Were you a Sunfire romance reader? I totally was. And even after I cracked the code of the cover art – whomever the heroine was pictured with in the cover art was usually NOT the dude she ended up with – I still read them.
I loved Caroline, and read that book so many times I looked up the author, which led me to one of my msot favorite YA reads ever, The Girl with the Silver Eyes.
I remember searching for more of these in the library and the bookstore when I was in middle school. I thought Roxanne was the most glamorous woman on a cover I'd ever seen – I think it was the bedazzled “R” on her sweater.
It seems I'm not the only one with fond memories of the Sunfire series.
Victoria Wu is a graduate student in history, and she contacted me because she's writing her thesis on the Sunfire series. She's hoping to talk to anyone who was a fan – and I think there are many of us who found the Sunfire series a gateway drug into romance. For me it was the one-two combination of Sunfire and then Sweet Valley High which ultimately led me to Midsummer Magic.
I asked her about her project, and this is her narrative sketch of her thesis:
My thesis is partially historical (where I situate the text within context of 80s teen fiction, romance fiction, and Reagan conservatism) and partially literary (where I analyze the texts themselves). I have the texts, I have contemporary reactions to the texts, I even have one of the authors kindly providing me with information on how the series came about.
Scholarly literature both from the 80s as well as the present focus on the notion that 80s romance series for girls was a step back from the “problem” fiction of the seventies, as well as a step back for feminism (see Linda Christian-Smith in particular), because these books were about girls falling in love with boys and not much else (yep, same argument leveled against adult romance).
However, the Sunfire series was really markedly different. It always featured a girl “daring to be different,” seeking careers, and choosing men who valued them for their independence and not their ability to be homemakers. These books were also really progressive, especially in context of the 80s Reagan conservatism that did permeate much of romantic fiction of this time.
For example, one protagonist is arrested for being a suffragette, and another participates in a labor strike at the Lowell Mills, and so on. They also always featured girls playing prominent roles in important historical moments–persuading Jean LaFitte to help out in the Battle of New Orleans, for example, or working as a reporter during a major flood to get the news out.
The crucial piece of information I'm missing is on readership. I would be interested in talking to members of the Bitchery who may have read these books, and hearing about their experiences: Where did they buy these books/who bought these books for them? Did their friends read them? What did the appreciate most about the Sunfires? What other books were they reading? Did Sunfires affect their later reading habits?
Who was reading these books when they first came out? How old were they? How did they get hold of the books? Were they spending their own money, borrowing from friends or siblings, receiving them as gifts from parents? How did the Sunfire compare to other books they were reading? And of course, what did they see in the Sunfires that compelled them to read the books–was it the historical setting, the heroine, the hero, the romance, etc.?
I was a bit late on the scene, since I grew up in the nineties and the Sunfire was out of print by then. Being a reader of endless voracity, my mom always took me to buy books at the used book stores (cheaper to feed the habit than at Barnes and Noble), and I could always find a Sunfire or two. My two favorites were Candice Ransom's Sabrina and Jane Claypool Miner's Margaret.
Sabrina was set during the Revolutionary War, about a Patriot girl torn between a Loyalist and a Patriot spy. For one, I thought the spy was incredibly hawt and deliciously arrogant, but I also remember loving the heroine, because she was brave and she seemed so powerful to me. She was only sixteen, but here she was changing the course of a war–playing a significant role in American history! It was thrilling to my 12 year old self. “Girls being important” was a major requirement in the fiction I read at the time, probably because I always felt so unimportant in my own life (sixth grade was a bleak time).
Margaret was a Nebraska schoolteacher, and I loved the frontier setting, the rawness of it, and I really felt her excitement of being on her own. I loved that she was smart and that her smartness was admired. Also, for some reason, it seemed incredibly romantic to me that she taught her manly but illiterate love interest how to read and write. Dunno what that says about me.
I have the same memories about my favorite Sunfires, and am surprised at how much I remember about some of them. I recall scenes from Jennie, who had to report about something horrifying and tragic that was happening to her home, her town, and people she knew. And Caroline clearly had an impact on my reading because cross dressing! I love me some cross-dressing heroines, even if I don't believe for one minute an 18 year old can fit in a 12 year old boy's trousers.
I feel a bit of hesitation about introducing y'all to people who are doing studies of reader groups, because I don't ever want you to feel obligated to participate. You're absolutely not obligated! Please do not feel as if you are! But if you'd like to contact Victoria, you can email her.
Either way, if you have many fond memories of the Sunfire series, please tell me which is your favorite.
I'm so wishing they were digitized because I would re-read the hell out of them. Time for a trip to the used bookstore, I think!