Buddy Love

7.25.2010

By Christopher Bram

Going to college in Virginia in the early 1970s, I was so hungry for gay stories that I'd read anyone, from established names like Andr' Gide and Gore Vidal to newer, unfamiliar writers like James Kirkwood and Jonathan Strong. In the bookstore one day, I stumbled on a paperback with a jaunty title, I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip., described on the back as the story of a troubled friendship between two boys who have 'a moment of open sexuality.' I didn't care that the book was aimed at adolescents. I was only 20, so I was almost a teenager myself. I bought it immediately, read it in a day, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Then I forgot it -- until years later when an editor friend told me that it had been a breakthrough novel in the world of young adult fiction.

Young adult (YA) fiction did not yet have a name in 1968 when John Donovan, a 39-year-old bachelor who worked for the Children's Book Council, wrote a letter to the head of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls at Harper & Row and asked if she'd be interested in a story about 'buddy-love.' The 'new realism' had just arrived in children's literature, producing such work as It's Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville; Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (a butch lesbian); and The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton (then a teenager herself). Editors were open to fresh material, even a tale of two 13-year-old boys who develop crushes on each other. Harper & Row said yes and I'll Get There was published in 1969, a few months before the Stonewall rebellion, to surprisingly good reviews.

Donovan wrote a few more books and a play. He died in 1992 when he was 63. His first book lives on, however. I'll Get There has just been reissued in a 40th anniversary edition with smart appreciations by gay YA novelists Brent Hartinger and Martin Wilson; a lovely introduction by Donovan's niece, Stacey Donovan; and an invaluable essay by scholar Kathleen Horning.

How does the book read today? Very well. It begins more slowly than what we're used to -- Davy, the narrator, doesn't meet Doug until page 73 -- and Davy's dachshund, Fred, fills a lot of text; Davy's boozy mother could use another color or two. But the friendship of Davy and Doug, two secretly lonely boys at a private school in New York City, is beautifully depicted, with great attention to emotional detail. Their friendship slides first into love and later into kissing. They are caught 'queering around,' which leads to an accident that produces additional anger and blame. Donovan resolves it all very gently. Doug sounds convincingly adolescent and profound when he declares, 'Go ahead and feel guilty if you want to. I don't.'

There's now a wealth of excellent YA novels with gay and lesbian characters, as protagonists or friends and family. I'm thinking in particular of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Love & Lies by Ellen Wittlinger, and Blue Boy by Rakesh Saytal, to name just a few recent titles that have given me pleasure. Yet it started 40 years ago with the quiet story of two boys and a dachshund.

I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth The Trip.: 40th Anniversary Edition will be published September 1 by Flux.

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