Although my family didn't usually watch the U.S. Steel Hour-- indeed thanks to Mom's wisdom, we watched relatively little TV aside from a few favorite shows-- we happened to catch this episode. I was the same age as the heroine. It has haunted me ever since. But I couldn't remember the title. After trying to track its identity down over a period of years, and failing, in desperation I finally posted an inquiry on IMDb's mind-numbingly active "I need to know" forum, recounting the few specifics I could remember, and hardly expecting an answer. Was this marvelous story I thought I'd seen just a dream I'd had? But wonder of wonders, a few days later a kindly and vigilant fount of wisdom replied, and quietly nailed it. Heaven-only knows how many hundreds of other forlorn queries she has taken the time to read, and for no recompense beyond the satisfaction of occasionally helping total strangers satisfy their curiosity. There are miracles and unheralded saints in cyberspace.
A Google search on the title, once established, revealed that it is originally a short story by Pamela Frankau published in Harper's, August 1952; that this short story was widely enough admired to have been often taught in high schools; and that its adaptation for United States Steel Hour was so conscientiously produced, or perhaps so controversial, as to leave the amplest archival documentation of the entire lengthy series. By these measures alone, the fact that it might make a deep impression on a young viewer should come as no surprise.
But now on to the story: it's about an adolescent-- about all adolescents: people at the age when they *must* begin questioning all that they have experienced or been told. So they take a few steps into the big world, bump into a fence, and wonder whether the grass isn't greener on the other side. Penelope is a little different from her age-mates, or at least feels different, and (being a typical adolescent) she doesn't like that. Part of her difference is her freedom: she has never been constrained by the typical fences. Her father doesn't particularly believe in them. So the fence she bumps into is not hers, meant to keep her in, but someone else's: is it there to keep her out? Naturally, it occurs to her that maybe fences are better. What if the coolest people are those who live snugly (or should we say smugly) behind a fence of their own making?
I hope that by now you can see why this short story and the well-done TV drama based on it have so much to say to us once again. Americans in droves are entertaining the same hypothesis. A nation which had long prided itself on its freedom suspects that a great disaster happened to it because, both figuratively and literally, it didn't have enough fences, and the way to keep it from happening again is to build them. Are we thereby losing our taste for freedom, and turning into a nation of those Bradley-Smugs whom Ms. Frankau had satirized so eloquently in the 1950s?
To make a short story shorter, Penelope proved to be a wonderful kid with a great dad. What she needed was self-confidence. With that, she quickly came to her senses and began cherishing her own heritage gratefully. Her lesson is one America is in danger of forgetting and would do well to review.
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