Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This should be required reading....

(Note: This entry will be rife with spoilers!)

When I was a teenager, I ordered a paperback copy of a little novel called I Want to Keep My Baby through the Scholastic book orders. It was about a teen girl who got pregnant and whose teen boyfriend refused to marry her. She decided to keep the baby and raise it on her own. I think the reason I bought it was because I was curious about sex, and reading about it in a book (although I don't remember there being very much, ha ha) was preferable to talking about it with my parents.

Well, that was a long time ago, and the world has changed a lot, but some things haven't changed. Teens are still curious about sex, and they generally don't want to talk to their parents about it. And they don't have to - messages about sex are everywhere in popular culture. Watch a half-hour of music videos, in any genre -- flip through the ads and articles in popular magazines -- read the books at the top of the young adult list -- you'll see plenty about sex, and most of it is much more explicit than anything in I Want to Keep My Baby. However, there's one thing you don't see a lot of, and that's consequences of sex.

That's why I say Ann Turnbull's fine historical novel, Alice in Love and War, should be required reading, at least for teen girls. Alice is one of them, albeit living 300+ years ago. She feels stifled and trapped on the farm owned by her aunt and uncle, who adopted her when her father died. She's 16 years old, old enough to be recognized as a sexual being (including by her uncle, who has recently begun to make advances toward her). She longs for escape and love. Both present themselves in the form of Robin, a handsome, flirting young soldier with the Cavilier army (this is during the English Civil War). Alice falls hard for Robin, and provoked by the fear that he will be leaving soon when the army moves on, she gives her virginity to him in a clandestine meeting in an abandoned shepherd's hut.

Part of Alice knows she shouldn't have done it, but she justifies her decision by convincing herself that Robin loves her - the fact that he wants to make love to her proves that, doesn't it? When the army is ready to move on, she begs Robin to take her with him, and he does. For the next several months, Alice follows the army. She is very lonely, even though she makes friends; she has little time to be with Robin -- except at night, when he always manages to find a place where the two of them can be together. Just before the army is going on leave for winter, Alice discovers she is pregnant. When she tells Robin, he evades her insistence that he must marry her, and when she wakes the next morning, he's gone. He's left her a note and some money, but no mention of marriage or of a way she can contact him.

Long story short, Alice goes through the pain and heartbreak of miscarrying the baby. When Robin does return in the spring, Alice has to seek him out and confront him, at which time he confesses that he is already married and had, in fact, gone home for the birth of his second child with his wife. Alice has made friends among the wives of other soldiers, so she remains with the army. Eventually, however, her friends are killed and she manages to find refuge in a small village nearby. There she meets a Parliamentary soldier who is severely wounded, and she helps nurse him back to health. As she sits by his bed and reads to him and talks to him, she falls in love with him, but she fears a godly man like Jem will never have anything to do with a woman with her history. When Jem returns to the army, they continue a correspondence, and eventually he asks her to marry him. Alice gets a happy ending, after all.

I think there are so many messages of value in this story for young women. Yes, one of them is that sex is a pleasurable thing that draws people together. However, the story also brings home the message that if the situation surrounding the sex is not right, the worry and insecurity and shame outweigh any pleasure. From the first time Alice slept with Robin, she was worried - about losing him, about the perceptions of other people, about becoming pregnant. She constantly has to reassure herself that he loves her, drawing on any little sign she can muster - or manufacture. Her married friends and their intimate knowledge of their husbands (and I mean "intimate" in the sense of knowing something deeply, not just sexually) contrasts sharply with the fact that Alice knows almost nothing about Robin, and she feels that lack. She tells herself that Robin takes care of her, but looking at it from the outside, we can see that he leaves her to fend for herself during the day, reappearing each night to take her somewhere that they can be together - even if that place is shared with a dozen other couples. There's no getting around it - Alice made a mistake, and even when she won't admit it to herself, she knows it.

I'm glad Turnbull redeemed Alice in the end, though, and gave us a picture of a positive courtship. Through the sickbed conversations and their letters, Alice and Jem come to know each other as people long before the relationship becomes a sexual one. Wait, I take that back. Alice feels herself attracted to Jem fairly early in their relationship, and I'm sure the same is true of Jem. But they don't allow that attraction to get out of control and to dominate the relationship. Their sexual attraction to each other is only one facet of their entire, healthy relationship. On their wedding night, Alice "felt not only passionate but also safe and certain in a way she had never felt with Robin."

In my humble opinion, that's the message teens need to get about sex. Parents and teachers and preachers may say it over and over, but I think sometimes a story may be more effective in allowing teens to reach their own conclusions. And that's why I think this book ought to be required reading.

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