Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle, John of Gaunt's Hall

Sunday, October 12, 2008

updated versions, and the President's Daughter

This weekend, in a mammothly foolish endeavor, I read the three "new" volumes in Ellen Emerson White's quartet about Meg Powers, first encountered as the eponymous President's Daughter.

I read, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, The President's Daughter years ago, when I was in junior high or thereabouts. I re-read it quite a lot - it's funny, clever, interesting, with massively appealing characters and an intriguing and smart premise (Meg's MOM is elected President).
The following three books, which I'd never heard of before, though they seem to have been printed in the 80s, after the first (except the final installment, which is actually new), have been re-released in 2008, just in time for the elections (and, at the start of the year, coinciding with a potential Woman President). The four have been reissued in "updated" editions, each with a new cover representing Meg as the main character in a series of classic paintings - Wyeth, Da Vinci, Vermeer. I kind of hate the covers, but that's all right.

White's a fantastic author - sharp and witty as hell, and spot on in detailing the complex emotions of all her characters - and so I enjoyed reading the books. They get increasingly - dramatic (melodramatic?) - as Meg's mom is shot by a would-be assassin, then Meg herself is kidnapped and tortured by terrorists, before (in the final installment), going off, still battered and seriously injured, to college in massachusetts. The drama was a little much - what are the chances of a kidnapping AND assassination attempt in a single year? - but then, considering that White's attempting to discuss the first female president, it's possible. The recent barrage of insanity from anti-Obama crowds suggests that perhaps, a challenger to the Old White Man Network is in much more grave danger than one might expect.

I'm really happy to see these books back in print, and newly featured in bookstores. White's a great writer, and Meg's a thoroughly engaging character - a kind of slob, who prefers sweats and old button-up shirts, no makeup, and playing tennis; a very real-feeling girl who isn't girlie, who worries about boys and appearance without being consumed by it, a girl who hits her brothers, snaps at her parents, daydreams in class, cracks excellent jokes, plays with her cat, has longrunning inside jokes with her best friend - a totally believable girl. whose mother, by the way, is President.

The updating of the books works, too, which worried me at the outset. I recently came across the first four re-released Sweet Valley High books, and flipped through the pages to see what had been perpetrated. The books seem as shallow and inane as ever, only now - now! - the Wakefields and their friends have cellphones, iPods and Blackberries to further enhance their shallow inanity!

White, on the other hand, has been more discreet in her "modernizing" of her books. Meg's got a laptop, and an iPod, and she now drinks Cokes instead of the quaintly mid-80s Tab; her friends email, she carried a cellphone, mainly for security purposes - but otherwise, those details fade into the background. The most substantial change is to the politics of the book: White has moved Meg's mother's Presidency into an undefined future - a post G.W. Bush world (there's a nice joke about the dog being encouraged to use the GW Bush Maple Tree as a relieving post). It's also a post 9/11 world, so the terrorists who kidnap Meg are evidently members of a new Islamofascist splinter group. We get a reference to life in New York City, and terror alert levels, and "more than one plane."
But really: that's it. a few offhand references to global warming, and the politics have no more real specificity. Meg's mom - and Meg - are staunch liberal Democrats (VERY liberal), and the book pulls no punches about this. It isn't central, but it's an ever-present ideology, and it's one I love to encounter. Moreover, Meg's mom's presidency seems utterly believable, and is very rarely made into a historical women's issue - it's hard dealing with a parent who is President; it's hard dealing with her mom. the books never let us forget that it's IMPORTANT that a woman is president, and that it's something new, but it never beats us over the head moralizing about it, either. It feels natural. And the family's joking over political cartoons and tabloids, suggesting Meg's mother is incapable of governing because she's a woman, makes that particular question seem foolish and outdated.

There are some ridiculous aspects of the book - Meg's relationship with a cad of a player of a dude annoyed the hell out of me (she should be smarter than that!), and some of the college issues are also a little over the top. But on the whole, the series updates itself and advances in its narrative, wonderfully. And if the last book is a little long - well, even when I came to the last page (600-something), I felt a little wistful, wanting to know what happens next in the life of Meg Powers.