As arbiters of taste and culture, tweens seem to rule our 21st-century world. They dominate media (both traditional and social), and they can easily turn an actor, musician, or writer of questionable talent into an international icon, practically overnight.
Behind the curtain of that collective power, however, is a group of insecure, hesitant, awkward preteens—individuals trying to fit in and make the choices that will gain them entree. Entree to what? They’re not sure.
Carson McCullers couldn’t foresee the modern condition of the 21st-century tween. She didn’t need to. If we strip away decades of technology and trends, we will find in McCullers’s 1946 novel, The Member of the Wedding, the essence of tween angst. Though our world has undergone a sea change since the ’40s, the emotional challenge of being a tween looks remarkably the same.
McCullers takes us inside the skull of Frankie Addams, a girl trying to survive what might be the hardest year of life: age 12. Caught between the pleasures of childhood and the responsibilities of being an adult, too big for the kids’ table yet too immature to dine with the adults, a 12-year-old is the definition of between. Frankie feels acutely her between status, along with all the accompanying isolation, boredom, awkwardness, pain, fear.
Frankie’s age puts her between childhood and adulthood, too old to continue carefree play with her 6-year-old cousin, John Henry, but too young to be invited to join the neighborhood club of teenage girls. Her father has recently said she has to move out of his bed at night, yet she still longs to sleep by his side. Searching for ??, she changes her name to F. Jasmine, then Frances, and she wanders her small southern town, exploring areas previously forbidden and unknown: the jail, The Blue Moon bar, the black community of Sugartown.
In trying to put a point on her ??, she exaggerates what she feels and distorts what she sees: “This summer she was grown so tall that she was almost a big freak, and her shoulders were narrow, her legs too long.” Her boredom mushrooms into erratic behavior and violent thoughts: “She would do anything that suddenly occurred to her—but whatever she did was always wrong, and not at all what she had wanted. Then, having done these wrong and silly things, she would stand, sickened and empty, in the kitchen door and say: ‘I just wish I could tear down this whole town.'” And her confusion turns into self-loathing: “This was the summer when Frankie was sick and tired of being Frankie. She hated herself, and had become a loafer and a big no-good who hung around the summer kitchen: dirty and greedy and mean and sad.”
But by far the most painful, bewildering, and frightening emotion Frankie experiences is loneliness. She feels left out of pretty much everything in life: “This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.”
McCullers makes matters worse by placing Frankie’s world in a between state of being, as well. In late August, summer has come to an end before fall has really taken hold, and being out of school leaves Frankie feeling unmoored. Plus, the everpresent shadow of World War II hangs over them all, having divided nations and fractured families and communities whose men have gone overseas to fight.
Amid all this uncertainty, Frankie’s brother, Jarvis, brings a glimmer of hope when he comes home to get married. Frankie immediately latches on to the alluring couple. “‘They were the two prettiest people I ever saw. . . . I bet they have a good time every minute of the day,'” she dreams. Jarvis and Janice’s wedding gives Frankie purpose and, with it, hope for a new future: “For when the old question came to her—the who she was and what she would be in the world, and why she was standing there that minute—when the old question came to her, she did not feel hurt and unanswered. At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going. She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding. The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together.”
Frankie’s dream, not surprisingly, gets dashed. In fact, this outcome is such a foregone conclusion that McCullers spends little ink on it. The majority of the novel concentrates instead on the fantasies that Frankie spins in the day or two leading up to the wedding. This is too brief a period for Frankie to reach any true understanding or develop a sense of self, though somehow we know that will come. Like most 12-year-olds, she will emerge from that painful transitional period with some sort of identity intact.
The small window we get into this particular preteen’s world proves both reassuring and unsettling at the same time, because, while things in part resolve, they also remain the same. World War II will end, though new wars rage on around the globe. Civil rights will mend the black-white split of this southern town, while racism remains a strong undercurrent in our country. And McCullers’s Frankie Addams will grow out of her difficult tween stage of life, yet other kids like her will still suffer through it every single day.