Living on St. Paul's Summit Avenue in the house that is now the governor's residence, 12-year-old Coco Irvine began keeping a diary in January 1927, chronicling her madcap adventures, romantic escapades and precocious opinions. Former Star Tribune reporter Peg Meier discovered the wonderfully entertaining diary while doing research at the Minnesota Historical Society.
The diary is concise and consistently charming, often unintentionally so, and definitely worth a read. If Coco hadn't really existed, nobody would believe someone this exuberant and madcap could be real. Readers who like strong characters with an unforgettable voice and a unique view on life will find Coco's Jazz Age adventures deeply satisfying.
Coco gets into considerable trouble through, as she likes to say, "no fault of my own." For example, unlicensed Coco "borrows" her older sister's car for a joyride. Needless to say, she encounters her mom driving in the opposite direction. "[S]he shouted for me to stop at once. I was nervous so stepped on the gas instead of the brake and ran into her car. Mother was speechless with rage." Coco gets grounded, but in typical fashion, talks her way out of it.
Coco also steals cutlery from her school's kitchen because she loathes the food. After a teacher catches her clanging out of school, her clothes packed with the contraband flatware, she decides to break the news to her parents before the school authorities: "I worked myself into a good case of hysterics and cried so hard I couldn't talk. They got scared." When Coco tells them about the cutlery, her relieved parents decide not to punish her: "It pays to know how to manage things," Coco writes.
Coco's burgeoning romantic life is equally dramatic, as she describes her crush on a neighborhood boy at the skating rink. "He came skating up to me. He said, 'You look like Red Riding Hood and you know what happened to her. The wolf came and ate her all up' -- and he made a horrible face at me. ... This was all very romantic." On Coco's birthday, she dances with "Him," who "had to ruin it all" by telling her, "Even I don't feel I can ignore you on your birthday." Ouch.
Coco's diary keeps us updated on this raffish young man, but the romance unsurprisingly goes nowhere. Having turned 13, Coco has an epiphany: "I'm sure He likes me but He still won't admit it. ... He teases me the most and exasperates me endlessly. I wonder if I would like him as much if I were sure [he liked me]. It wouldn't be as exciting." Bingo.
Young Coco, unintentionally or not, shows a charming gift for comedy and self-dramatization. Her diary is filled with surprising opinions like this: "Daddy says that if you are afraid of something, you should face up to it. ... I don't believe in it at all. If it were true, rabbits and creatures like that would be fighting with wolves and things instead of running away, which is the only sensible thing for them to do."
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Boston.