For the past few Throwback Thursdays I’ve been reviewing a series of books put out by American Girl (yes, that’s the doll company) about a girl growing up in the 1970’s named Julie Albright. Since I was a young girl back in the 1970’s, I thought it would be fun to compare the books to my own memories of growing up in the 1970’s. I also figured that it could provide an idea for some light summer reading.
I reviewed the last of the books in the Central Series (Changes for Julie) two weeks ago. But, as I wrote previously, the Central Series weren’t the last time that anyone heard from Julie Albright. Last week I wrote about the Best Friend book (Good Luck, Ivy) but even that wasn’t the last Julie book published. Here’s some background.
When Pleasant Rowland founded the Pleasant Company, which originally made the American Girl dolls and books, she basically required that the historical character’s story would be a series of six books and the story ended with the last book in the Central Series. All that changed after Pleasant Rowland sold her company to Mattel in 1998 and the company decided to extend the historical character’s story a bit further (while getting more profits from the parents of girls who wanted to read more about their favorite historical characters). In 2004 Mattel released the first of the Best Friend dolls and corresponding books. The Best Friend book takes place in the same timeframe as the Central Series except it told the story from the view of the best friend of the main historical character.
Sure the one extra book allotted to each Best Friend resulted in more profits but it still wasn’t enough. A large corporation like Mattel has shareholders to please and executives that must be paid with huge amounts of money, etc. Someone at Mattel began to figure out how to extend the historical character’s story just a little bit more to please both little girls and Mattel’s shareholders while continuing to rake in money. The result is the Historical Character Mysteries which are mystery stories featuring the same historical character that kids have grown to love in the Central Series.
So far American Girl has released four Julie Albright books in the Historical Character Mystery series, which I’m just going to refer to as the Julie Mysteries to make typing easier. The events in the Julie Mysteries take place after both the Central Series and the Best Friend Book (Good Luck, Ivy).
The Julie Mysteries differ from the other Julie books in a few ways. The Julie Mysteries have more chapters and the stories are slightly longer than the other books. While the other books have illustrations placed throughout each book, the Julie Mysteries have only two illustrations—one at the front cover while the other is on the first two pages inside the book but that one is basically a close-up version of the front cover. The last chapter, Looking Back, is the only chapter where the reader can find pictures placed alongside the text.
The cover illustrations are done in a style that’s reminiscent of the covers of the Nancy Drew mysteries.
The first book of the Julie Mysteries, The Tangled Web, has a new author, Kathryn Reiss, who has written a number of stories for children and young adults. The illustrations were done by Jean-Paul Tibbles, who has illustrated many other American Girl books.
The one thing to keep in mind about the Julie books is that they were written for a target audience of girls between the ages 8-12. As a result there won’t be an in-depth look at certain controversial issues of the day.
The Tangled Web was originally published in 2009, two years after the books in the Central Series and Good Luck, Ivy. The story in The Tangled Web begins soon after the events in the last book in the Central Series, Changes for Julie.
Synopsis: Julie Albright is a 10-year-old white girl with long blonde hair and brown eyes growing up in 1976 San Francisco. Her parents are divorced so she spends most of her time living with her mother, who operates her store full of handcrafted items called Gladrags, and her 16-year-old sister, Tracy, in a small apartment that’s located above her mother’s store. On most weekends she stays with her father, a commercial airline pilot, in the same home that the entire family lived in before the divorce. During her visits with her father, she gets a chance to spend some quality time with her pet brown rabbit, Nutmeg (who has to stay with her father because her mother’s apartment complex doesn’t allow pets), and play with her best friend who lives across the street, Ivy Ling.
It’s November, 1976 and Julie’s mom is planning on Thanksgiving dinner where she will invite some Vietnam War veterans from the local veterans’ rehabilitation center. (She decided to do this after her friend Hank the Vietnam War vet told her about how some of the men don’t have families to visit this Thanksgiving Day.) Her sister Tracy has been arguing a lot with their mom over wanting to use the car to drive everywhere.
One foggy night Julie looks outside her bedroom window and sees a mysterious figure with a long brown ponytail carrying an umbrella and a large shopping bag. This person was going through garbage cans looking for something she could take. The figure goes to Julie’s mom’s trashcan and takes a lamp that was on sale at Gladrags until Julie’s mom discarded it hours earlier because no one wanted to buy it due to its chipped paint and cracked lampshade.
The next day a new student arrives in Julie’s fifth grade class whose name is Carla Warner. Julie decides to reach out to Carla just like she did with deaf student Joy Jenner in Changes for Julie because Julie knows what it’s like to be the new girl in school since that was her situation last year. Julie invites Carla to sit with her, Joy, and her other friend T.J. at the lunch table. Carla tells the table that she comes from a family of three boys and three girls, she lives in one of San Francisco’s famous “painted ladies” Victorian-era homes, and she has a twin brother who goes to a separate private school because he is a serious piano student.
Except, as anyone over American Girl’s 8-12 targeted age group will notice more quickly than its intended audience, there are a few discrepancies with what Carla has told her new classmates. For one, Carla doesn’t know the name of that private school that her twin brother attends (which she initially tells her fellow classmates is named Tim but later tells Julie that his name is really Tom) until she glances outside the window during lunch and sees a Maxwell House Coffee billboard and says that her brother goes to the Maxwell Academy, even though no such private school by that name even exists in San Francisco. (Julie learns about that only after Tracy goes through the phone book looking for the Maxwell Academy in the hopes of meeting one of Carla’s older brothers, who’s supposed to be the same age as Tracy, who also attends that school with Carla’s twin brother.)
Carla also seems obsessed with trying too hard to be just like her classmates. When Joy gives her friends an update on her new baby brother, whom her parents recently adopted after he arrived to the U.S. as part of the massive arrival of orphaned children from Vietnam, Carla feels the need to claim that she, too, has a baby sister who’s the exact same age. Carla says the baby sister’s name is Debbie at the precise moment that Joy takes a Little Debbie cupcake out of her lunchbox.
Julie finds Carla likable enough to invite her over to her mother’s apartment after school. She shows Carla her mother’s Gladrags shop before going upstairs to the apartment. Carla notices Julie’s photo of her and her sister that was taken during a trip to Pennsylvania for the Bicentennial last summer (which was the main subject of the Central Series book Julie’s Journey) and tells Julie that her family has traveled to more places like Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, and Italy, which makes Julie envious because her family haven’t traveled together as much as Carla said her family did. At the end of the visit Julie’s mom offers Carla a ride back to her home while Tracy volunteers to be the driver (since it would give her another chance to pursue her newfound love of driving a car) but Carla refused saying that she can use the exercise.
As time goes on Julie begins to notice more discrepancies in Carla’s stories about her family. The fact that Carla won’t invite Julie over to her family’s painted lady Victorian house only further fuels Julie’s suspicions about that new girl in her class. During a weekend visit with her father, Julie’s dad takes Julie and her best friend Ivy to the local farmers’ market where they see Carla working a stall that belongs to Earthlight Farm. Julie also discovers that Carla’s boss is the same person she spotted that foggy night sifting through garbage cans in her mother’s neighborhood. When Julie and Ivy express interest in working with Carla at the Earthlight Farm stall to earn extra money, Carla discourages them telling them that her boss is an ogre who’s also a crook. She says that her family knows the owner of Earthlight Farm and the owner had told Carla’s father that he suspects that Carla’s boss is embezzling from the farm. Even though Carla had previously told Julie and her classmates that her father is a doctor, she tells Julie that her dad is now retired from practicing medicine and he currently works for the FBI. Carla got the job at the farmers’ market in order to help her dad gather evidence against her boss. But Julie later learns that there are even discrepancies with that story as well.
While Julie is trying to figure out who Carla Warner really is, she meets some Vietnam vets at the veterans’ rehabilitation center where she gets first-hand exposure to the men who have suffered both physical and mental wounds as the result of fighting in the war.
The story ends with this quote from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Marmion”, which also provided the inspiration for the book’s title:
O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive.
The last chapter, Looking Back, starts with explaining what a painted lady house is alongside a photo of a row of San Francisco painted ladies from the 1970’s. The chapter discusses how buildings started to be retrofitted with ramps and doors to accommodate the disabled, which was fueled by the efforts of disabled rights activists like Judy Heumann. There is a description of both the Vietnam Babylift and the plight of Vietnam veterans after they returned back to the United States from wartime along with a discussion of PTSD that’s on a level that a young child can easily understand. The chapter finishes with a discussion on how there was a greater emphasis on healthy eating in the 1970’s with the rise of farmers’ markets and eating locally grown produce.
Music Mentioned in This Book
“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
The theme song from The Brady Bunch
The theme song from Gilligan’s Island
Movies, Books, and Television Shows Mentioned
Real-Life People Mentioned
News and Other Stuff From the Era Mentioned
Maxwell House Coffee
Ms. Being Used as an Honorific by Women
Painted Ladies Victorian Homes
Portable Cassette Tape Recorder
My Own Impressions Based on My Own Experience With the 1970’s:
The Tangled Web was a pretty enjoyable read even though I sort of figured out what Carla’s real story was by Chapter 6 when, during a visit to the veterans’ rehabilitation center, Julie unsuccessfully tried to reach out to a young Vietnam vet who’s obviously suffering from PTSD and I correctly figured out that he somehow was related to Carla’s real family situation (as opposed to the fake family she made up for the benefit of Julie and the other classmates).
The book provides a great lesson on why it’s bad to lie, especially when telling a big lie like Carla did regarding her family. The book shows that, as time went on, Carla had a harder time keeping her story straight (such as changing the name of her twin brother). Like Mark Twain once said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
The book mentions not only the plight of Vietnam vets who suffered physical and mental injuries but it also mentions how not all divorced fathers remain in close contact with their children like Julie’s father did. I know that this is true among my own extended family. I have one female relative whose ex-husband kept in close contact with their son after the divorce, who stuck with the visitation schedule, and was pretty good about paying child support on a regular basis. I have another female relative with the opposite experience. Her ex-husband rarely had anything to do with their two daughters after the divorce and there were times when he didn’t even make child support payments.
If you read enough criticisms about the current economic situation in the U.S. and the much hyped War on the Middle Class, you’d come to the conclusion that prior to 1980 everything was a jobs nirvana where anyone can get a job very easily and people all lived happily in nice houses. The book does a good job at mentioning that not all families had it so good even in the supposedly more innocent times of the 1970’s and that, yes, there were families like Carla’s who lived a threadbare existence even back then. I knew some poor kids whose families were on welfare when I was in high school and there was one time when I was invited to visit one of them in the trailer park where her family lived. It was definitely a different existence with a liquor store that was located near the entrance to the trailer park and there were guys hanging around outside that store drinking their newly purchased booze. (I can remember when that girl told me that her mother had forbidden her children from going anywhere near that liquor store because of all the drinkers hanging around constantly.) The biggest difference in poverty between the 1970’s and today is that you’d rarely see a homeless person back then aside from the occasion bag lady I used to see sometimes whenever I was in Baltimore who would just sit quietly on a bench with all her possessions in a shopping bag (which was why these women were dubbed “bag ladies” back then). Nowadays I see people begging even in the parking lot of a suburban shopping center and some of them can be quite aggressive at panhandling.
When Julie and Carla heated and ate Jiffy-Pop Popcorn brought back memories for me because that product was such a big deal among most kids back in the 1970’s. I thought it was so cool to see the aluminum foil rise up like a ball as the popcorn popped over the stovetop that I ignored the fact that Jiffy-Pop only popped half the popcorn that was packaged in that product. (Sometimes, if I was lucky, I might get 75% of the kernels popped but that was rare.)
I have to admit that the brief references to handcrafted macramé items in both this book and Changes for Julie brought back memories because macramé was THE biggest trendy craft in the 1970’s (kind of like how scrapbooking is now THE biggest trendy craft today where, if you walk into any big box arts and crafts store, you’ll see aisles and aisles of scrapbooking materials on sale). I even got into it myself. I remember making two wall hangings—one a frog and the other an owl—that hung on my bedroom wall until I left for college.
The scene where Tracy sings Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” at the precise moment the song is playing on the car radio brings back memories of a time when that song was heavily played on the radio because it was such a huge hit back in the day. I also remember the numerous times my ex-husband and I saw The Boss in concert because my ex was a really big fan. (I liked his music too but I like music from other bands as well.) I get wistful these days whenever I hear that Bruce Springsteen is on yet another concert tour because I’m currently a bit too cash-strapped to be going to concerts on a regular basis. (The fact that tickets have gotten so expensive in recent years haven’t helped.)
The book mentions how farmers’ markets got their start in the 1970’s. There wasn’t a farmers’ market in the town I grew up in back in the 1970’s (Glen Burnie, Maryland) but the housing development where we lived was located near the border with the next town, Severn, and when you crossed that line it quickly went from being suburban to rural with mostly farms. One of the farmers decided to set up a produce stand where, during the spring and summer months, you could purchase tomatoes and other produce that were grown right on that farm. I can remember many Sundays when I would attend Mass at the nearby Catholic church with my mother and grandmother then we would all drive over to that farm to purchase some tomatoes. In time the stand was named Papa John’s Farm (not to be confused with the Papa John’s Pizza chain). I haven’t been there since I moved away but, after doing a quick Google search, I’ve found that this produce stand is still in business.
I liked the last chapter’s description of the Vietnam War. I still remember the day when North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam and there were chaos as people scrambled to leave that country, including the number of children who were part of that Vietnam Babylift. I’ll never forget when my Social Studies teacher started class with a rant over how angry he was that the U.S. had spent so much money on that war only to have the South Vietnamese not even use the weapons to defend themselves against the invading North Vietnamese and how he felt that so much money was spent and so many people gave their lives for nothing. My uncle was in the army at that time but he was drafted at the tail end of Vietnam so he was never sent there. (Instead he ended up in other parts of the world, like the time when he was in South Korea and he had to pull 24-hour shifts guarding the DMZ.) I remember hearing about people who adopted some of those kids who from that Vietnam Babylift but I never personally met any families like that when I was growing up. The closest I could cite in my own life is the husband of one of my cousins whose family adopted an orphan from Korea so that white guy grew up with a Korean brother.
I’ve written here before about why I consider Julie’s older sister Tracy to be my least favorite character. The beginning of chapter six in The Tangled Web provided yet another reason. Tracy goes behind the wheel of the car while driving Julie and their mother to the veterans’ rehab center to pick up the turkey that will be cooked for the veterans on Thanksgiving Day. When they arrive, Tracy says “I’ll wait in the car. I don’t want to see a bunch of depressing old dudes in wheelchairs before I have to.” Tracy’s mom keeps her mouth shut while Julie volunteers to go with her inside the center. I know that Tracy is supposed to be 16 and teenagers can be a bit thick-headed and insensitive at times but that statement was infuriating. If I had uttered something like that at Tracy’s age, my parents would’ve immediately gone ballistic on me while lecturing me on how these soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice so we could all live in freedom while telling me not to forget that I have an uncle who was serving in the U.S. Army while I was attending high school and my uncle would’ve been extremely pissed had he heard me say that. When I read that sentence, I found myself being so glad that Tracy is a fictional character because, otherwise, I would’ve felt sorely tempted to punch her in the face. Especially since the book portrays Tracy as being happy only when she’s behind the wheel of a car driving. When she’s not driving, she’s a totally unpleasant person.
The book’s mention that Carla’s mother is attending college in order to land a better paying job is such a throwback to those times when a college degree was definitely the key to a better life and it was basically true prior to 1980. I bought that line from my high school teachers and I wanted to have a job with more of a future than the jobs my parents worked at. My father spent his career working behind the counter in the auto parts section of a car dealership he rarely talked about his work. My mother, on the other hand, worked as a secretary and was later promoted to office manager and she used to come home from work and frequently gripe to my grandmother over how much she hates her job, her bosses, and some of her co-workers.
So I got my bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland at College Park in Journalism with a minor in Government and Politics. I did an internship (with a now-defunct newspaper in Silver Spring called The Suburban Record) and wrote articles for the school paper The Diamondback. The paid jobs I have gotten since college were mainly clerical jobs because, despite my degree and experience, they were the only ones I was offered. What was really frustrating is that they were the kind of jobs that my mother used to get with only a high school diploma but, by the time I came of age, they started to require bachelor’s degrees for new hires.
I knew that journalism jobs were relatively hard to get but I figured that I could get a job in public relations as a fallback. Except I struck out on getting PR jobs despite my education and experience. On top of that there have been media consolidation after media consolidation since the 1980’s which has resulted in more editors and reporters losing their jobs and less diversity in viewpoints.
At one point I tried to upgrade my skills so I could get a better paying job. I took a stab at attending a now-defunct art school (which has since merged with a community college) because the school promised more practical training than the traditional method of just studying fine arts so you can create paintings in the hopes that a museum or art dealer will buy them. I ended up dropping out for a variety of reasons including the fact that I had a full-time job at the time and the school wasn’t exactly welcoming to students like myself who could only take classes on evenings and weekends. (One example was when my name appeared on a list of students whom the dean wanted to talk to by a certain date for some reason—I never learned why. Unfortunately the dean’s office hours were only during the weekdays when I was at work and that list was posted at such a late date that I didn’t even see it until a few days before that due date. Seeing that list was the last straw for me and I ended up dropping out.)
I subsequently took a series of Continuing Education classes in desktop publishing through George Washington University where I learned Dreamweaver, Flash, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Quark XPress. I got a certificate and I still couldn’t get anyone to hire me even though I was doing volunteer work with editing and laying out the newsletter for my church at that time. Nothing I did seemed to be good enough experience for employers.
I’m not the only person this happened to. I’ve known others who are in the same boat as me but I can’t tell their stories since I don’t have permission to do so. But this blog post on Thom Hartmann’s website suggests that it is the case while a study posted on The Los Angeles Times also confirms this.
Where to Buy The Tangled Web
The American Girl Julie Albright Books List
The Original Central Series
The Best Friend Book
The Julie Mysteries
The BeForever Books
Other Media Featuring Julie
And the Tiara Goes to…—A film short based on the Julie books.