Starring a Cockeyed Optimist

Mazie – by Melanie Crowder
Philomel Books (Penguin), 2021

Mazie Butterfield, the heroine of this young adult novel by Melanie Crowder is not Ensign Nellie Forbush, the cockeyed optimist of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song in South Pacific (originally in James Michener’s stories), but she certainly embodies her spirit.  A Nebraska farm girl with an uncompromising vision of success as a Broadway actress, Mazie has moments of self-doubt, but they are fleeting, compared to her sense of conviction in this unlikely dream. Even though leaving home will mean leaving her devoted boyfriend, Jesse, as well as her family, Mazie knows that staying behind will be a betrayal of who she is. Readers should begin the begin without preconceptions, go back to America in 1959, and prepare to enjoy an amazingly independent work of fiction.

Mazie is a mélange of elements.  There is the mid-century teen romance, sometimes referred to as “malt shop.” In fact, at the beginning of the book, Mazie even works as a carhop at a local diner. The inspiring narrative of a young adult reaching for the stars against improbable odds is also at the book’s core. Any reader would identify with Mazie’s touching honesty about her aspirations: “I think I’m good enough for Broadway, but I won’t know for sure until I get there.”  But Crowder carefully throws more modern perspectives into the mix.  Arriving in New York, Mazie first meets people of color, and forms friendships with gay people. (Eventually she learns that LGBTQ people live everywhere, including in her own backyard.). She also possesses a feminist consciousness, insisting that her professional goals are so important, that even true love cannot replace them. She fends off powerful sexual predators, and exhibits a strong sense of body positivity in the midst of cruelly unrealistic beauty standards for women.  Her boyfriend has his own struggles against limiting expectations, and he respects Mazie’s determination.  Perhaps that acceptance is a bit idealized in the context of the era, but once you buy into the book’s premise, things fall into place.

At times I wondered if the author was having a bit of fun with her readers.  Clichés pop up, followed by challenging insights.  You may be thinking of Hallmark movies and memorable heroines of literature at the same time, all the while rooting for Mazie’s romance and encouraging her to “break a leg.” Because of the novel’s realistic details and heartfelt monologues, you may be inclined to overlook, or even to question, less than likely occurrences.  The owner of the New York boardinghouse where Mazie finds a home away from home is Mrs. Cooper, a retired African-American actress.  None of the girls treats her with anything but respect.  Mazie is free from prejudice.  But she’s Mazie!  Her own Nana was a free spirit and her farmer boyfriend wants to be a physicist.  Crowder also gives Mrs. Cooper a backstory: she was a talented performer who was forced to end of her career because of racism in casting.  In case this accurate information seems an incomplete part of her new role as housemother, Mazie’s fellow boarder points out that “I guess she figured there was money to be made off all us starry-eyed girls from the sticks trying to make it in the big city.” 

A lot of changes ensue in the course of the book; I’m not going to give any spoilers.  But don’t give up on Mazie. As she puts it, “Everybody’s always talking about hope like it’s so lightweight, the thing with feathers or whatever.” Mazie isn’t Nellie, but she is “stuck like a dope” on that thing with feathers.

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