Thursday, March 08, 2012

Childhood Classic

I was a huge fan of Harriet the Spy when I was a kid.  Of course, right? There's a world full of bookish, writerly type kids who loved Harriet, Sport, and Ole Golly.  Bold, smart, blunt, independent--she was fabulous.

Someone (I wish I could remember who!) blogged about Harriet recently, saying that it's a pretty upsetting book on rereading--Harriet spends some time truly afraid that her classmates are going to kill her.  I was surprised enough to want to reread it and see what else there was to see.

It was kind of startling, actually.  From the perspective of an adult, Harriet's a really infuriating kid.  She's selfish, small, stubborn, shouty.  She thinks a lot of mean thoughts, she yells all the time.  When things turn against her, she turns super mean, shuts down.  It's kind of amazing, actually--a picture of depression in a kid, a picture of someone who's tough facing something enormous that she doesn't know what to do about.

But what's really shocking is Ole Golly.  Harriet's nanny is honest and matter-of-fact, and has a quote for every occasion.  Since Harriet's mother and father don't have much to do with her, Ole Golly is her main parent.  I remembered her as the perfect picture of an adult who treats a child like a person; I remember wanting an Ole Golly.

Rereading, though, she's kind of horrifying.  Her honesty to Harriet is great, it's true, but she never teaches the girl anything about kindness, or friendship.  She talks about truth, and being a good writer, but not how to avoid hurting people.  And when she leaves--well, it's not out of character that she is unsentimental, but her pervasive message is, "don't miss me, because I won't miss you."  This goes beyond pragmatism and into just plain lack of affection.

I felt horribly sorry for Harriet.  Not just because of her parents, and Ole Golly, or because of how her class treats her (you almost can't blame them).  She didn't seem to have a lot of the emotional equipment a person needs, even at her age, and I didn't see where she was going to get it.  Blunt honesty is the gold standard in this book, and I'm a bit taken aback by that.  I wonder now at my 12-year-old reaction to it.  Did I really want to be Harriet?  If so, thank heaven I've grown up.


Anonymous said...

I really liked this perspective. I re-read it a few weeks before you, and I was like, omg, how did I not realize that this was incredibly sad?? I wonder how many other childhood faves there are like that?


LibraryHungry said...

It was you! Of course I should have checked Goodreads. I reread it specifically because of your review. Really, it's kind of creepy and sad. I think the fact that it didn't seem that way when we were kids really speaks to how honest it is, though.

Aarti said...

Oh, how depressing! What a great post, though. I read Harriet the Spy when I was younger but don't remember it at all. I wonder what the author must have been like and thought- was it planned to be a book like that or meant to be more light-hearted? Hmmm...