There are camps for kids with cancer. I know this because Lurlene McDaniel told me so. I spent my preteen summers at Jewish camp, counting down the days while fantasizing about terminal illness and constructing romantic, overblown narration for my life. She walked to free swim, auburn hair billowing in the breeze, her tiny porcelain face exquisite. She was beautiful, but her dark liquid eyes revealed an inner pain.
Never mind that my inner pain had much to do with being forced to go free swim, or that my hair wasn’t auburn, nor was my face exquisite. The descriptions felt real. They were tragic, and they were mine. I was the type of girl who spent a lot of time holed up alone with books, writing poetry and thinking deep thoughts. I conjured up visions of a valiant death by tuberculosis, and I read Lurlene McDaniel novels. Turns out, I was not alone.
Lurlene McDaniel is the author of some 50 young-adult novels, including Too Young to Die; Don’t Die, My Love; If I Should Die Before I Wake; and her tour de force Six Months to Live. Her books are of the made-for-TV, disease-of-the-month variety, featuring boys and girls—though mostly girls—and their struggles with leukemia and hemophilia and heart transplants. They are embarrassingly overwrought and inexplicably delectable.
McDaniel, now 66, began writing about kids with life-threatening illnesses in the mid-’80s when her son, Sean, was diagnosed with diabetes. She saw a need for young-adult literature that taught kids frankly and sensitively about illness and mortality. “I hope ‘well’ kids will see a bigger picture of real life,” she says about her stories.
To McDaniel’s surprise, the books became successful. So successful that Six Months to Live was chosen by children across the country to be placed in a time capsule at the Library of Congress, and six of her novels have been Publishers Weekly best-sellers.
Turns out that kids love reading about other kids with cystic fibrosis (A Time to Die) and inoperable brain tumors (Mourning Song). McDaniel has attributed her success to her care in depicting the lives of her characters realistically, something she was able to do even better after surviving breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with in 1997. “When you actually have cancer, you experience a whole range of emotions that you’ve not felt before,” she says. “The diagnosis gave my characters greater depth, I think.”
But the realism and depth extend only as far as the hospital walls. In their day-to-day lives, her characters are—almost uniformly—pretty, popular, and successful. They aren’t teased or bullied or subjected to the minor hurts and humiliations that make up adolescence. Outside the hospital, these characters have the kind of lives found only in fiction. And that, I’d argue, is what brings all the girls to Lurlene McDaniel’s yard, so to speak.
On Facebook, there are 10 groups devoted to McDaniel, including the exuberant “Lurlene McDaniel is the GREATEST author EVER!” The highest praise from readers, it seems, is tears. “[Crying] comes naturally with her stories,” says 13-year-old Facebook group member Stephanie VanderStad, “because they go deep and touch your heart in many ways.” Andrea Haddad, another young fan, says, “Crying is the reason I prefer Lurlene’s books over all the other books.”
While McDaniel’s characters are almost exclusively Christian, white, and middle-class, her fans come from all races and creeds, from locales banal and exotic alike. Among her Facebook fans are hijab-clad Razan and cowboy-hat-wearing Brooke. Her readers live around the world, from Little Rock, Arkansas, and Peoria, Illinois, to Jordan and Singapore. But there’s one attribute that unites them: They are all female.
McDaniel’s books follow a formula. Pretty, likable, white teenage girl develops a potentially fatal disease, but, through a combination of pluck, spunk, and grit, overcomes the hardships. She learns life lessons, gets a boyfriend, and, finally, someone dies. This last point is crucial.
In McDaniel’s 1992 novel Someone Dies, Someone Lives, former track star Katie O’Roark is in desperate need of a heart transplant. Like all McDaniel heroines, she is a cheerful stoic. Death soon arrives, though not for Katie. Rather, it claims Aaron Martel, a rising football star. But the Martels’ loss is Katie’s gain, since she receives Aaron’s heart. Josh, Aaron’s grieving younger brother, seeks Katie out. Naturally, the two fall in love. With the help of Josh—who, wouldn’t you know it, is a runner too—Katie runs in the Transplant Olympics and even wins. Someone lives, someone dies, and another adolescent girl develops a desire for a brush with mortality. Chicks dig terminal illness.
Katie—along with McDaniel’s other heroines—bears a striking resemblance to a number of other literary characters, particularly Little Women’s Beth March. Lovers of Louisa May Alcott’s classic are supposed to identify with Jo, who’s rebellious and funny and smart. Meg is materialistic, Amy is a snot, and Beth’s a goody-goody who doesn’t even make it through the novel. I wanted to be Jo. But I also wanted to be Beth—to die martyred and saintly and to be eulogized affectionately. Let’s call it Beth March syndrome: the desire to be kind and patient and cheerful and then wilt beautifully and die. Or simply come close enough so that everyone finally appreciates you.
Is there something more to McDaniel’s popularity than the typical teen-girl penchant for melodrama? I believe the attraction lies deeper: All girls are susceptible to Beth March syndrome, because we’re taught that suffering is a woman’s most noble role, and bearing the wrath of a terminal illness lends an innate goodness to the sufferer. In literature, men go to war to become heroes, achieving immortality through great acts, while women earn their place by courageously battling illness before graciously dying. I envied the girls in McDaniel’s books, not in spite of their ailments but because of them. Dying girls get the last laugh. They are loved and cherished, and they are, above all, good—even if they aren’t. Because you can’t really talk trash about a girl on her deathbed.
Excerpted from Bust (Feb.-March 2010), a magazine that “tells the truth about women’s lives and presents a female perspective on pop culture.” www.bust.com