"Julie Albright's life is changing. The 9-year-old's parents have just divorced and she now lives in an apartment a few miles from her childhood home. She
misses her best friend, her pet rabbit and most of all, her father. Holidays are difficult. She doesn't want to tell her friends about the divorce."
I had been reading each doll's bio out loud, enjoying a warm mother-daughter moment, but my daughter's face fell as she heard Julie's story. "Well, that's SAD!" she cried out. I quickly noted to myself that we had already read about dolls living through war, slavery, and persecution, all very sad. But then I realized that for most young children reading the American Girl catalogue, war, slavery, and persecution do not live with
them; their parents do. So, for a daughter like mine, the saddest doll is the divorce doll.
As someone who studies Gen X caregiving, grief, and loss in an era of high family fragmentation, I should not have been surprised that the key marker of
change for my generation lies in parental divorce. Author of the American Girl books about Julie, Megan McDonald, confirmed my realization. She writes,
"Everything I read about the '70s pointed to a sharp rise in divorce rates, peaking in 1979. The claim that 'half of all marriages end in divorce' became
widely accepted in the '70s." In an interview with Divorce 360, McDonald said,
"I learned from watching some of my own family members go through divorce that the impact is lifelong ... My hope is that readers who are children of divorce
themselves will identify with Julie and her family situation and struggle, and take some solace that they are not alone."
In the first sentence of book one, McDonald captures the upheaval of divorce for a child: "The world spun-first upside down, then right side up again ..." As
Julie says good bye to her best friend from across the street and anxiously anticipates beginning a new school near her mother's apartment, she begins her
new life dominated by the "switching hour;" an existence spent
switching between two worlds that (as Dr. Evon Flesborg writes) will continue throughout her life until death parts her parents from her.
Throughout the series, Julie learns to be a chameleon, as Elizabeth Marquardt describes children of divorce who
learn to adapt to living in two homes. At her dad's house, she misses her mom, her sister, and her toys. At her mom's house, she misses her dad, her pet
rabbit and her best friend. Julie dreads the first Christmas after the divorce. She finds solace in her friends, who she begins to treat as family.
We never know why Julie's parents have divorced, which shouldn't really surprise us. The stories are told from the child's perspective and, as Judith Wallerstein's research on children of divorce revealed,
most children never fully understand why their parents have split. Julie, a spunky, adaptable child, does learn resilience, but I found myself wondering, as Wallerstein does, how Julie will learn "to
create a long term loving relationship, how to resolve family conflict, how to build trust, when to compromise, when to stand firm, and as [she] grows, how
to choose a lover and how to commit to another with realistic hope that it can last?"