Thursday, January 26, 2006

Peyton Place

2006 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Peyton Place. Grace Metalious lived as an adult in Gilmanton Iron Works, and folks in that part of NH believe the book is an expose about small-town NH. Well, sort of. Grace wrote the book as an adult, and the cynical behind-the-scenes look at what respectable families were like is certainly not a child’s vision even in the worst of circumstances. And maybe the folks in Gilmanton had guilty consciences or something.

But Grace DeRepentigny grew up in Manchester, on the corner of Beech and Blodget. She went to Straw School and to Manchester Central, as I did, but they didn’t advertise the connection to young people in those days. When she died in 1964 I was in 5th grade at Straw, and no one mentioned it.

The street names in Peyton Place are not uncommon for New England in general, but how they are placed and what sort of folk live on them is pure Manchester. My mother and aunt grew up playing with Grace’s younger sister Bunny – and later, my mother was Bunny’s probation officer when, as my uncle says, “she was caught peddling her butt downtown.” That uncle was a year younger than Grace, and as much as he noticed her at all, didn’t like her much. The DeRepentigny family was abusive and irrational. To use the current word “dysfunctional” would be too mild. In retrospect, given Grace and Bunny’s Borderline-y tendencies, it seems likely that they were sexually molested, as was later claimed.

There are two ways to frame the scandals in Peyton Place. What the nation wanted to read – and later watch – was that respectable people had skeletons in the closet. Such things usually sell well, and fit with the egalitarianism and underdog-rooting of our culture. They’re not so big as they think. Lo, how the mighty have fallen. But the same data looks different if you spin it from an abused child’s perspective instead of a cynical adult’s. Horrible people are being treated as if they’re respectable. To a child, abused and invisible, this would be the real outrage.

I think the latter framing is stronger in the book. The adult cynicism is not the core, but the later explanation imposed on the anger of a girl in her early teens looking out at an unfair world.

I have wondered if Cynthia and Jean were any part ofthe girls in Peyton Place who have these seemingly perfect lives and are clearly resented by the narrator.

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