Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Prequel's Out of the Bag or: Want to Trade Two Brothers For a Cat?

Story Order: #1
Publication Order: #6 (1989)
Time Covered: April of 4th Grade to midsummer

I debated for a long time whether to go in publication or story order. I decided on story because, as you will see, publication order is kind of fucked up. Want to Trade Two Brothers For a Cat? is the first chronological story about Linda Berman. From what I can gather from my super sleuthing, this book was published in between My Heart Belongs to That Boy and All For the Love of That Boy, two high school books.

And why? Seriously, why? Girls who have grown up with Linda are not going to want to back track to 4th grade, especially when the story has little/nothing to do with her love life, which of course, is the driving force behind the rest of the books.

But for the sake of this blog, let’s pretend that I myself just finished 4th grade and I recently learned that this is the first book in a series. This is the natural starting point. This is where I must begin.

Plot Summary
It all starts on a rainy April day when Linda’s younger twin brothers, Ira and Joey, are bothering her. She is nine. They are five. And they stole her comic books! Oh, the horror. I sense they have issues.

To escape her brothers, Linda goes down to spoiled Brenda Roman’s apartment, as per her request. Brenda shows off her brand new, cleverly monikered parrot, Pretty Boy. Due to some French farce, Pretty Boy escapes into the living room and the two girls work to get him back in his cage, but not without prissy Brenda getting bird shit on her shoulder. (Heh, heh, heh.)

Chapter 2 brings us Linda’s first declaration as a Tomboy. She doesn’t care about losing Brenda Roman as a friend as long as she has her boy friends (note that space!)--nerdy Danny Kopler, normal (?) Teddy Pappas, and brutish Billy Upton. But that’s not what’s currently upsetting her. Linda wants a pet. A dog, specifically, for her tenth birthday in June.

She runs this past her “Ma” who notes that a dog in a two bedroom apartment in NYC is ridiculous. Her Dad also says no, but suggests a kitten. Linda (like most pre-pubescent girls) jumps at this idea. After all, kittens are so “cute and cuddly and loveable”.

Oh, Christ. Fuzzy face!

Linda informs Danny, an eleven-year-old genius who taught himself calculus, about getting a cat. He suggests starving the poor thing to teach it tricks and turn it into a “super cat”. Swell kid, this Danny. Naturally, Linda refuses but Danny is surprised.
“Usually I am so glad to be around [Danny] that I go along with whatever he wants to do.”
(Is there a hint romance for this creepy, sadist geek?)

In lieu of torture, Linda and Danny go to the library to learn all things feline and how to care for her new pet. They learn several interesting facts. (Did you know cats see better in the dark? And their ears have thirty muscles! Radical!) Of course, Ira and Joey have to come too (Oh brother!) and Linda is pissed that they get to check out six books and she can only pick out two! Life is so unfair!

By the time Linda’s birthday rolls around, the kittens are born. She picks a grey, splotchy one with a tendency to scratch. She names her Scratchy. Clever girl. (This coming from the girl who named her first two cats Tuffy and Simba).

I won’t bore you with the details. It was hard enough for my adult sensibilities to get through the first time. So let me sum up: Scratchy has a hard time getting home. Scratchy has a rough first night. Scratchy learns to use the litter box. Scratchy learns to roll over with a Cheese Doodle as an incentive. Scratchy almost fights an alley cat.

On the Fourth of July, Linda enters Scratchy in a pet contest which Brenda Roman’s Pretty Boy is also competing. Then there’s Matthew Bainbridge with his dog, Winston. Matthew had been in Linda’s class last year.
“He had dark curly hair and big brown eyes and he played a good game of ball. I had always thought he was pretty nice and pretty cute.” 
(OOOHHH shit!)

But despite Matthew’s obvious cuteness, his dog attacks Linda and Scratchy runs away. She throws dirt in Matthew’s face but then reconciles with him to find her cat up a tree. He offers to give Linda a boost.
“Matthew didn’t look angry anymore. In fact, he was smiling as if he wanted to be friends…This made me madder than ever, so mad I couldn’t help but wonder how I had ever thought Matthew was the slightest bit cute. He certainly didn’t look cute now, with dirt smeared all over his over his face!”
Linda manages to bribe Scratchy out of the tree, but not in time for the pet contest. Both Scratchy and Winston are ineligible, so Linda and Matthew watch the contest. (Pretty Boy wins Best Bird…Grrrr!) The two spend the day together, enjoying the holiday festivities, but Matthew informs Linda that his family just moved to New Jersey so days like this won’t become a regular thing.

Soon, Scratchy begins wreaking havoc by destroying potted plants and jumping on the table. Ma gives an ultimatum: if Scratchy doesn’t start behaving, she has to find another home. (Damn, that was quick!) Also in this chock full Chapter 11, Linda’s dad informs her she will be attending Camp Winnipeg later in the summer. Brenda Roman’s mother has some pull there, you see. If Linda can’t train Scratchy by the time she goes to camp, the cat is out.

Linda turns to Danny for more intensive training. It seems to work, until Ma’s Bridge party. Her finely prepared meal of tuna mousse (Gack!), quiche, and Brie is ruined by Scratchy and that’s it. Linda sadly searches for a new home for Scratchy.

Mmmm...break me off a piece of that!

During a game of stoopball (ha, ha, New York), Scratchy escapes, some shit happens and Ira and Joey end up graciously saving her. It turns out those little twerps actually liked the cat and behaved badly because they were jealous. Linda offers to be “co-owners” with Joey and Ira. (Really nice, since it’s the night before she leaves for camp and Scratchy has to leave!)

Suddenly, deus ex machina, Linda receives a list of all the kids going to Camp Winnipeg with their addresses and phone numbers. Among them is Matthew Bainbridge, newly living in New Jersey with a big yard. An hour later, Matthew and his family come to pick up Scratchy.
“I looked over at Matthew, who was still smiling at me. Now that I knew he was going to be there, the idea of three weeks away at Camp Winnipeg was something I was starting to look forward to!”
Yes, me too!

Ugh…okay. This is technically the second time I read this book. The first time was after I bought if off Amazon in the great Collect the Linda Series Mission of ‘06. It sucked then at age 18, and it sucks now at 22.

I should be fair. I am not the target audience…sort of. As someone who enjoyed Linda as a fifth grader, I should be able to enjoy this simplistic prequel just based on characters. Of course, the only reoccurring characters are Linda’s family. But I’m just too old to fully appreciate this book. I’m past that kitten stage in my life. Even if I was in 4th grade, that would be pushing it. By then, I had moved onto other things.

If you wanna Fanta Fanta, don't you wanna Fanta Fanta?

I’ll try to put that aside for this review. In the beginning, Linda is a self-proclaimed Tomboy mostly because she has three guy friends and plays ball. She also doesn’t like Brenda Roman (pfft, who does?). Knowing (kind of) how everything eventually turns out, it’s comforting to see Linda as a Tomboy again. It’s such a part of her early identity (in the first four books, story wise).

However, her felinaphilia is a contradiction to her Tomboyish persona. Tomboys don’t swoon over kittens. Girly girls like kittens. Tomboys like dogs and reptiles and tarantulas. I don’t think 5th grade Linda would be caught dead wanting a kitten. Still, this is before other girly girls (say, like Brenda Roman) are swooning over boys. Linda doesn’t yet have to prove her differences as aggressively.

On the romance front, Linda’s biggest possibility is Matthew Bainbridge who she admits to being cute. Perhaps, it’s just an empirical observation, but she grows angry with herself for finding him attractive. He lives in New Jersey, so any long term possibilities are out the window, but what about camp???? There’s a chance for romance at camp!! (Oooh, stay tuned for The Tomboy Terror in Bunk 109!)

I’m pretty sure Linda likes Matthew and the author meant for us older readers, aware of Linda’s future of hating everything but boys, to find amusement in her cluelessness. However, romance is probably the farthest thing from the minds of those 4th graders only interested in reading about Linda’s feline trials and tribulations. It will sneak up on the readers just like it does for Linda.

As for the other boys, who are just her friends, I like Teddy Pappas best. Unfortunately, he’s moving to Long Island. I really don’t understand why this detail was put in there, because it really doesn’t go anywhere. I’m sad all the good guys are leaving the neighborhood!

Billy is mostly a character device, a third older guy friend for Linda. And keep an eye on Danny, because I think he comes back later…hopefully less creepy. (Seriously, what’s with all the scientific torture?)

I know where this is going...

Finally, there’s the subplot with Linda’s brothers. You would think that since they are part of the title, they would be more important to the plot, but they’re not. They pop up occasionally to annoy Linda, but never really make a huge impact on the plot, until the end when they save Scratchy from…a ledge? Whatever.

I’m actually not bothered by this because I don’t much care for sibling issues in books. (Being an only child, I will never be able to empathize). However, if it’s in the title…come on! At least change it if you're going to minimize the brothers! The first time through, I expected a lot more bratty, double teaming, little brother shenanigans but much to my happiness, there is very little of that. But where the brothers (and more implied romance) should be, there is cat stuff. So much cat stuff.

Luckily, Scratchy went to live with Matthew Bainbridge and as far as I know, she is not mentioned past 5th grade. It's the natural cycle: cats are replaced by boys...until loneliness replaces boys with cats.

Just ask Eleanor Abernathy.
Overall, Want to Trade Two Brothers for a Cat? isn't a bad book. But it ain't good, either. As stand alone novel, it is uneven and open ended (adventures at camp await us!). As a prequel, it does nothing but establish that Linda thinks she is a Tomboy. We see nothing to prove this claim...yet. It also establishes Linda's friendships with boys, her rivalry with Brenda Roman, and possible romantic feelings for Matthew Bainbridge. If the novel was made entirely of these elements, I wouldn't be complaining. But that damn cat stuff has no real importance later on and I can't help but feel another plot would have been better.

Useless Character List for My Enjoyment
  • Linda Berman - Protagonist
  • Ira and Joey Berman - Linda’s brothers
  • Mr. and Mrs. Berman - Linda’s parents
  • Brenda Roman - Girl who lives a few floors down, bratty and spoiled.
  • Grandma Roman - Brenda’s grandmother
  • Danny Kopler - Boy who lives one floor up. Likes math, science, and animal experimentation.
  • Billy Upton - Boy two years older who is kind of a bully.
  • Teddy Pappas - Friendly boy who moves to Long Island.
  • Fred Pappas - Teddy’s little brother who owns Tabby, Scratchy’s mother.
  • Mrs. Pappas - Teddy and Fred’s mother.
  • Raymond Pappas - Teddy and Fred’s jerkass cousin who takes Tiger.
  • Loretta Pappas - Teddy and Fred’s cousin who takes Smokey.
  • Matthew Bainbridge - Friend of Linda’s who owns Winston and later attends camp with her.

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