By Jonathan Bradley

Next moment she found that what she was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. “Why, it is just like branches of trees!” exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and hard was falling on her. A moment later, she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.

Entering America, even only in terms of considering it in a cultural sense, I feel like Lucy stumbling into Narnia. Not only is there the feeling of everything being the same but different, there’s also the sense of utter remove from the world I am used to, a sense rarely found in cultural artifacts created in many other Western countries. American culture makes sense out of American insularity; within it, the rest of the world seems impossibly distant. I am always attracted to items of Americana that capture this remove.

These items can be found in the most unexpected of places. Earlier this year, for instance, I was reading the classic Judy Blume young adult novel Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. I had a good reason for doing so: I’d been denied the opportunity to finish it as a sixth grader, and it really is the kind of book you should be able to say you’ve read, even if you’d rather not say you read it as a 25 year old postgraduate student[1]. Lizzie Skurnick, writing at the self-described women’s Web site Jezebel said that, as an adult, she felt like she was spying by following the exploits of the pre-adolescent Margaret Simon. My reading was similar, but unlike Skurnick, I never even lived the experiences in question. To say that I felt slightly unsavoury in my perusal of this novel is an understatement.

But I’m not here today to discuss first crushes or menstrual cycles. What did stand out to me on my reading of this novel was a pair of passages that had a distinct Welcome to Narnia feel about them; paragraphs that distinguished this coming-of-age novel as something that was happening definitively in America, and not in some generic Western suburbia.

I was really surprised when I came home from camp and found out our New York apartment had been rented to another family and we owned a house in Farbrook, New Jersey. First of all I never even heard of Farbrook. And second of all, I’m not usually left out of important family decisions.

But when I groaned, “Why New Jersey?” I was told, “Long Island is too social — Westchester is too expensive — and Connecticut is too inconvenient.”

So Farbrook, New Jersey it was, where my father could commute to his job in Manhattan, where I could go to public school, and where my mother could have all the grass, trees and flowers she ever wanted. Except I never knew she wanted all that stuff in the first place.

The new house is in Morningbird Lane. It isn’t bad. It’s part brick, part wood. The shutters and front door are painted black. Also, there’s a very nice brass knocker. Every house on our new street looks a lot the same. They are all seven years old. So are the trees.

It is not just the references to the locations on the Atlantic seaboard — though they do help. It’s the specific narrative of white flight told in the transition Margaret’s family makes to the New Jersey suburbs. Magaret explains the move to us in terms of self-realization; her father can more effectively control his life by spatially seperating his domestic and professional activities and her mother has a blank slate (trees, flowers) upon which to develop her and her family’s life. The wide-spaces and architectural conformity of the New Jersey exurbs is understood to be a step up the ladder, even if Margaret approaches it with a level of ambivalence Skurnick relates to the character’s impending adolescence:

Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible….was there ever a greater metaphor for the terror one feels at the onset of pubescence? … But, in her merest, timid request, the person of Margaret Simon … puts her finger exactly on how it feels to start to grow up. It’s not like an exciting trip to Radio City Music Hall with Grandma. It’s a long, featureless ride in the other direction, culminating in an blank exit ramp off a highway into a town without anyone you know.

Skurnick’s description is in itself uniquely American, too; she uses geography to seperate the domestic suburbs from the commercial and cultural hub of the city, and her reference to a “blank exit ramp” is telling in that she defines locations by their relationship to Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate highway system. (It is doubtful, for instance, that a Sydneysider would describe Parramatta or Blacktown by referencing the roads one takes to get there.)

American Suburbia is, for the Simons, like it was for a lot of Americans, a means of greater self-determination, a place where citizens could choose what elements of the wider world to incorporate into their lives instead of having them thrust upon them by the close proximity of the urban environment.

There is also the matter of Margaret being “able” to attend public school in New Jersey. Is this because of a lack of private schools in her new area, or does it carry the implication that while the middle-class, assumedly white, New Jersey schools were acceptable for a girl like Margaret, the more-diverse Manhattan public schools were not? After all, there is a reason why white flight was known as white flight.

So Margaret’s family, right from the beginning of the novel moves up by moving out, creating a secure environment, hermetically sealed environment for Margaret to live out her bildungsroman.

And yet, it isn’t only boys, ‘burbs and boobs on our young American protagonist’s mind:

“Oh Gretchen!” Janie said. “You and that Hebrew school business. Can’t you get out of it?”

“I’d love to,” Gretchen explained. “But I’ve got one more year and then I’m through.”

“What about you, Margaret? Do you go?” Janie asked me.

“You mean to Hebrew school?”

“Yes.”

“No, I don’t go,” I said.

“Margaret doesn’t even go to Sunday school. Isn’t that right,” Nancy asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“How’d you arrange that?” Gretchen asked.

“I’m not any religion,” I said.

“You’re not?” Gretchen’s mouth fell open.

“What are your parents?” Janie asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“How positively neat!” Gretchen said.

“But if you aren’t any religion, how are you going to know if you should join the Y or the Jewish Community Center?” Janie asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I never thought about it. Maybe we won’t join either one.”

But everybody belongs to one or the other,” Nancy said.

I love that Janie’s immediate concern about Margaret’s lack of religious association concerns how it will affect her socially. Janie isn’t worried that Margaret is amoral, and she doesn’t try to convert her: all she wants to know is how her new friend will resolve the difficulty of choosing which youth-targeted activities she will participate in.

It lends credence to my view that in America, religiousness is the default state; even if Margaret isn’t any faith, she is assumed to be something. When she tells her friends she is not, she is treated as an exotic oddity (“How positively neat!”), and she spends the rest of the book unsuccessfully trying to correct her idiosyncracy.[2] Religion in this passage has nothing to do with God or the reason for existence or the afterlife — or creation theories, or school prayer, or abortion, or any hot-button political or theological issue. It’s just a neutral marker of who you are and what sort of things you do in society. Try to imagine a group of Australian twelve year olds having the quoted conversation. It’s very difficult.

I do find it awkward that the  elements of American society that I see as being distinctly representative of the country as a whole are white and suburban. There is nothing about Margaret’s Jewish, New York grandmother, for instance, that is in the slightest bit unAmerican. Indeed, she is almost an American stock character. And yet there remains in my mind (and, I believe, in the minds of many millions of other people) a picture of America that is more Farbrook, NJ than Manhattan.

But if this picture of America was ever true, it is changing. Increased Hispanic immigration, intra-national migration changing the face of the country’s cities, and a more diverse political base have created an America that looks something not quite like the opening pages of Are You There God… Yet even now, those interstate exits, identical houses and casual discussions of religious affiliation pull me in through the wardrobe doors.

[1] But hey, I understand Sonia Sotomayer was doing much the same thing, so if it works for a SCOTUS nominee…

[2] In a not unusual display of American individualism, she eventually decides she can follow her own path.

All USSSoc blog posts reflect the opinions of the writer, and are not reflective of the views of the USSSoc.

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