Jane St. Anthony: What, after all, is normal?




BY JANE ST. ANTHONY

In seventh grade, Patrick handed a note to me. It didn’t travel far. Patrick and I sat side by side, our desks aligned. Sandra sat directly behind Patrick, and Steven was behind me. When Sister Evangeline wasn’t watching us, seventh grade felt like a jolly double date in a convertible.

“I love Jane,” Patrick had written. “I really do.” It was signed with his full name.

I carried the note in the inside pocket of my brown corduroy winter jacket for a very long time.

Did I know what it felt like to be loved? I believed I did and it was thrilling.

As the size of our class grew from forty-eight to fifty-four, the drama increased—whether spoken, observed, or written on scraps of paper. Alliances were forged and sometimes broken. Mystery, embarrassment, hilarity, secrets, defeat, redemption, acclaim were experienced in one room with one Dominican nun in charge.

Is this what author Willa Cather meant when she wrote, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen”?

In Whatever Normal Is, Margaret, Grace, and Isabelle are best friends, with Margaret and Grace having forged an alliance in first grade. They first appear in The Summer Sherman Loves Me, set in the summer before seventh grade, and Grace stars in her own book, Grace Above All, the next summer. Gentle Isabelle joins them in eighth grade in Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart.

In Whatever Normal Is, the girls are high school juniors.

Feeling uncertain and somewhat invisible, Margaret focuses on the end of high school. Isabelle accepts it as her destiny. The outspoken Grace proposes a blueprint for happiness: a job, a car, and a boyfriend.

And so Grace presses to expand their worlds.

She achieves the first goal—a job, where she eyes a co-worker named Teddy almost as much as the pie counter she manages.

But Teddy’s attention is on Margaret, who agonizes over telling Grace.

Sometimes Isabelle must mediate. When Margaret falters—overwhelmed by keeping the secret of Teddy from Grace—Isabelle steps in.

I promise you, Grace,” said Margaret. “I promise that I will never keep anything from you again. I was wrong.”
“I’m going inside now. I’m done with this crap,“ [Grace] continued, as she slowly stood. “Anyway, it wasn’t about Teddy. It was about you committing a sin of omission. It’s what you didn’t say. That’s what hurts the most.” She stared at Margaret. “I suppose that maybe we can get past this at some time if you stop weeping all over the steps right now.”
“Kiss and make up,” Isabelle said, as Margaret put her head on Grace’s shoulder and cried harder. Grace seemed to be carved out of granite. But her arm began to move stiffly, and she patted Margaret’s back while her face remained stoical.

And as Teddy becomes closer to Margaret, he wrestles with his own reasons for needing her.

As a daydreamer and wanna-be writer, I didn’t realize all the material to be hoarded simply by being alive, at any age, in any place.

What, after all, is normal?

What does it feel like to be loved?

These are some of the questions, “the basic material,” as Willa Cather called it, that inform my stories.

——-

Jane St. Anthony is author of Whatever Normal Is, The Summer Sherman Loved Me, Grace Above All, and Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart, which was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and won the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for Young Adult and Middle Grade. She lives in Minneapolis and works with young writers.

“Jane St. Anthony keenly captures the essence of coming of age: that irreversible moment of discovery that the world is much greater and deeper than you have imagined—and that other people’s lives are as big as your own.”
—Jane O’Reilly, author of The Secret of Goldenrod


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