When members of the Colby College Class of 1965 gathered in Waterville for their 50th reunion celebration in June, they received a special gift from one of their classmates.
Houlton native Barbara McGillicuddy Bolton of Brooklyn, New York, presented her class a novel dedicated “To the Class of 1965” based on her first year at Colby.
“It’s all made up and it’s all true,” Bolton said when asked how much of “Lulu Goes to College” is factual. “It’s about a time that is gone, but had a lot of value,” she said, expressing hope that her book would kindle appreciation of a time when college life had more structure.
“What is most meaningful to me is the importance of a liberal arts education,” she said. “It fits you out for life.”
Bolton’s protagonist, Lulu Delaney, experiences the kind of awakening typical of 18-year-olds exposed for the first time to life with roommates in a dormitory, ideas of “Great Thinkers of the Western World” presented in a course central to the curriculum, and a campus with diverse opportunities for personal enrichment and social engagement.
But Lulu is a girl from a small town in northern Maine: Meduxnekeag. Unlike her more privileged classmates, she travels 200 miles south by bus, to save wear on the deteriorating family car, to attend Lovejoy College in Lovejoy, Maine (Bolton’s nod to Colby’s revered alum Elijah Parish Lovejoy, who died a martyr in 1837 defending his right to publish an anti-slavery newspaper).
Lulu’s future at Lovejoy depends on her ability to maintain the grade point average required by her scholarship to the school that folks at home call “the country club.”
It was a time of curfews, panty raids, same-sex dorms and limits on the amount of time you could talk on one of the dorm’s pay phones. First-year students were called freshmen, regardless of sex, and a policy of in loco parentis meant the university assumed the role of the parent.
Lulu is careful to maintain the rituals of her Catholic upbringing, yet eager to embrace the advice of college president J. Prescott Livingstone that “a strong liberal arts education meant taking part in all of campus life.”
While the names and characters are fictitious, the changes Lulu experiences as an individual mirror those of the author, who was Barbara McGillicuddy when she entered Colby in 1961.
Born and raised in Houlton, the daughter of a Colby graduate, she was awarded a full scholarship by the college. Mindful of its strong cohort of Aroostook alumni, Colby was eager to extend itself to their sons and daughters with the potential to succeed at the competitive private school.
“Like a minority, I got a full ride at Colby,” Bolton said, adding she recognized the similarity some years later when black students protested they were held to higher academic standards to maintain their scholarships. “It was hard for me.”
She struggled with math, and became an English major, like Lulu, who rejects Greek and French, preferring “literature either written in English in the first place or translated into it by someone other than herself.”
Even though Bolton says the relationship is “completely made up,” Lulu’s correspondence throughout the novel with a hometown friend attending a conservative religious school in Boston reveals her intellectual and religious, if not her social, evolution. Lulu shares the highs and lows of her new life in letters to Wesley Carmichael, who always seems to say the right thing in his responses, “if only he weren’t so Pentecostal.”
Maintaining her family’s rule of not saying unkind things about others, she confides her observations about fellow students and her concerns that her parents seem to lack the kinds of aspirations she is acquiring.
“We are not our parents,” Wesley counsels. “Our parents have their lives and we have ours. When we were children, honoring them meant obeying them, but, as St. Paul says, when we become adults, we put away childish things.”
Lulu’s letters to Wesley express her excitement about seeing a performance of “Death of a Salesman,” acting in a play herself and viewing films like Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria.”
“William Faulkner’s vocabulary is humongous and prodigious, not to mention fecund and prolix,” she tells Wesley as she wades through a concentrated January reading course requiring 13 books “and not a happy ending in the bunch.”
Yet, “as she worked her way deeper and deeper into the lives of the inhabitants of Yoknapatawpha County, she lost track of herself and of the passing of time,” Bolton writes.
“The more Lulu read of the Compsons, the Sartorises and the Snopeses, the more she felt she was getting to the bottom of things — the way she might one day get to the bottom of a myriad of stories from Meduxnekeag.”
Lulu made the connection between literature and life, just as she would in reviewing the ideas of Aristotle, Plato, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Marx, Engels, Hegel and Hobbes for her final exam in “Great Thinkers of the Western World.”
Even Father Flannery, in absolving Lulu for “poor judgment” with “a male,” adds to her awareness that “all the doctrines of the Church and all the wisdom of the Western World boiled down to the Golden Rule: being considerate of others and taking care of yourself.”
Bolton has been touched by responses to “Lulu Goes to College,” both in her hometown and among Colby alumni. Those who attended a reading at Cary Library in Houlton recently expressed a pleasure and pride for her work that she found “very heartwarming,” and fellow alum Daniel Traister, retired professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote, “I think it is as good an evocation of the college era we experienced as any I have read in a long time.” Traister complained that Bolton gave in to a happy ending, or deus ex machina, yet concedes “it’s a greatly enjoyable book … one I’d have used happily in a course I once taught here at Penn on college/university fiction. I’m pretty sure my even carpier-than-I-am students would have enjoyed it, too.”
“Lulu Goes to College” is available on Amazon.com and in Houlton at Cary Library and Visions Gallery.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.