Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Harriet the Spy and Me

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.


 Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.

 --Joan Didion, "On Keeping a Notebook"

Confession: my casually thrown out resolution at the first of the year to eschew the new, i.e., focus on re-reading, has more to do with solipsism than a desire to reacquaint myself with the books of the highest literary merit. My diaries only go up until the first weeks of college, when I forced myself to abandon the OCDing of my daily life. I made a stab at keeping a writer's notebook in the early 90s, but found my entries dispiriting. I thought when I started blogging that I'd found the medium that fit, but that was before book blogging became something you worked at in a professional manner, rather than allowing it to go out in its nebulous first drafty state.

Which is all to preface saying I was delighted when the Girl Detective announced the Summer of Shelf Discovery. How better to get in touch with the girl I used to be than by touching base with the books that mattered to the girl I was then? In all honesty, touching base with the books I read rather than the words I wrote down way back when removes a lot of the risk that I'll need long-term therapy if some of that old stuff  gets the better of me.

I first encountered Harriet M. Welsch in 4th grade. I was fresh off a summer dominated by cousins-- the one from Dublin shared a room with me while many of the others lived next door with my grandfather--and horses and ponies and VBS and The Eagle has Landed tee shirts. My best friend and I had had too much fun together in 3rd grade and the authorities had seen fit separate us in order to tone us down; we spent as much time as we could in the school library, where we were never bored and it didn't take as much effort to remain civilized. I had short hair for a change, and a cast on my left arm due to a fall from a horse. My teacher believed me when I told her I knew my multiplication tables (and I lived that particular lie until 8th grade when I was finally called it and forced to learn the ones I'd been using my fingers on). This was the year that JW explained to the rest of us on walks around the far edge of the playground what sex was; I was repulsed and immediately dropped JW as my boyfriend. When yearbooks went out in the spring, I would X-out his picture and write THE DEVIL on it.*

I have a distinct memory of coming into class after lunch one day and asking our teacher's aide to read Chapter 5 of Harriet aloud and how let down we all were when she elided right over the word we wanted her to say when Harriet screamed at her parents, "I'll be damned if I'll go to dancing school."

Harriet permeated. Fourth grade was the year I decided I would be a writer (I was just facing facts: among them, I lived a century too late to be a real cowboy ). After a short stint as a spy (we were all spies for awhile), I turned straight to writing stories and novels, not turning to non-fiction until I reached high school. Unlike Harriet, who got in trouble for writing in her notebook during class, I had a string of teachers who didn't mind how I occupied myself (if I was quiet about it; they liked me so much better if I kept my mouth shut) as long as I completed my work. Once, in 7th or 8th grade, a classmate (a non-reader; seriously, I don't think they ever managed to teach him how to read) stole a notebook I was writing a book in, but it was later found deep in the bowels of a desk. For years, I would play my own version of Town, only mine took place on horse farms with large, but non-Catholic families (okay, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family happened at some point during this), and I devoted realms of paper to keeping the names and ages and attributes of the kids, horses and dogs all straight (my brother, who went through quite a bit of paper himself, would become incensed by own prodigal consumption).

So what's my take on Harriet the Spy 43 years later? I find myself terribly annoyed that an editor didn't catch that Fitzhugh messed up her time. Harriet's parents fire Ole Golly on a Saturday night and she leaves the following afternoon; she's "finishing up her packing" when Harriet gets home from school; we all know Harriet doesn't go to Sunday school. You could make an allowance here, and say that Ole Golly was actually fired early Sunday morning, except for the fact that Harriet thinks, "this is a very bad Monday indeed," on the following day, which means Monday happened twice. Someone should have noticed this and fixed it. Honestly, I noticed this back in 4th grade, but who would I have pointed it out to?

Also, I don't find it the least bit plausible that the school newspaper would run some of Harriet's articles about her classmates' parents or her teacher. I wish Fitzhugh had had Harriet learn how to be edited and to change her writing approach instead of basically just allowing her publish her notebook entries.

And I hate that Fitzhugh never mentions the titles of any of the books that Harriet reads by flashlight under the covers. Crime novels from the drug store? Classics supplied by Ole Golly; maybe some Sherlock Holmes? Was she a library user or did she filch books from her parents' shelves? I want to know!

More on Fitzhugh next week, when I talk about The Long Secret, Harriet the Spy's sequel.

*When my daughter became friends with a JW during college, I showed her this Xed-out picture. Instead of being delighted by it, as she was, she should have heeded it as a warning. Her JW would sublet her apartment one summer, not pay the power bill, not clean up before he moved out, and leave her to deal with a refrigerator full of maggots when she came back.


  1. I loved Harriet the Spy as a kid, mainly because of Town and her notebooks and how much I wanted to sneak into buildings and spy on people.

    As a young teacher I used it as a read-a-loud with a group of sixth graders. From some reason the principal came into my room to cover for me while I went to a meeting and ended up reading the word "damn" to the delighted shock of the students.

    It's been a while since I read them, but I think an elementary school, certianly a progressive one in New York circa 1960, would have run Harriet's articles in their school newspaper. It might not happen that way today, but back then, I bet it would have.

    I totally missed the date issue with Ole Golly. It's not clear to me that she was fired or that they all agreed she should move on. It really was time, in my adult opinion.

  2. I discovered Harriet the Spy in the bookstore at University of Hawaii at the beginning of the summer my parents spent there, and read and re-read it all that summer, the summer I turned eleven. It's kind of amazing to me how many of my friends also love that book, despite its flaws. (Now I'm not going to reread it for a while, because I don't want to see them.)

  3. I love this post, especially the part about JW being THE DEVIL. Hilarious and fun.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Anonymous4:44 AM

    I didn't discover Harriet until I was myself a teacher. I never skipped over 'that' word. Your pupils need to know that you're human too.

  6. Anonymous9:38 AM

    OK, now I feel stupid, I never noticed that timing issue. But I love Harriet. I agree, it's not likely a school would have let her publish those stories. But at the same time, I loved that Harriet did it. :-)

  7. Harriet's school was progressive and screwy, but it's surprising that some of those entries made it in.

    Even to this day, Harriet informs the way I dress: Hoodie and jeans all winter long if I'm not working.

  8. What a wonderful reminder of this book! I loved this one when I was growing up.

  9. I never noticed the timing issue either! And I read it over and over as a kid. I remember being befuddled by some of the slang, like "plotz."

    Did you ever read the third in the series, Sport? It came out later but I loved that one too. Different focus but equally subversive in its own way. Might be time for a reread.


As a reader I cherish the fantasy of one day stopping acquiring books, of subsisting only on what is already stashed away in the crammed lar...