still acceptable and, fortunately for readers, there are more questions than answers. (p. 75)

Diane Gersoni-Stavn, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the April, 1973 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1973), April, 1973.

Carolyn Balducci

Had M. E. Kerr restrained her literary and academic impulses, "If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever?" would have been a first-rate young adult novel. Her book is like a Möbius strip onto which are stapled bits of World Lit, Pop-Psych, letters, classified ads, writing style tips and news items. It poses the eternal rhetorical question: "What Is Love?" yet supplies only the basis for a one-dimensional reply….

Alan spends [a weekend] with his father who had run off with a woman he despises as he despises himself. This is a shattering encounter for Alan that forces him to probe deeper into the meaning of "Love." However, judging from what kids fantasize about parents from an early age onward, the effect of this meeting on a 16-year-old boy (presumably aware of similar genetic matter existing in his own chromosomes) should have been more profound than making him become impossibly vague with his girlfriend. Thus, the boy's involvement with an older woman upon his return home is not as unconnected as the book would like us to believe. Alan—unlike Sonny in "The Last Picture Show" or Ben in "The Graduate"—does not attempt to have a physical relationship with Mrs. Stein. He has no opportunity, therefore, of resolving his emotional turmoil: indeed, putting emotions into action is something Alan seems no longer capable of accomplishing.

At the very end, Alan's breaking down and weeping when he hears that his "ideal" has run off with a man he...

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Mary M. Burns

Small-town Vermont is the backdrop against which two bright, brittle teenagers, both misfits in their disparate social orders, gain insight into themselves and their families…. A blending of sophistication and innocence develops the characters [of The Son of Someone Famous] as credible teenagers, despite the soap-opera banalities of the plot. Unfortunately, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, for characters and situations are not as fully integrated as in Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!; although the dialogue and description are superb, the incidents seem patched together from speculation about a life style sensed but not experienced. (pp. 384-85)

Mary M....

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Jean Stafford

Heretofore, although I have recognized the ability of M. E. Kerr, I have not liked her novels. But her new one, "The Son of Someone Famous" …, entertained me greatly…. Miss Kerr's pace is brisk, the characters are distinct and are faithful to their individual charms and quirks, the wisecracks are uncontrived and they range from good to first-rate, the agonies of loneliness and self-doubt, of jealousy and of resentment are recognizable and are not pummelled with exposition, and the virtues of compassion, forgiveness, and loyalty are straightforward and have no frills and furbelows attached. (pp. 187-88)

Jean Stafford, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker...

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Mrs. John G. Gray

Gauze, voile, organdy, net, chiffon, silk—somewhere there's a word that will give the reader the precise feel, one that says it all about [Is That You, Miss Blue?].

The everyday happenings of a typical "climber's" girl's school and the hodgepodge of characters enrolled are misted over by the "mist-ical" Miss Blue, a teacher who truly waits for the Lord's knock on her bedroom door…. Miss Kerr can dig deep and scurry around in the loneliest, saddest corners of a reader's soul and always come up with a perceptive thought for teenagers to mull over. (p. 49)

Mrs. John G. Gray, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1975 Helen Dwight Reid Educational...

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Lavinia Russ

In time, M. E. Kerr may write something that's not real, touching, poignant, funny and marvelous. And, in time, Gibraltar may crumble…. Her books get better; ["Love Is a Missing Person"] is the finest yet…. The ultimate lesson here is that we are never so brave or right as we think and that we hurt others more than we can bear to admit. (p. 58)

Lavinia Russ, in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the June 30, 1975, issue of Publishers Weekly by permission of the critic, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1975 by Xerox Corporation), June 30, 1975.

(The entire section is 96 words.)

Mary M. Burns

Much of [Is That You Miss Blue?'s] power is derived from its delineation of character while consistently maintaining the young narrator's perspective. As seen through Flanders' eyes, the conflicting personalities are Dickensian types, skillfully limned but exaggerated. And the author achieves a balance between pathos and humor in documenting Miss Blue's disintegration. In a spare, wryly funny, genuinely moving book, M. E. Kerr surpasses all of her previous achievements. (p. 365)

Mary M. Burns, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1975 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), August, 1975.

(The entire section is 87 words.)

Zena Sutherland

While Suzy Slade, the fifteen-year-old who tells the story [of Love is a Missing Person], is a strongly delineated character, she functions primarily as the commentator on the problems of the other people with whom she is involved…. This is-one of Kerr's best, honest and poignant and perceptive. She gives no easy answers to the intricate problems in the lives of her characters, offers no lulling conclusions. The characterization and the dialogue are convincing and trenchant; while the ending is (as it was in Is That You, Miss Blue?) left open … it is the right ending, but what is left is not bitterness, it is an aching compassion. (p. 48)

Zena Sutherland,...

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Mary Kingsbury

I'm not going to describe in detail the very personal things that take place…. I'm not writing this book for a bunch of voyeurs…. It's a story about people and how their minds work…. What's fascinating about people is, no one thinks or acts the same way. I am writing about the why of people.

Alan Bennett's Apologia in If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever? … describes M. E. Kerr's purpose in each of her five novels. If, as Irene Hunt suggests, the strain of excellence to be looked for in an outstanding book is the author's ability to clarify "some problem of the human family, some aspect of human behavior, some quality of the human heart or mind or...

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Janet P. Benestad

From the title [of I'll Love You When You're More Like Me], this novel … sounds like just another "story with a message." Well, it is. The message, simply stated, is that "you have to step out of line to give the world something special." Unfortunately, the story used to portray this sound moral is trite, not unlike a half-dozen recent movies, and it is hardly inspiring….

Ms. Kerr is obviously trying sympathetically to depict a very disconcerting event in many a teenager's life—the realization that he is ashamed of his parents and wants to be anything but like them. I think, however, that such a subtle problem warrants more than the glib, avant-garde dialogue and facile solutions offered...

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Jean F. Mercier

Kerr's earlier novels, splendid as they are, seem like a prelude to ["Gentlehands"]. It's a marvel of understatement, diamond insights, irony and compassion. (p. 81)

Jean F. Mercier, in Publisher's Weekly (reprinted from the January 9, 1978, issue of Publishers Weekly, by permission of the critic, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1978 by Xerox Corporation), January 9, 1978.

(The entire section is 57 words.)

Alleen Pace Nilsen

In thinking about Kerr's writing, I am reminded of what Richard Peck said in a speech for the Adolescent Literature Assembly a couple of years ago. He observed that what many teenagers like in their light reading is unreality masked as realism. Kerr is a genius at providing this combination.

The unreality in I'll Love You When You're More Like Me centers around an unlikely combination of characters and events….

Kerr uses several techniques to make [the unlikely] seem believable. The book is written in first person with chapters from Wally alternating with chapters from Sabra. It is the clever dialogues and the flip comments that give readers the feeling that...

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Richard Bradford

The 16-year-old hero of ["Gentlehands"]—and he is a hero, in the only ways he can be—is William Raymond "Buddy" Boyle…. [His] parents are not just lower-middle class but resentfully snobbish about it; and he is in love with Skye Pennington, who summers with her parents near Montauk and possesses wealth and beauty in amounts F. Scott Fitzgerald might have hesitated to describe.

Buddy is tall and handsome, which explains Skye's interest in him, but he's diffident and hopeless in the presence of her sophistication….

Overcoming this social and financial gulf is the lesser of Buddy's problems. The larger one concerns his grandfather, and it is insuperable.

His...

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Virginia Wilder

High-school student Wallace Witherspoon, Jr., heir-apparent to directorship of funerals in Seaville, Long Island, and Sabra St. Amour, teenage goddess of daytime television soap opera, spend a star-crossed summer getting to know themselves through each other and through the other wildly overdrawn characters in [I'll Love You When You're More Like Me]. Nasty Harriet Hren has used "female" tactics to get herself engaged to Wally. Wally's gay friend, Charlie, has just come out of the closet. Sabra's mother, Madame St. Amour, is vicariously living out her own aborted stage career through Sabra….

The theme, "I'll love you when you are more like me," is … borne out by all relationships except...

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Brigitte Weeks

As always M. E. Kerr writes sensitively and catches precisely the agonies of growing up, but she lapses dangerously into stereotypes [in Gentlehands]: the policeman's son is too naive and the rich girl a little too monogrammed. The plot then thickens to involve an escaped Nazi turned from monster into animal lover, invoking a further host of moral issues. The story is overburdened and slightly unlikely, which is a pity, because despite it all Buddy Boyle is an interesting and not unsubtle character. (p. E4)

Brigitte Weeks, in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), July 9, 1978.

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Patricia Runk Sweeney

The imprisonment of one's true self in a shell of one's own making is a pervasive theme in [Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!] and its five successors. Though each of [Kerr's] novels tell a different story, the same concern for self-realization—a concern shared, we may assume, by every adolescent who reads these books—dominates both plot and subplot. And overall the message is an optimistic one: many of her characters do succeed in releasing the person shut up inside them, as Susan is shut up inside "Dinky," or Priscilla inside "Chicago" (in Love is a Missing Person). And even for some of the apparent failures, there is hope. At least they have become aware of the possibility of change and they have gained...

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Ruth Charnes

[Gentlehands is a] slick little tale in which the Holocaust and Nazi exterminators become cheap devices to move the plot forward. Whatever the author's intention, I was infuriated by this book, which seems to give equal weight to the questions of morality raised by the Holocaust and to an unrealistic teen-age romance. It's also hard to tell what the author intends with her anti-Semitic jokes and anti-gay remarks and her stereotypic portrayal of Nick De Lucca who—to further complicate the plot—is apparently gay. The book's glorification of conspicuous consumption and of a very spoiled and bratty young woman were the last straws! The author's "amusing" and witty style and her trendy subject matter no doubt...

(The entire section is 164 words.)