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Book Review: Through No Fault of My Own by Coco Irvine and Peg Meier

There is everything to love about this darling little package, including its provenance. Peg Meier, a dogged historian who delights in nothing other than digging through reams of dusty old papers, found a diary during one of her forays into the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society. She was looking for items for a volume she was planning about children growing up in Minnesota (Wishing for a Snow Day: Growing Up in Minnesota).

This little book (subtitled: A Girl’s Diary of Life on Summit Avenue in the Jazz Age) caught her eye, and as she sat there in the quiet reading room, reading through it, she had to stop herself from laughing out loud. She thought she had a real gem, but she didn’t know who Coco Irvine was. She assumed from the descriptions of her life that she had been wealthy. Well, it got even better than that. Coco Irvine was the daughter of a lumber baron, and grew up in a mansion on Summit Avenue, the cream of the crusty elite in 1920s St. Paul. In fact, her mansion was so elaborate and posh that in the 1960s, she and her siblings donated it to the state, whence it became the Governor’s Mansion.

Coco had written this one-year diary in the year 1927, when she was 13. What a year to capture in a young girl’s life! Boys, dressing up, dancing… all those terrible times caught between playing with dolls and wanting to go on dates. And Coco herself! When asked why she had not fictionalized the story, Meier says, “I could not have said it better.” Turns out that Coco’s family had published the diary as a book for Christmas one year. Alas, this means that the original was nowhere to be found. But it had been published in the 1970s, and somehow made its way into the MHS archives.

Coco’s exuberance shines through on nearly every page. She is irrepressible, intelligent, frustrated and determined. She is inventive, particularly when it comes to thinking of ways to break rules or get her way. Like the time when she and her friend concocted a plan to get better lunches. They would steal all the cutlery from the school lunchroom! What better way to ensure at least a week of going home for lunch? All was well until the girls, clanking their way out of school with their bloomers full of real silverware, hit the stairs, whereupon the elastic on her friend’s bloomers gave way and all that silverware went clattering down the stairs. The uproar from this debacle was epic. Suspension, hysterics and profuse apologies netted a lighter sentence for Coco.

Coco’s antics will leave you in stitches. And arranged as it is in this sweet little volume (a mere 6 x 4 inch trim size), you will enjoy her story as the year unfolds, with trips to the summer cabin on White Bear Lake, birthday parties, and skating parties. The book includes several family photos in the back, as well as an afterword by Meier, telling us what became of Coco. A real story of a real girl, almost too good to be true. As Meier says of her hunts for treasures of the past, “Sometimes you get something golden. Finding Coco was one of my best.”

Meier is the author of such bestsellers as Bring Warm Clothes and Too Hot, Went to Lake. She is a former reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and just another one of our Minnesota treasures. For a conversation with Meier and to find out more about her work, check here.

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