Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Barren B*tches Book Tour: "Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh

This round's book club selection was a children's book -- "Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh. I enjoyed it tremendously -- much more than I did when I read it the first time around at 9 or 10 (as you'll read below). And even though it's a children's book, I found a lot that hit home & that I wanted to take note of -- my copy is fat with yellow sticky notes.

If you read Harriet the Spy as a child, what aspects of the book did you still remember? What did you totally forget?

I do remember getting Harriet from the library & reading it when I was a kid, in the early 1970s. The funny thing is, I did not remember very much about it -- except that I didn't like it very much. I don't remember why I felt that way. I remember recognizing then (& even more so now!!) just how much Harriet was like ME -- writing in her notebook all the time, wanting to be a detective (like Nancy Drew), wanting to know "everything" and feeling stifled. Prone to outbursts (especially at parents, & especially mom), being bullied at school & feeling very much the outsider. (OK, maybe I just answered my own question...!... maybe it just hit too close to home!)

Perhaps Harriet's New York City world, with her cook & her nanny & dance school lessons, was also just a little too alien for a (very) small-town/rural/ Prairie Canadian girl to relate to (& remember that kids in those days were far less exposed to the world beyond their own little town than they are today -- no Internet, for one thing -- and we only had ONE TV channel, for crying out loud...!).

I also think the picture on the cover may also have had something to do with it (and the one on my paperback version is the exact same one I remember from my childhood). With her glasses (albeit "fake" ones) & baggy clothes, she looked/s a bit schlubby. This was long before the whole Disney Princess mania took hold, but I always was a little bit of a "princess." My mother used to complain that I would never be a ghost or a witch or a hobo for Halloween -- I always had to be something "pretty," like a gypsy or an Indian princess or a Dutch girl. ; )

Reading this book reminded me about my teenage years. Those muddled years of when you know "everything" but don't really know "everything". Those years when you "hate" everyone and everything and then "love" everyone and everything. When you really become introspective to the point of often not knowing what is "really" going on around you. Harriet chose to write a lot of those feelings and observations down in her journal. Did you write a journal when you were a teenager? Have you looked back at those years (journal or not) and wondered what was going on in your brain? (I know I do!)

I have kept journals, on & off, through various times in my life, from the time I was 7 through my early years in university. Somewhere, in the depths of the closet in my old room at my parents' house, there is a cardboard box full of notebooks that I REALLY need to retrieve & bring home with me someday...! I have not looked at these old journals in years... part of me winces just thinking of what's in there (WAY too much angst -- perhaps some of it justified, but much of it over stuff that really didn't matter in the long run...!!)... although I know there is probably some really hilarious stuff in there too!

I've kept journals sporadically in the years since I got married. I think what's happened is, when I was in high school/university, I had several penpals that I wrote regularly to -- huge, long, detailed (handwritten!!) letters that sometimes were written over a period of weeks, & sometimes went on for 20, 50,100 pages!! When I was at university & feeling guilty about not writing in my journal, I realized that these letters were, in fact, a journal of sorts, & I started photocopying them & putting them in a binder.

These days, I get the same kind of release from e-mail, Internet bulletin boards, & now blogging. I keep intending to back up some of the things I've posted on boards & on my blog (& never do), just to ensure I have a record of it. The whole idea & process of journalling fascinates me -- I have all kinds of books with journalling prompts & suggestions, etc., & I've always loved reading other people's published journals (starting with Anne Frank's, as a girl). And I have a Rubbermaid bin full of beautiful blank books that I've collected over the years, just waiting to be written in...!

Obviously, this book brings up many questions on privacy and journaling. At one point, Harriet journals all day at school instead of doing her work. Has anyone worked on their journal/blog at work? And been caught? When do you blog/journal? Do you do it when you should be doing something else?

Ahem. I have never published on Blogger while at work -- until today. (I forgot today was posting day! -- fortunately, I had most of my draft written & ready to go!). Sometimes, when the inspiration for a post hits me, I will open a new e-mail, write, & then mail it to myself at home -- edit/add to it & then cut & paste it into Blogger later. I do check for comments on my blog a couple of times a day, & check in on my Google reader & comment on other people's blogs during the day -- usually first thing in the morning when I'm settling in with my tea, and later if things aren't too busy.

Back in high school, I used to write letters to my pen pals during class (no computers then, all handwritten). Somehow, though, it was much easier back then to write letters instead of paying attention in class & still get good marks. These days, there never seems to be enough time for everything that I need & want to do.

I think the only person who has objected to my blogging/journaling is dh, & it's not the blog at all that he objects to, just the fact that I'm holed up with the computer upstairs while he's in the living room with the TV. I think the next computer will be a laptop...! ; )

This book was written in 1964, when gender roles & stereotypes were much more rigid than they are today. In Chapter 4, Harriet & Janie feel the pressure to conform, to go to dancing school and be steered away from "unfeminine pursuits" -- while later in the book, Marion, Rachel, Laura & Carrie imitate their mothers by playing bridge & drinking tea in the clubhouse. I was reminded of Carol Gilligan's work on how girls' "voices" change as they become adolescents. What do you think happened to Harriet & Janie as they became teenagers? Do you think young girls today still feel similar pressures to conform?

This was my question. : ) You don't see many young girls (or mothers, for that matter) sitting around & playing bridge these days, do you? If they were 11 years old in 1964, Harriet & Janie would have graduated high school & started university in the early 1970s. They may have (reluctantly) gone to dancing class -- but I like to think they maintained their feistiness through their teenaged years.

I think both girls had too much common sense to roll around in the mud at Woodstock & take drugs ; ) -- but I think they would have been at the forefront of the political protests of the time. They would have been among the first generation to benefit from feminism at university & then in the workplace. I like to think of them fighting for change on campus & in the workplace, reading Ms magazine & working to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed in the mid-1970s.

After her visit to Dr. Wagner, Harriet's mother takes away her new notebook immediately, and Harriet is described as feeling empty on the ride back home. Many people, especially bloggers, seem to use writing as an outlet. What would you do if someone took this outlet away from you during a time of difficulty? How would you cope if you had no notebook?

I found it interesting/funny that Harriet objected to Dr. Wagner taking notes during their session together -- but eagerly accepted when he offered her a notebook of her own.

I have used writing as an outlet just about all my life -- through journals, letters & now the Internet -- so I find it very hard to comprehend a situation where I could not write down my thoughts, feelings & observations. Even when I am without paper & pen or a computer, I find myself composing in my head (only not to be able to remember what I wanted to say when I finally do sit down to write...!). I suppose I would seek out people to talk/unload to, more than I do at the moment, if denied paper/pen/computer. But I think I express myself better/more clearly & fully on paper. I'm always going back & revising what I've written to ensure it reflects exactly what I want to say (although I find I always want to add or edit more later!).

For some reason, although I've read Harriet the Spy literally dozens of times over the years, this is the first time that I realized why I love it so much. It's because, to me, this is a story of the pain of growing up. The pain of being in between childhood, with the deep, intimate connectedness that entails, and adulthood, with the separation and independence and freedom and responsibility that come with it. Re-reading this book now reminds me that although I had thought as a child that someday I would be done the work of growing up, I don't feel like I am done, and I wonder if I ever will be. So the question is this: what is the experience of growing up like for you? And is it something that you think is ever complete?

I like the fact that this question is worded in the present tense: "What IS the experience of growing up like for you?" Because even though I'm fast approaching 50 (not QUITE yet, but definitely headed in that direction...!!), I still don't feel very grown up a whole lot of the time. I thought that maybe having kids would make me feel more "adult" (because with kids, you have to at least try to act like an adult, at least some of the time). But I don't have any (living) children -- so I guess that's my excuse. ; )

I do feel my age sometimes (especially when dealing with the 20-somethings in my office, some of whom are old/young enough to be my children...!), but I can still feel very much like a kid sometimes too -- and, reading this book, I was reminded very much of what it feels like to be a kid -- the fun stuff, and the not-so-fun stuff, like the wrath of other kids at school. Dh marvels at how I can remember old hurts & insults like they happened yesterday -- when I talk about them, I can feel my body tensing up & hear my voice start to rise. He'll say, "It was 30 years ago, let it go!!" but sometimes it's easier said than done...!

When my great-aunt was in her 80s, she once told my mother, "You know, there's still a young person inside this old body." So I guess age really is just a number. It's how you see & feel about yourself that's the important thing.

Do you think Harriet kept her notebook for the same reasons we blog?


Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens (http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/). You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken.


  1. I was going to participate in this book tour and got so far as to finish the first half of the book before the events of Nov. 6. : P I liked your own question a lot -- one of the other Harriet books, The Long Secret, is set during the kids' adolescence (Beth Ellen gets her period; the book is more her story than Harriet's).

    I also liked the book more as an adult -- like you, as a Midwestern small town girl, I couldn't relate to Harriet's world of nannies and chauffeurs and the Hamptons and hardly any interaction with her parents. But now, having been exposed to an awful lot of prep-school angst stories, I find her a more sympathetic, fully realized character.

  2. Its funny...I remember hurts and insults from years ago too. I wish I could completely let go of them but I never quite seem to do it.

    I also don't feel like I'm grown up enough to be thee one in charge. Its kind of surreal.

  3. Hmmm, I wonder if one of the reasons I liked the book so much as a kid is because Harriet's urban world was so different from mine! If only I'd been ABLE to spend an afternoon on a spy route with no one knowing where I was...

    Is it a sign that our blogging need is reaching Harriet-esque proportions when the husband comments, "You are going to blog about this, aren't you?"

  4. I was also amused by the interaction with Dr Wagner. Interesting on your take on the book as a kid and now.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Well, first of all, I just love you for using the word "shlubby."

    I too would love to re-read my old journals. I never think to grab them when I'm at my parent's house. I did reread one journal I had here from 8th grade. It was too funny.

  6. I totally cracked up when I read that you'd put post-its on your book!

    I have pulled out some of my old journals, and they are often painful to read. I keep thinking "what a loser I was"! It's also pretty funny--there are boys that I OBSESSED over, and now I can't even remember who they were.

    Had Harriet not lost her notebook, I'll bet she would have been horrified to read it years later.

  7. Very interesting responses, Loribeth. As a fellow Canadian Prairie girl, I remember being a bit flummoxed by Harriet's life and family when I read the book as a kid. A cook, a nanny, egg creams, groceries being delivered...it was all way outside my little world at the time. But the book was able to transcend that barrier for me, mostly because I really felt like an outsider as a kid, and Harriet's character was one I could relate to so completely.

    The question about growing up was mine - thanks for picking it and answering it. I'm glad I'm not the only one that doesn't feel like my growing up is finished!

  8. I so wanted to participate in this tour - but got busy and then went out of town. One of my favorite books when I was younger, though not as fond as "Sport" written by the same author and featuring Harriet also.

    I had notebooks growing up too - though more inspired by the Anastasia Krupnik books there. No surprise here either, that I have a stack of blank books also - books that were beautifully bound and so wonderfully ready to be written in, that I could not bear to leave them in the store!

    When I was younger, reading Harriet the Spy and about her lifestyle was a nice respite from my own. Her world was so different from mine - but so lovely to imagine as a pre-teen!

    Thanks for sharing your viewpoints!

  9. Harriet the spy!! I have not thought about this book in ages. I loved this book when i was younger. Have you ever seen the movie version Loribeth? I think Rosie O'donnell played Ole Golly.

  10. Haven't seen the movie, Ms G, but I think you're right about Rosie O'Donnell as Golly.

  11. My grandmother often has a similar sentiment to your great-aunt -- "when I look in the mirror, I see an old lady and sometimes I have no idea who she is. I still feel 21."

    Rosie as Ole Golly? I guess the personality works, but the casting feels strange because I always think of Ole Golly as being incredibly tall and skinny.

    I just checked the cast list and Eartha Kitt is Agatha K. Plummer! Aside from the race not being what I imagined, that casting feels perfect. :)