When I was in high school, it mattered a great deal : what radio station you listened to. There were more than two, but there only two that mattered: CJBK or CKSL.
Knowing which station someone’s radio was tuned to revealed a cornerstone to their identity, but although I fervently and loyally listened to CJBK, I couldn’t tell you now what truly set it apart.
In That Tune Clutches My Heart, it’s 1948 in Vancouver, and the great debate at Magee High is about Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
The Frankians and Bingites probably can’t describe their reasons for choosing alliances any more clearly than I could define key aspects of my own identity as a teenager, but their loyalties are fierce and immovable.
Iris is not musical, but she knows how she looks in a pleated skirt and bobby socks, so she is a Frankian, and she and Sylvia will no longer sit by each other. Miss Hanratty seems not to have noticed this change in the seating plan. I am Switzerland for now, and I walked home alone.
May’s experience in senior high is recorded in a diary which her mother gave her to encourage “the habit of observation and reflection and so develop my gift…which is literary”.
Perhaps taking her cue from the seriousness with which her parents approach life in general, May’s tone is measured and deliberate. Her diary entries are often only one paragraph long, though sometimes as long as five, and her voice is controlled, almost awkward at times, in an effort to structure her thoughts properly.
This is a tumultuous time of life (even without the stressful debate surrounding her status as a “neutral” in this musical war), but her efforts to represent her experiences clearly and accurately on the page keep the content even.
The sort of reader who requires a more immediate view of the plot in a novel might find May’s voice distancing (even more so than is usually the case with novels told in diary entries).
But for the reader who is predisposed to enjoy this format, the reader who appreciates subtle shifts in style more than dramatic plot twists, there is something peculiarly satisfying about recognizing the swell of emotion that results in May ending a sentence with a preposition (and commenting on such “transgressions”, overtly refusing to correct the dangling bits).
“The prospect of my first date is not tremendously exciting, though certainly I am looking forward to it. Elizabeth says that the sharing of milkshakes at The Sunflower already constitutes the first date, which she says is an important fact because it may portend developments tomorrow that would not take place otherwise — that would not otherwise take place.” (Friday January 28, 1949)
The overarching tension in the novel surrounds the conflict (sometimes open, often quietly simmering) between the Frankians and the Bingites. May takes her concern to her father, who seems able to predict immediately and accurately which of her friends have chosen which alliance.
This insight puzzles May, but her father explains that “it had to do with whom he thought Sinatra and Crosby were singing to, and what they believed about the song” and then he tries to dismiss it as one of his philosophical theories, but May continues to puzzle it out.
He buys her two records, one Sinatra and one Crosby, and May listens to the two versions of “Begin the Beguine” repeatedly, trying to understand the differences and similarities between them. She begins to notice other patterns as well, for instance the Poster Club is a Bingite stronghold whereas the rugby team is filled with Frankians.
On the principle of fairness I gave my free time today to Mr. Sinatra, but I cannot say that I know anything more about his particular insincerity. I do think that I like his version better than Bing Crosby’s, most of the time, but sometimes I hear it and dislike it very intensely, and it is strange that my opinion should change in this way. (Sunday October 17, 1948)
May’s relationship with her father is comfortable and easy, but her father suggests that she take her problems with her chemistry teacher to her mother instead. It’s not all about the Bingite and Frankian tension; May’s understanding of the world is unfolding in other ways as well.
Another source of frustration for her is that Mr. Cooper persists in grading her lab reports with lower marks than her lab partner’s, even when he has actual errors in his reports (but, yes, he is a boy, and this is chemistry class, and it is 1948).
Her mother suggests three possibilities: the first two ensure that the rest of the year in Chemisty is “bound to be unpleasant”, and third is likely to raise May’s grade and not cause unpleasantness.
Mother paused again before explaining this solution. She picked up a pencil from her desk and tapped it on a piece of paper. The other possibility, she said, is that I could conduct myself in such a way as to convey to Mr. Cooper my deep admiration for his intelligence, his mastery of his field, and his person, along with my recognition of my own limitations.
You can imagine what the first two suggestions were. May is not only learning that her mother has a certain expertise in managing social situations that her father has not personally experienced, but she is discovering events in her mother’s past that May had no idea about previously and developing an appreciation of her on different grounds.
Mother is always so formal and proper. I don’t remember ever before having been glad of that.(Thursday January 6, 1949)
May’s life is relatively uncomplicated and staid. She has a functioning relationship with both parents; her father and mother love their daughter and treat her well, although they do have problems and preoccupations of their own (May’s mother is working to have Home Economics recognized as part of a degree program, whereas her father is writing a book of philosophy).
One would not turn to That Tune Clutches My Heart for plot. The events detailed therein are commonplace. (“This year Daddy and Mother will each receive a shirt sewn in Home Ec. I worked quite hard on them, because I knew that they would both wear them, successful or no,” she writes on Friday, December 24, 1948.)
But May’s voice resonates authentically throughout the novel, as she assembles herself there, on the page of Paul Headrick’s That Tune Clutches My Heart, note by note, becoming.