Helen in Trouble
Full of humor, poignancy, and period detail, Wendy Sibbison's historical novel Helen in Trouble depicts a sheltered teen girl discovering her inner resources after an unplanned pregnancy. If only we didn't need a book about obtaining a back-room abortion in 1963 to be our roadmap in 2023. But even before Roe v. Wade was overturned, not everyone could access reproductive health care. Abstract rights will only take you so far, when lack of money, family pressure, and inadequate sex education conspire against you. Helen in Trouble shows how ordinary people have to be each other's allies and protectors.
Sixteen-year-old Helen Bird lives a privileged but constrained life in the DC suburbs, attending an Episcopalian girls' prep school by day, exploring the mysteries of sex with her University of Virginia boyfriend (a Catholic, how transgressive!) by night. Polite silence, or awkwardly proffered clinical information, are all that her family can offer about the transition from girlhood to womanhood. As is true for many young women, even today, her own pleasure is secondary in her first relationship with nice but hapless 18-year-old Quentin. Sex represents adulthood and popularity—until it brings a potential scandal, and a responsibility for which nothing has prepared her.
Helen may have been raised with the enforced naïveté that passes for female virtue under patriarchy. But she is not weak or easily led. Her fortunate upbringing comes in handy because she was raised to believe in her own competence. She's clear that she wants an abortion. The only question, and it's a big one, is how to get it. I loved this moment when she sees Quentin in the context of his family and realizes he's nowhere near mature enough to be her co-conspirator:
"This was not really a revelation. She had known it down deep all along. But just as her heart began to sink, some new muscle she had never felt before began to flex."
Helen's quest leads her to cross racial and class lines as she seeks out a reliable underground network of abortion providers. She also discovers that her mother not only can handle the truth, but welcomes the opportunity to share her own secrets. This subplot is a beautiful instance of women transmitting survival lore from one generation to another.
The Bird family is liberal in a moderate, abstract sort of way, but that's different from bringing your daughter to a Black neighborhood in DC for an illegal abortion. I appreciated the book drawing connections between the different social justice issues that were gathering steam in 1963. However, I felt the family's racial awakening at the book's end was too quick and tacked-on.
We learn in Helen's letter to her best friend, on the last page, that the Birds went to the March on Washington and are pressuring Helen's prep school to integrate. To my mind, their interest in anti-racist work wasn't set up enough beforehand. Coupled with Helen's parents' ultimately supportive reaction to her pregnancy and termination, it seemed like saying "and then they all lived happily ever after." Far be it from me to want an unhappy ending, but I prefer a story where the threads aren't all tied off so neatly.
The writing was vivid and full of personality. The cover had striking original artwork, showing a young woman behind the wheel of an old-fashioned car at night, backed by menacing shadows. (Honestly, it reminded me of Stephen King's man-eating car Christine, but that's not a bad thing!) In both content and design, Helen in Trouble can hold its own with traditionally published literary novels. Our screener Annie Mydla summed up its value when she said, "The narrative accomplishes the difficult task of showing how terrible back-room abortions are, without ending up a tragedy."