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Susan Allen Toth’s first book, Blooming, is a thematic autobiography of 211 pages, covering the time period of her grade-school years in Ames, Iowa, through her arrival at Smith College to begin her freshman year. Throughout her tracing of formative influences, apprehensions, and successes in her life, there are several important consistencies of attitudes and values that are evident throughout her book.

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First of all, she expects good things from life but is apprehensive about how to get them, so she is eager for life experiences. Furthermore, her character is firmly rooted in the Protestant work ethic, which accounts for the industry and tenacity with which she deals with challenging or distasteful tasks; as she grows up she believes that work is an essential ingredient of adult life. Friends, specifically female friends, form a rich and sustaining network for her. Boyfriends, however, seem more like prizes to be won than friends in whom to confide. Boyfriends may be transient, but girlfriends are enduring. Given less prominence in her autobiography are her widowed mother and older sister.

As Toth records each experience in her life and infuses it with meaning and significance, she does so by relating it in some way to an anecdote involving her daughter, Jennifer, whose girlhood is more complex and less ambiguous than that of her mother. A common practice in the book, in fact, is for Toth to begin a chapter with a memory about her daughter, which then serves as a catalyst for important related recollections of her own childhood.

Blooming is topically organized, with each of its eleven chapters exploring a significant theme or period in Toth’s life. The first, titled “Nothing Happened,” gives the backdrop of Toth’s personal orientation as an outgrowth of the moral, religious, and ethnic composition of the town in which she was reared. In the 1950’s, the town of Ames was a small, racially homogeneous, conservative white society with very little crime, where tragedies, if they did occur, were only “freakish twists of fate.” Toth calls the setting a “background of quiet.” Beginning with such a formative and internal perspective, Toth ends her book with a chapter titled “The World Outside.” Here, she first brings her daughter back to Ames to visit her old haunts and then explores the sense of her own childhood “vibrations from a world outside Ames,” from shopping sprees in Des Moines, annual forays to Lake Carlos in west-central Minnesota, a trip to New York City with her mother and sister, to the gradual exodus of herself and her friends to colleges some distance away after high school graduation.

Within the frame of “inside Ames” and “outside Ames” which the first and last chapters present, the remaining chapters in Toth’s book convey ideas or involvements that are either formative or expressive of her personality and values. The chapters do not read like a unified, cohesive, chronological account of her life organized by stages, but more like a series of individual, even independent essays, each with its own merit and meaning. The second and the tenth chapters, titled “Swimming Pools” and “Summer at the Lake,” trace her affinity for water and the peace that contact with it gives her. The third and fourth chapters, “Boyfriends” and “Girlfriends,” present the value of close friendships to her sense of well-being and, in fact, to her validation of self. The chapters “Science” and “Bookworm” follow, revealing her ineptitude with scientific endeavors and her talent for reading and writing. The seventh, eighth, and ninth chapters—“Party Girl,” “Preparation for Life,” and “Holidays”—explore her developing social and professional skills. “Preparation for Life” is especially important in that it shows Toth characteristically eager to gain monetary and psychological independence and at the same time to fulfill her sense of the Protestant work ethic. Throughout her book, Toth occasionally alludes to her teaching position in the English department at Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota, by way of illustrating how what she learned in her childhood and youth has been put to use in adulthood.

Each chapter begins with an italicized section of several paragraphs that shows the adult Toth interacting with her daughter in some way; the chapter proper is, then, an extended flashback or series of flashbacks, not necessarily in chronological order. She presents memory stimulated by its association with a recent event, thus exploring her childhood and adolescence by comparing some aspect of it with her daughter’s less protected life. Although Toth does not overtly measure the value of her life by what it has taught her about being a good parent, she does repeatedly present her own life episodes in relation to those of her daughter. She seems to envision life as a continuum, evolving for some larger purpose outside itself. The book is memorable for its presentation of events from the life of one person growing up in the small American town of Ames in the 1950’s, but it is more noteworthy for its far-reaching and poignantly detailed chronicle of how place shapes personality and how the child is father (or mother) to the man (or woman).

Blooming

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There is, perhaps, no more universal story—in fact and in fiction—than the story of maturation, or, as Susan Allen Toth would have it, of “Blooming.” Regardless of gender, place, or era, everyone must grow up. It is a process few people forget, a journey which although unique for each individual nevertheless follows similar outlines, moments and phases of trauma and pleasure. The most common aspect of the maturing process is, more times than not, the telling about it in retrospect—bloom remembering bud. In that sense, “blooming” is never-ending—at least not in memory.

In Blooming Susan Allen Toth looks back, at the age of forty-one, at the girl she once was: “Sue Allen from Ames, Iowa.” That is how she announced herself when, one September on a Northampton, Massachusetts, train platform (dressed in a wool suit of her own careful making) she greeted the larger world of Smith College—a new and different phase of her life, another kind of blooming, but one very much conditioned by her home in Ames and all that it meant to her.

Writing from the vantage point of a professor of English in a small college in St. Paul, Minnesota, some twenty-four years later, Toth retraces what adolescence in the relatively stable decade of the 1950’s was like, growing up in yet another college town, and destined to become—like her mother before her—an English instructor, fascinated with language and the magical powers of telling, of narration, of re-creating oneself in words. As such, Toth’s is not a dramatic or daring life story. Rather, it is ordinary and even provincial. It is, however, a poignant story, far from trivial, given the author’s sense of what it means to be a woman, now divorced, with a young daughter, Jennifer, who in the final judgment is the best and truest audience for these rememberings.

Blooming is not directly dedicated to Toth’s daughter, however. It is her mother, Hazel Erickson Allen Lipa, who has this distinction. One senses throughout the book that what the author wishes to communicate is the notion of continuity; she wishes to tell about the tie which exists between her mother and her own daughter—and by implication the bond which exists between all daughters, all women. As such, there is very little mention in Blooming of Toth’s father or of her husband, Jennifer’s father. Although Toth’s mother was widowed, leaving her with two daughters to rear on the modest salary of an Iowa State University faculty member; and although the author is divorced, leaving her responsible for her own daughter’s upbringing, there is no whimpering, though there is much empathy, in Blooming. One can only speculate that though perhaps more painful, as memoir, the book would be all the richer if more were said about fathers and husbands—and about Toth’s sister, who, given the female emphasis of the book, is curiously denied any detailed consideration.

Blooming is not a tract for the feminist movement in the sense that it champions a world of women without men, but it does speak confidently, if not boldly, for the women’s movement, for females—for a world, even if glimpsed only in potential, where the ideal of male/female equality or androgyny is realized.

Thus, much of the impact of the book comes from the juxtaposing of the author’s girlhood and her womanhood, her world as a daughter in the “old days” as her daughter thinks of it, and her womanhood, her daughter’s present. Each of the book’s eleven chapters begins in the present of the 1980’s, italicized as inner musing become lyrical reverie. The themes of that present—whether dealing with recreation such as swimming or, thematically and metaphorically more significant, of gardening, cooking, friendships, parties, reading, working, holidays, or the like—these present-day thoughts provide a narrative frame for free-associated memories of related activities in the past, in an idyllic Iowa no longer really there except in pictures (both in the form of photographs and mental images). It is a simple but provocative narrative scheme, by means of which Toth proves that one both can and cannot go home again.

Inviting many approaches, Blooming could be read as a work of social history, a quiet and quaint view of middle America at the dawning of television, rock and roll, and the cold war: Main Street before the Beatles, the flower children, the “drug scene,” and Vietnam. California cool and New York swank were far away from the insular Midwest—and, from the perspective of a small-town girlhood, so was something as historic as the Korean War.

In this sense, even the “coolest” of the author’s friends seem “square,” as dated by today’s standards as the archaic words themselves. Susan Allen from Ames, Iowa, was herself simply a nice girl, wholesome, naïve, generally happy. So, to an extent, Blooming offers the reader a glimpse into the life of the stereotypical girl next door in the days when nothing, absolutely nothing ever happened—not in Ames, Iowa (or so it seemed at the time). Despite the garden imagery reflected in the book’s title, Susan Allen was not a farmer’s daughter—though some of her summers were spent in the fields detasseling seed corn. She lived in town, grew up in the city of Ames, where she held a number of jobs, from babysitting to working as a reporter for the Ames Tribune.

There was no crime to speak of—at least not in today’s terms; no energy shortages, no crises of one kind or another dramatized nightly on television. What happened was nothing and everything, simply the act of growing up, learning about one’s own and the opposite sex, about the pleasures and worries of the moment (such as Ames High beating Marshalltown in the 1955 state basketball tournament), and about “preparing for life”—a life which was assumed to be based on progress.

Beyond social history, however, is the developing personality of the author, her own distinctive story. It is this intimate story, a truthful, honest, way-it-was rendering, which makes Blooming an absorbing and memorable book. Toth begins the literary re-creation of herself, her word-portrait, by remembering how important the quietness and the lack of social disruptions—domestic or civil—were in the formation of her personality. Such things as murder, divorce, and prostitution, for example, though not absent were rare. Moreover, the community was almost painfully homogeneous, middle-class, anglo, protestant. Penny’s and Younkers were the favorite stores and Olson’s Bowling Alley the most popular meeting spot. Driving to the big cities of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids to shop took on the outlines of a safari adventure. A train trip to the urban West of Denver or San Francisco was a fantasy journey. Thus, for Sue Allen’s formative years Ames was both home and the world.

Much of that world centered around Blaine’s Pool, where girls could swim—and meet boys. Toth’s chapter on the social and personal importance of swimming to adolescent mingling is one of the book’s many triumphs. Physiques and personalities of all shapes, sizes, and kinds frolic again in reminiscence, and not merely at Blaine’s Pool: there was Louise Crawford Elementary School, Welch Junior High School, and Ames High School.

The fascinating enterprise of pairing off, choosing one boy over another, dating, is told with good humor, at times hilarity, as Toth sorts out and catalogs how she became friends with Doug Boynton in sixth grade, Jay Gordon in junior high, and Peter Stone in high school. Everyone can remember how such match-ups come about when Toth reflects both the awkwardness and the ecstasy of events in her construction of sentences such as this one: “So when Peter Stone asked his friend Ted to ask Ted’s girlfriend Emily who asked me if I would ever neck with anyone, I held my breath until Emily told me she had said to Ted to tell Peter that maybe I would.”

Girl friends, however, are at the center of Toth’s story, for where boys usually represented escorts or symbols of achievement, girls were friends, people to share both serious and silly thoughts with. In the chapter on “Girlfriends,” it is significantly the outsider Margie Dwyer, who becomes emblematic of the special helping hand of sisterhood that if extended is always eagerly grasped.

It is safe to conjecture that when the author’s daughter grows up and really reads Blooming, with her own blooming behind her, she will know her mother in yet another deeply felt way; know her vulnerability and her strength as a woman and as a writer. She too, in turn, will carry with her a respect and a love for her mother revealed anew in the telling of Blooming. As for the general reader (not to mention friends of the author), especially the reader of the same generation, there will be respect and recognition, a kind of kinship even if from a different region and class and gender—for Susan Allen from Ames, Iowa, and for the act of “blooming.” Maturing is a phenomenon prized by all, something all must experience, and to read Blooming is to grow up yet again.

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In Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood, Susan Allen Toth recalls her experiences as a young girl in Ames, Iowa, in the 1950’s. She describes the pleasures and trials of growing up female in a small community during a time when gender roles were clearly defined. Each chapter explores one facet of everyday life as Toth recounts experiences from her junior high and high school years. By beginning each chapter with an incident in her life in the 1970’s as a single mother, teaching college English courses, Toth compares her own girlhood with that of her daughter and considers how her earlier experiences have affected her adult life.

Beginning with a chapter called “Nothing Happened,” Toth suggests that despite its limitations, small-town life offered rich opportunities for a young girl to develop intellectually and personally. After describing a conversation that she had as an adult with other women who insisted that growing up in a small Midwestern town was “hell,” Toth acknowledges that her life was not exciting and that Ames did not offer all the cultural or intellectual resources that she later found in college and in cities. She insists, however, that her world was a “garden” that nurtured her into adulthood with a strong sense of safety and community.

The book examines the central experiences of Toth’s life, which, as the first chapter suggests, were neither unusual nor particularly exciting. In Toth’s telling, however, these experiences are shown to be both important and interesting. She describes the town’s climate as generally peaceful, with only a few divorces and one murder to interrupt the flow of daily life. Yet she admits that the town probably was more divided than she recognized as a teenager. She was more aware, she reports, of divisions between Catholics and Protestants than between whites and blacks, but looking back she acknowledges that racial prejudice and other divisions may have existed.

After describing the community, Toth moves on to reminisce about her relationships with both boys and girls, suggesting that while having a boyfriend was nice, having a circle of girlfriends was essential. With her boyfriends, she did little except drive around town, but she spent most of her time as a teenager with other girls, talking, seeing films, or shopping. She writes about the importance of science in Ames, a college town with strong schools of engineering, industrial science, and agriculture, and her sense that science was both fascinating and mysterious. She never really understood the subject, and she looked to male scientists (including her husband Lawrence, years later) to explain it to her. For Toth, books were always more attractive, and she tells about her love and reverence for the local library, where she spent many hours as a child and teenager. Although the local librarian had hoped that Toth would join the ranks of student library assistants, Toth worked instead doing housecleaning and detasseling corn. She also describes how she spent her teenage summers writing and filling in for vacationing page editors at the local newspaper, an experience she calls “Preparation for Life.” She also devotes several chapters to descriptions of celebrations, including slumber parties, holiday dinners, and summer vacation trips to a rustic lakefront cabin owned by her grandfather. Finally, she tells of her experiences outside of Ames, including school trips, shopping expeditions to Des Moines, and her eventual departure for Smith College, about which she writes in Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East (1984), the second volume of her memoirs.

In the opening sections of her chapters, Toth suggests comparisons between life in the 1970’s and life in the 1950’s. As she describes conversations with her daughter, Jennifer, Toth asks questions about the meaning of her own experiences as a girl and the values and ideas that she brings to her adult life. What does a mother want for her daughter? Why are women friends so important to a woman’s life? What is the relationship between one’s past and one’s present? These sections also answer a common reader’s question: What happened next? In the opening of each chapter, Toth offers the reader glimpses into her later life as well as reflections back on her past.

Context

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The structure of Blooming makes it more of a memoir than an autobiography, but like many of the women’s autobiographies written and studied in recent years, it provides a previously unrecognized female perspective on everyday life. Toth takes her own experiences seriously, and her sympathetic, ironic voice suggests that experiences that appear simple and unimportant on the surface may be central to a woman’s life. Indeed, in Blooming as in other women’s autobiographical writing, daily life and ordinary women move from the neglected margins to center stage. In this book, the common experiences of white, middle-class, midwestern women and girls become the key to understanding what it means to be female in the 1950’s and beyond.

While Blooming has not received much critical attention from critics in women’s literature or women’s studies programs, the book represents an unusual example within the growing field of women’s writing about their own lives. Although other writers, such as Nancy Mairs and Patricia Hampl, have written memoirs that reflect on the experiences of growing up female, Toth’s books, both Blooming and Ivy Days, offer unusually positive, sympathetic visions of women’s lives. Instead of focusing on the limitations of gender or on the struggles of understanding oneself, but without ignoring the pain and self-doubt of adolescence or the impact of gender on her experiences, Toth emphasizes the sweetness and security of small-town life.

Toth continued writing about her own life in Ivy Days, which describes her experiences at Smith College; How to Prepare for Your High School Reunion (1988), in which she comments on life in middle age; and Reading Rooms (1980), a book that collects Toth’s and other readers’ feelings about reading.

Bibliography

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Barbre, Joy Webster, et al., eds. Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. The essays in this collection, which grew out of a national conference, examine the context, forms, and use of voice in women’s personal narratives. None addresses Toth specifically, but they provide helpful background material.

Benstock, Shari, ed. The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. In this essay collection, a number of feminist critics examine theories of autobiography and analyze central examples of women’s use of the genre in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While none of the articles addresses Toth’s work in particular, the approaches included here offer valuable models for critical analysis of Toth’s memoir.

Booklist. LXXVII, May 1, 1981, p. 1185.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. Writing a Woman’s Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. Heilbrun writes critically about how traditional accounts of women’s lives have represented women as passive, rather than active, and she argues for closer readings of women’s life stories. This book is useful for its analytical approach to women’s autobiographical writing.

Library Journal. CVI, April, 1, 1981, p. 788.

Lochner, Frances C., ed. Contemporary Authors. Vol. 105. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. This reference entry offers a brief biography of Toth, a useful listing of her publications, and a short comment from the author on her goals in writing.

Ms. X, July, 1981, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, May 24, 1981, p. 4.

The Wall Street Journal. CXCVII, June 11, 1981, p. 26.

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