Paul Headrick,
That Tune Clutches My Heart
(Gaspereau Press, 2008)

It's September 1948, and May Sutherland is entering Magee Secondary School in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her mother has given her a diary to keep track of the important events of this, her junior year. This book is that journal.

As soon as she arrives on campus, May is confronted with the big debate consuming the student body: Who's better, Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra? Almost every teenager has chosen one singer over the other. May quickly loses her two best friends when Sylvia takes off with the Bingites and Iris disappears in the direction of the Frankians. The Montagues and the Capulets have nothing on these kids. If you think today's gangs wield too much influence on young people, you may be amazed at what these post-war Magee students do in the names of their idols.

May does her best to remain neutral. After she explains the situation to her parents -- both college professors -- her father gives her two recordings of "Begin the Beguine," one by Sinatra, the other by Crosby. May plays them over and over after school and tries to make sense of the differences. (The title of the book comes from the first interlude of the song: "To live it again is past all endeavour / Except when that tune clutches my heart / And there we are, swearing to love forever / And promising never never to part.") By Christmastime, her parents have seemingly had enough of the musical duel. May finds a vinyl set of Bach cello suites performed by Pablo Casals under the tree.

While the young woman continues to struggle with Latin noun declensions and frets over her chemistry lab grades, the fractured school environment is never far from May's mind. She eventually makes new friends with others who are caught in the fray. Her entries take us back to our own school days, when popular culture and what our fellow students thought were far more important to us than the teacher talk coming from the front of the room. And lying between her sentences, unspoken and unaddressed, are May's only-child relationships with her mother and her father. She herself doesn't quite have a handle on them.

As I read this novel, I remembered an old Looney Tunes cartoon called The Swooner Crooner, which debuted in 1944. Porky Pig was running the Flockheed Eggcraft Factory, and he couldn't keep the hens producing because they were too busy fawning over a skinny singing Frankie rooster. Eventually Porky hired a Hawaiian-shirted Bing rooster to croon to the hens, and mountains of eggs resulted. I couldn't help but think that May's school was a human version of that cartoon.

I also made an attempt to replicate her musical comparison. I couldn't get "Begin the Beguine" from both men, so I opted instead for "Star Dust" and "September Song." For me, the choice was obvious. Bing bounced through the metaphor of "September Song" as though he was excited to be spending that time of his life, any days at all, with someone like you. Frank plodded through it like the dirge it could be, lamenting that December and The End were just ahead. I am confidently a Bingite.

That Tune Clutches My Heart is an entertaining book that will leave readers contemplating their own musical choices and reminiscing about their own teenage years. It is a perfect offering for a book discussion group or for use in high school or college English classes. Questions up for grabs include: Why did May's mother give her the diary? Can May remain neutral in the ranks, or will she eventually take a side? What kind of future is ahead for her, both in her senior year and after Magee? Which friends will she stay in contact with? What are her parents really like? Was May's situation unique to the 1940s, or has it replayed since? How much has popular culture influenced our own lives? Author Paul Headrick leaves us with loose ends and much food for thought.

review by
Corinne H. Smith

6 December 2008

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