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.
["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...
(This entire section contains 164 words.)
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.
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.
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.
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 deems unworthy does not portend a happy heterosexual future. Alan's decision to become a writer suggest that while love may come in as many varieties as there are people, those who are emotionally castrated are those who understand Romance the best. (p. 8)
Carolyn Balducci, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 16, 1973.
The idiom [of "Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!"], and probably the situation too, is wholly American; we could do with a British Dinky, but numerous attempts at realistic writing about adolescents have lacked Miss Kerr's sureness of touch.
[In her "On Children's Literature," Isabelle] Jan reckons that three-quarters of the novels written for boys and girls since 1850 tell the story of a lost or orphaned child in search of a family, and this novel too is about rejection. But the theme has become subtler, and not only because children are less easily orphaned these days: Mrs Hocker never says, like the mother in Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables", that she is sick of her child, but, in late-twentieth-century style, she fails to communicate.
But the real joy of "Dinky Hocker" is that Miss Kerr is knocking this jargon-cum-way-of-life: the parents' efforts to "adjust", to "communicate", to "participate" are seen through quite clearly by their teenage children, who are yet never repellent, misunderstood martyrs. The narrative never fails to be funny. Miss Kerr is also taking a swipe at parental preoccupation with drugs. "People," says young Tucker of Dinky, "who don't shoot smack have problems too". But best of all, Miss Kerr is not of the all-too-large school of authors who believe you achieve realism in children's novels by injecting sex and then lose their nerve and superimpose a moral fable. Tucker is cooler about sex than his parents, who are constantly telling him he is too young to go steady and longing to be contradicted. At the end of a cross-examination about his girl friend, he gives the perfectly adolescent answer: "I'm waiting for the fall". Time, Miss Kerr so brilliantly understands, looks different when it is on your side. (pp. 59-60)
The Economist (© The Economist Newspaper Limited, 1973), December 29, 1973.
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. Burns, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1974 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), August, 1974.
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 Magazine, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Russell & Volkening, Inc., as agents for the author), December 2, 1974.
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 Foundation), May, 1975.
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.
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.
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, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1975 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), November, 1975.
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 conscience" and the author's "sensitivity to the problem he has perceived, the credibility and grace with which he has recorded what he has perceived," the novels of M. E. Kerr can be judged as among the most outstanding being published today. For in each of them and with varying degrees of "credibility and grace," she attempts to clarify the why of people. Her willingness to confront serious issues coupled with her artistic abilities lifts her novels above the myriad problem-novels that have little to recommend them but their topicality. Not that Kerr's novels fail to reflect the age in which they are written. They do reflect the 1970s, but they also offer the reader much more than a commentary on contemporary problems. They introduce themes that will continue to puzzle mankind in the future just as they have troubled him in the past. (pp. 288-89)
Reading all [Kerr's] novels brings the realization that a common theme appears in each of them, a theme that makes one of the strongest comments on the human condition in literature for young people today. The author is concerned with love, its presence and, more commonly, its absence in the lives of her characters. Virginia Woolf noted in The Common Reader … that writers are disappointing if they are concerned with the body but not with the spirit. Kerr gave early assurance that she was not going to fall into that trap. The why of people can, in most instances, be explained in terms of who or what they love and whether they receive the love they need from others. The spiritual element that Virginia Woolf found wanting in much of modern fiction is not lacking in the novels of M. E. Kerr.
A theme in all her novels becomes the title of her latest—Love Is A Missing Person…. In her first book, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! …, Dinky fails to get the love and attention she needs from her parents until she makes an extraordinary effort to communicate her feelings….
The theme of love is less well defined in Kerr's third and least successful novel, The Son of Someone Famous…. Adam, called "A. J." by his father, has allowed his identity to be defined by his father's. The book raises the problem all adolescents must solve to achieve maturity. An individual can never become a person in his own right if he is always living up to the expectations of those who love him. (p. 289)
Is That You, Miss Blue? … is a tightly constructed novel that makes a harsh but truthful statement about man's inhumanity to his fellows. The book strips away the veneer of righteousness that adorns many who are, in fact, inwardly honeycombed with hypocrisy. Miss Blue's open display of love for Christ leads to her dismissal from the ostensibly Christian boarding school. The ultimate irony is that in a school dedicated to religious principles and practices, a teacher is dismissed for being too fervent in her convictions. Miss Blue loves too much, and her ways of expressing love are unacceptable to those in authority. By saying that the school is a microcosm of the world, Kerr implies that the injustices perpetrated there are only smaller versions of the injustices in the larger world.
Suzy Slade, the narrator of M. E. Kerr's latest book, feels alienated from her mother and unwanted by her father. For her, love is a missing person. Gwen Spring's former sweetheart has been missing from her life for twenty-five years, yet she continues to love him. Suzy's sister, Chicago, falls in love and literally becomes a missing person. The author, as in all her books, is preoccupied with love, the varied relationships it engenders, and man's inability to give and to receive the love that might be expected in such relationships. For most of her characters, in fact, love is a missing person.
In addition to this common theme, the novels share a pattern of elements and literary devices. Each introduces at least one contemporary issue such as mental illness, drug addiction, anti-Semitism, alcoholism, and racism. Each portrays the development of adolescent sexuality, and several offer insight into adult sexuality as well. Adolescents in all the books begin to view their parents more realistically and with greater understanding. Sharply drawn minor characters abound in all the books; frequent use is made of irony, humor, and quotations from literary sources.
The world Kerr creates is more than an adolescent world, for it includes adult characters who are far different from the unsympathetic ones usually portrayed in much realistic fiction. Moreover, she displays great skill in conveying the complexities of the parent-child relationship. (p. 290)
In Love Is A Missing Person, Suzy Slade … begins to see her father in a different perspective. "I'd never questioned his behavior in my whole life…. Now I just wondered about him, not as Daddy, and not as the man in Who's Who…. But Barry Slade, the individual. Did I even like him anymore?"
Suzy's ponderings point up an obvious strength in the Kerr novels, one that sets them apart from the many contemporary novels nearly devoid of well-developed adult characters. A reader of the majority of books written for young adults learns what motivates the adolescent characters but seldom learns what makes the adult characters act as they do. The adult characters are so fully realized, however, that readers acquire some idea of the pressures on adults in American society. The books offer a series of "possible futures" for their readers, a veritable gallery of "there but for the grace of God" vignettes. Flan Brown speculates, for example, about what changed the popular "Nesty" into the shunned Miss Blue. "Could it happen to anyone? To me? And what would it take to make it happen?" (pp. 291-92)
The only flaw in Kerr's depiction of her characters is that they never elicit from the reader a complete sense of identification. The adolescent narrators, for example, are not as memorable as several of the adult characters, possibly because the young people act as observers of the actions of more colorful characters. This is not to say that the reader cannot identify with Kerr's adolescent characters. Tucker's fears about his social acceptability, Flan's feeling of guilt about Miss Blue, and Suzy Slade's disillusionment with her father and ambiguous feelings about her mother can be shared. But rarely, if ever, does a character totally capture both the interest and emotions of the reader. Her characterizations appeal more to the head than to the heart, but they are, nevertheless, fascinating.
Consider Evelyn Slade in Love Is A Missing Person. To dismiss her as "the alcoholic mother" is to miss one of the most complex characters in recent fiction. She relies on her bottle of I. W. Harper whenever she is under pressure: "That was Mother's courage." In the solarium, decorated with yellow and white wicker furniture, she wears a dress from her yellow and white solarium collection. This is a woman who refuses to join an exclusive club because it does not admit Jews and who says that "bravery isn't tested during big moments but in little, everyday ones, in the way one faces people and faces up to problems with them." In the furor over the stolen painting, she tells Suzy to go to her job at the library. "'In a crisis … you do the same as you do every day, as far as possible. That's what holds things together. Routine is fiber, and in a crisis, fiber binds.'" Yet this wise woman later makes a fool of herself trying to get back a husband she doesn't really want; she is an adult who combines a high degree of perceptiveness with a goodly share of human foibles.
Contrast the elegant Evelyn Slade with Suzy's friend, Gwen Spring, a throwback to the 1940s in her saddle shoes and white socks, a memorial to unrequited love. When Susie says she wishes she could write something as beautiful as "Wild Nights," Miss Spring tells her to "'[w]ish instead that you could feel anything so beautiful as that poem.'" Another time she tells Suzy that life isn't answers, but questions. She admits that she has wasted herself in a "'futile fantasy. I grew wrinkles from dreaming. Wrinkles should come from living, not imagining that you are.'"
Evelyn Slade and Gwen Spring are examples of a literary device evident in all of M. E. Kerr's novels, a device used in other books, such as Ruth Sawyer's Roller Skates … and Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy…. [These characters] present a range of views on life and the human dilemma through their own statements or quotations from others…. Quotations from a variety of sources ranging from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky to Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, and the Beatles are integrated into Kerr's books in a number of ways—as part of an English class activity, in a letter, or in notes on bulletin boards. No other contemporary writer exposes young readers to so much material for reflection.
Another discernible pattern is formed by the balancing of two opposing sets of values—P. John's conservative views offset by the liberal views of his father and the Hockers, the views on atheism of Cardmaker and Flan's father countered by Flan's own ponderings, the two views of life represented by Brenda Belle's mother and her aunt, the contrasting life styles of Tucker's father and his Uncle Jingle. M. E. Kerr offers her readers a choice. One takes from these books a genuine sense of the ambiguity of life and the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of pinning down definite answers. "'Life isn't answers…. It's questions.'" Nor is there an answer that fits all people. "'The right way is what you grow to learn is right for you.'" Young people, in reading these novels, have the opportunity to think about their responsibility for defining the old people they will become. Always there is the sense, however, that we cannot control our lives entirely—that, as Alan's mother cautioned, our lives are influenced by other people and by circumstances over which we have little or no control. Can fiction become more realistic than that? (pp. 292-94)
Matthew Arnold's definition of literature as a "'criticism of life'" points up the seriousness of the literary endeavor. For Arnold it was not enough that a work of literature provide diversion. Nor, seemingly, is it enough for Irene Hunt with her criterion that an outstanding book must provide a perceptive commentary on the human condition. Judged by these standards, the novels of M. E. Kerr stand out from the general run of contemporary books. With style, wit, and compassion she describes adolescents coming to the realization that those they love will, more often than not, fail to live up to their expectations. Her concern with themes that have universal significance, her ability to create a variety of characters, her sensitivity to the sufferings of others, her humor and, finally, her use of irony all contribute to the power of her books. She has a clever style that never offends by being too clever. Moreover, she is subtle; where others are heavy-handed, she is light, sharp, and deft—using a rapier but never a sledge hammer.
Having published five books in four years, Kerr demonstrates the capability for sustained effort that is necessary to achieve a lasting place in literature. Time alone will determine the longevity of these novels, but it is worth noting that the last two are the best of the five. Short of writing a masterpiece, an author can establish a claim to fame by producing a number of superior books. M. E. Kerr is well on her way to that goal. (p. 295)
Mary Kingsbury, "The Why of People: The Novels of M. E. Kerr," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1977 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), June, 1977, pp. 288-95.
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 in I'll Love You. And I believe that the young adult audience to whom this book is addressed deserves better heroes than Sabra and Wally. (p. 294)
Janet P. Benestad, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), December, 1977.
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.
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 Kerr is one of them. But even this isn't really the way teenagers talk. Instead it is the way teenagers fondly imagine themselves to talk. There is probably one kid in every crowd who occasionally comes close. But as for the rest of them it is only in their I-wish-I-would-have-said daydreams that they sound like the characters in Kerr's books.
Nevertheless Kerr's exaggerations all fit together, and her books are undeniably fun to read. Her affable style gets readers involved so that they feel like cheering the absurdities. (p. 99)
Alleen Pace Nilsen, in English Journal (copyright © 1978 by the National Council of Teachers of English), February, 1978.
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 grandfather, the mysterious and wealthy Frank Trenker, alienated from Buddy's mother, welcomes visits from his gauche grandson, and impresses even Skye with his charm, his wisdom, his kindness, his easy and tasteful use of wealth and his nice sense of civilization. Buddy, not entirely free of snobbery himself, is delighted to have at least one presentable relative to show off to Skye. Frank Trenker—multilingual, an opera buff, a man who cooks for and feeds the wild animals near his large house—is certainly presentable. Without making an issue of it, Trenker begins to steer and shape Buddy's mind and his future.
A summer guest of the Penningtons is Nick De Lucca, an investigative reporter whose young cousin was among the Roman Jews murdered at Auschwitz in 1943 by an SS officer known as Gentlehands. (The ironic nickname arose from his custom of taunting Italian prisoners with a recording of Mario's aria from "Tosca," "O dolci mani," before sending them to their deaths.) De Lucca's anti-Nazi research has led him to Frank Trenker, whom he accuses in a detailed newspaper article of being the infamous Gentlehands.
Buddy refuses to believe it. Skye refuses to believe it. The reader—this reader, anyway—refuses to believe it….
De Lucca's documentation is flawless, however. Trenker is—was—Gentlehands. Before he can be questioned by the Immigration and Naturalization Service he disappears, leaving a note for Buddy: "I live in the present between two unfathomable clouds, what was and what will be."
Buddy is the last person to accept the incomprehensible fact of his grandfather's identity, but at the end, on a final visit to Trenker's empty, vandalized house, he accepts the truth, as he must.
The incriminating newspaper article is filled with horrible detail—strong stuff for young people; strong stuff for anyone. But Nazism, that ghastly pit of the human soul, was real, and a young generation of Americans knows of it only vaguely, if at all. There are muted connections in the book between the airy, thoughtless anti-Semitism of Skye and her crowd and the bloody nightmare of Auschwitz that haunts this pocket of the modern world.
Miss Kerr's book is important and useful as an introduction to the grotesque character of the Nazi period, as well as to the paradoxes that exist in the heart of man. Her ear for youthful American speech is superb; her understanding of youthful feelings, and youth's occasional lack of them, is sure. If she fails to explain thoroughly the alarming enigma of Frank Trenker's double life, it is only because there is, finally, no explanation possible.
Richard Bradford, "The Nazi Legacy: Undoing History," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 30, 1978, p. 30.
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 the one existing between Wally and Sabra….
Wally and Sabra share happy endings, each taking active steps towards the particular future they yearn for. Charlie, in the meantime (although not hit by a car or otherwise killed off as gay men tend to be in adolescent fiction), chooses to bury himself forever in a small town where no gay life-style is possible. So while we finally have a book with a nice straight-boy, gay-boy friendship, the future promises a sex life only to straight Wally. (p. 14)
Virginia Wilder, in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin (reprinted by permission of Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 1841 Broadway, New York, N. Y. 10023), Vol. 9, No. 3, 1978.
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.
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 insight into their own identity.
Of course, not all change is for the better. Kerr's characters have free will, and they must ultimately decide whether they are really "grabbing the reins" … and "stretching" toward the ideal … or simply toward something different. But often they can only find out by trial and error. Revolt for its own sake may not seem much better than passivity, but some of Kerr's characters must "act out" before they understand what they are really disturbed about. When Carolyn Cardmaker, for example, starts an atheists' club in Is That You. Miss Blue? she is rebelling not against religion but against a world that hypocritically exalts religion while allowing most of its clergymen (including her father) to live on the edge of indigence. Since her quarrel is really with society, she returns, in the last pages to the novel, to her church and her family. But she is more aware, at the end, of the "system" that has beaten her down…. Progress, Kerr shows us, cannot always be measured in a straight line. (pp. 37-8)
Like all Kerr's work, [Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!] deals with the many different forms of escapism to which we are all subject at one time or another—obesity, alcoholism, psychosomatic disorders—and with the prejudices and hypocrisies we often adopt. Drug addiction is just a particularly dramatic example, a metaphor used to bring Kerr's readers face to face with their own dependencies. And in every instance, in her work, the recourse is the same: one must take charge of one's own life.
All the novels follow the same basic structure: two plots centering around two characters, one ordinary and afraid to diverge from the norm …, the other in some way extraordinary and trying to reach a truce with the rest of the world…. The two plots often split off into one involving a romantic relationship and the other involving relationships between parents and children. With the exception of Dinky Hocker, all are written in the first person, and two, The Son of Someone Famous and I'll Love You When You're More Like Me, employ a variation of that technique, the double first person. The two alternating voices produce a more complex point of view and help to create dramatic irony.
Certain motifs are repeatedly used in Kerr's work to express the state of mind of her characters. Food is one; clothing is another. A third and particularly interesting one is her use of names. Many of Kerr's characters have strange names or nicknames, and explanations about their genesis appear frequently. The characters' names express the way they feel about themselves, illuminate their relationships with their parents, and allow them to adopt and reject various personae. Like P. John, children drop names to rebel against their parents, and re-assume them when they've reconciled. Mrs. Hocker attempts to wield power over her daughter by calling her "Dinky." Mothers' maiden names keep coming up, perhaps to remind children how unfair it is for women to lose a part of their identity by the simple act of marrying. It is one symbolic example of how, "if I love you, I am trapped forever." Characters also use their mothers' maiden names as alternative identities for themselves; having other available names gives them some psychic room to grow. The name changing expresses Kerr's overall theme: the struggle to define and articulate who one is, and it also makes the point that identities are always shifting. What is important is that characters feel the freedom to fiddle with what may seem unchangeable, to recognize that they are never really "stuck" unless they choose to be.
But one cannot change unless the alternatives are more appealing than what one has, and unless the action is really getting at the heart of the problem. (pp. 38-9)
[Ideologies] are generally suspect in Kerr's books. Emotion is a much more effective motivator. In Dinky Hocker especially, Kerr shows that ideological allegiances often create smokescreens which, under the right circumstances, can easily be put aside. What can't be put aside and what must guide change are the strong feelings characters have for one another. Chicago Slade [in Love Is a Missing Person] tells her sister Suzy that love can make a "missing person" of you, a "shed skin" of your old, false self….
Love also helps Kerr's characters to understand the needs and choices of those around them. Thus Chicago's love for a brilliant but poor black student, Roger Coe, makes her tolerant of her Father's infatuation with a nineteen year old former cocktail waitress. And the romances in Kerr's books often demand this kind of tolerance, for they are frequently unconventional. She encourages the notion of "chemistry," of following one's instincts. (pp. 39-40)
Perhaps the notion of chemistry and the celebration of the unconventional are important to Kerr because they involve a surrendering of the staid and sensible—the ostensibly easy but often stifling way—and an embracing by each character of something fresh and different, not only in their loved ones but ultimately in themselves. Such risk-taking relationships also make characters feel special, loved not for their persona, their conventional role, but for the real person inside themselves. At the risk of oversimplifying, I can say that all Kerr's protagonists are looking for this kind of love—love for the hidden, needy person inside of them. And what they also seek is a love that lets them be. The ideal relationship in a Kerr novel involves each character recognizing the other's strengths and weaknesses, feeling committed because of, or in spite of, those qualities, and being willing to let the other fly free. (p. 40)
While this ideal is most dramatically demonstrated in the romantic aspects of the novels, relationships between parents and children also demand acceptance and a letting go. The problems between parents and children in Kerr's works often stem exactly from the unwillingness of parents to recognize this. The parents find it difficult either to let their children make their own mistakes or to let them solve their own problems. For Kerr makes the subtle point that parents often take solace in their children's problems and the resulting dependencies, so that they frequently create "double binds" for them, urging them to change at the same time that they are covertly pressuring them to maintain old, destructive habits…. While both [Dinky's mother and P. John's father in Dinky Hocker] claim to be concerned about their children's obesity, they are ambivalent about letting them do something about it. If a rebirth is to occur, the parents want to assist at it themselves. At least then, if they lose their fat children, they can take credit for the metamorphoses. What the children are asking for, though, is something more difficult. They are asking to be loved for what they are. That will help them to change.
In her later novels, Kerr's characters deal with situations of increasing complexity and gravity. She shifts focus a bit, moving from the need for change to the point at which her characters must accept who they are and then direct themselves back to the community…. While the concerns are not far from those of the earlier works—what does one owe to one's loved ones and what does one owe to oneself—in these later works Kerr is going one step further, stating not only that one has to help oneself, but also that one ultimately has responsibilities toward others. (pp. 41-2)
Progressively, the novels … tell us to see and embrace our differences, to take responsibility for ourselves, and then, recognizing our common humanity, to move back toward those around us.
In showing her readers so many patterns of discovery, revolt, and return, M. E. Kerr is providing them with hope and a wonderful relish for the variety in human nature. Wondering why, with her impressive gifts, she did not choose to write for adults, the answer I came up with is that she likes young people better. She is sympathetic to adults, depicting their struggles throughout her books, revealing them not only as bumblers and seekers, but as occasional finders as well. But her strongest sympathies and her greatest hope seem to be with young people…. [However] squelched and trampled by life, they have the potential to grow up and out—into something not only bigger but better. (p. 42)
Patricia Runk Sweeney, "Self-discovery and Rediscovery in the Novels of M. E. Kerr," in The Lion and the Unicorn (copyright © 1978 The Lion and the Unicorn), Fall, 1978, pp. 37-42.
[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 are responsible for her popularity with young readers; it's a great pity that her writings are so devoid of a moral heart. (p. 18)
Ruth Charnes, in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin (reprinted by permission of Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 1841 Broadway, New York, N. Y. 10023), Vol. 9, No. 8, 1978.