3.05.19 Admiration: Lois Duncan, Weaponizer of Feminism
Of all the writers who left the earliest, most significant handprints in my undried childhood cement, none leap to mind faster than Lois Duncan. Her dark, young adult worlds – published in an era when YA dark fiction was more anomaly than rule – sparked a fire in me for the weird, the twisted and speculative that still roars, decades later.
I can’t recall why I picked up her books in the first place, though I suspect she felt instantly familiar to me because she was named Lois. My mom was named – is named – Lois. It lent a familiar vibe to her titles, as if they’d somehow been endorsed by mom ahead of time. Of course, if mom had realized what I was reading about, however, that almost certainly would not have been the case.
Two of her books – she wrote a couple dozen – stick out most clearly: Killing Mr. Griffith (1978) and Daughters of Eve (1979). While both took place in schools, they were not your usual “let’s learn a lesson” type YA stories; in the first, students conspire to kill their teacher, while in the second, a charismatic teacher whips her young female students up into taking revenge on the horrible men in their lives. It might have been the first time anyone had truly weaponized feminism, and I sometimes can’t decide if Duncan herself was a feminist or not.
She certainly had an unusual childhood, growing up in the first half of the 20th Century with parents who were magazine photographers who specialized in taking photos of the circus; she attended Duke but dropped out to get married and began writing for magazines, then published books. She was always a bit ahead of her time: one 1959 book, “Debutante Hill,” lost out on a literary prize because a character was drinking a beer.
She hit her stride after getting divorced and moving to New Mexico, writing greeting cards and more books – 1966’s Ransom came first from this period, and it featured students held hostage on a school bus. The themes of school, young people and their authority figures clashing ended up cropping up throughout her works, which makes me like to retcon her as a woman who was probably a deep feminist, but who would never use the “F” word, if you know what I mean.
In any case, while I’ve never been a Duncan completist, what I have read of her work has stuck in my brain all these years – even when it felt ludicrous, she managed to make it feel real; I remember being obsessed with astral projection after reading her 1981 book Stranger with My Face. And I don’t think I was alone; filmmakers and screenwriters from approximately my age range grew up to make movies out of several of her books, including Griffin (1997), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), and Down a Dark Hall (2018).
Daughters has not been filmed, though in this era of #MeToo I could see it as being positively explosive.
Duncan’s life took a sad turn when her youngest daughter was murdered, and after publishing 1992’s Who Killed My Daughter? her writing shifted to lighter fare for younger children. My heart broke for her while reading that book, and I wanted to reach out to send a letter of support. So far as I remember, I never did. Duncan died in 2016.
But I still keep her books near to hand on my shelf; I can look over my shoulder and spot Daughters at this very moment. Probably time to give it another read. If there’s one thing I can say about her writing: Lois Duncan was never, ever boring – and that goes for both kids and adults. For some of us, that cement never dries entirely.
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