I’ve been tagged! Thanks, Candace, I love the question, which is:
What was your favorite book during those important early years? What impact has that story had on your life? How can you relate that story to current events?
I had a couple of different choices. The first thing that came to mind was Charlotte’s Web. The second that came to mind was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The third that came to mind was Flowers in the Attic. No, just kidding about that last one.
But then I had to throw those precious books aside – as marvelous and important as they were to me – and go with Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.
I honestly don’t know if Harriet the Spy could even be published today. She is such an unconventional heroine. She’s not always likable. She’s bossy, secretive, contemptuous, and sometimes witheringly mean to her best friends. She sees people’s weaknesses – that is Harriet’s great gift and great curse. She finds weaknesses interesting. She spies on people. SHE BREAKS INTO PEOPLE’S HOMES TO SPY ON THEM. She hides in the dumbwaiter of one rich old broad’s house, who never gets out of bed, and writes down everything the rich old broad says. Harriet sees things like: women buying 50 cans of cat food in the store, and she wonders about it. Why? Can someone have that many cats? And if so, why? What is that woman’s life like? Then she will follow that woman home to find out. She peeks through windows, stares through air shafts … she has certain pitstops she has to hit every day. She memorizes people’s schedules so she knows where to be at what time. Harriet is a lunatic. A small criminal in training.
However, when I say Harriet is hugely responsible for who I am today – I am not talking about being a criminal. I’m talking about being observant. I’m talking about finding the human race interesting enough to make it your calling. Observing, imitating, delving into, writing about it. Whatever it may be. Harriet certainly judges. She feels bad for the man with the cats. She hates some of the kids at school. She thinks the Drama teacher is a moron. But above all else: she finds them all interesting. She is a difficult person. She is 11 years old and she is already an eccentric.
I was like that. I was not an easy child. I did not fit into any mold. I knew who I was very early. Harriet seared into me. She flames off the page. Still. Harriet still has the power to make me be brave in scary situations. To face the truth. To grow up. To let go of things that are stupid. To trudge through the tough times, gritting your teeth and bearing it. Etc. She is still my role model, in so many ways. Role models aren’t perfect. Anyone who is a paragon of good-ness is highly suspect in my eyes. I don’t trust them. In the same way that I do not trust fundamentalists, or those who know – without a shadow of a doubt – that they are right. Nope. That’s a house of cards. I do not trust those people. I do not trust people who do not admit weakness in themselves, but who are so eager to see weakness in others. But someone who is flawed? Who struggles, and honestly? Who makes mistakes and maybe is awkward and bumbling at growth? I trust those people.
Through the course of the book, Harriet eventually learns to have compassion for people’s weaknesses, as opposed to just ghoulish curiosity. However, there is no real “lesson”, or moral here. That’s one of the extraordinary things about this book, the difficult things. Kids are spoon-fed stupid morality lessons nowadays – every single piece of literature has to “teach” you something – hence the quality of books have gone down, and difficult complex truths are avoided.
At the very end of the book, after Harriet goes through HELL because the entire school reads her private (and very bitchy and very mean) journal … Harriet eventually realizes, in a moment of clarity: “Sometimes you have to lie.”
Let’s hear it again: Sometimes you have to lie.
Those words just echoed through my head when I first read them, and they still echo today. “Sometimes you have to lie.” I still think of that, at times. If you think your best friend is ugly and a little bit crazy, does it in any way help her to tell her point-blank, “I think you’re ugly and a little bit crazy”? Harriet learns to hold her tongue, and she learns to lie. And in the context of the book, that is a good thing. It is part of growing up. I mean … what?? (Come to think of it, I just wrote about this this past week.) It’s a complex thought, and it’s not spelled out for the kids reading the book. It’s not wrapped up in a neat little bow to make it palatable and understandable to kids.
Harriet, at the end of the book, is not any less brilliant, or any less ambitious. She is going to be a writer. Or a spy. Or something GREAT. But she has learned to censor herself and her contempt for others. She has been beaten down by too much truth, and she chooses to keep her two best friends in her life (Sport and Janie) rather than lose them.
I love Harriet. It hurts how much I love her. There is NO WAY ON EARTH that you could EVER convince me that Harriet does not live off the page, that she does not go on, that Harriet is not “out there” somewhere. She is REAL.
Maybe the book is about learning to take the high road, even if it means sacrificing things you hold dear. Maybe the book is about not sweating the small stuff. Maybe the book is about loyalty. But loyalty to what? Harriet must not betray her inner voice. Harriet NEEDS to spy on people. Harriet might have a great future in the CIA, who knows. She could be working for the United States government right now. She has a gift. She is 10 years old, and she is damn good at what she does. She sets out every day on her “rounds”. She has her notebook, and her special belt – where she has clipped a flashlight, a penknife, and other tricks of her trade. What feeds Harriet? What turns Harriet on? Humanity. PEOPLE. She NOTICES things.
Harriet, with all her faults and failings, is AWAKE.
God, I loved her for that, and I still do. She taught me how to look. How to really see.
Harriet taught me how to be awake. I started keeping a journal because of Harriet, and because Harriet always used one of those black and white composition books, so did I. I used those as a kid, and I still use them today. Diary Friday all comes out of piles and piles of black and white composition books.
Harriet’s life looked nothing like mine. She grew up in New York City. She was a strictly urban kid. She had a nanny who was a highly mysterious and bossy woman, a hard-ass, but so lovable you think your heart might crack open, named Ole Golly. (I refused to see the movie because Rosie O’Donnell was Ole Golly. This so offended my interpretation of the character that I refused to subject myself to it. A cutesy eunuch Ole Golly? What are you – out of your mind?? Ole Golly has a secret life, a secret boyfriend … this is a woman who has de-sexualized herself completely in one area of her life – as a nanny – and who lives it UP in another area of her life – with her secret long-term beau. Ole Golly is a grown-up, dammit, not a pug-faced self-regarding homunculit.) Harriet’s parents were urbane busy atheists. Yup – atheists. AND they are not judged for it by the book. They are who they are. The parents leave Harriet HIGHLY unsupervised. I mean, their child goes out every day wearing a SPY OUTFIT, and breaks into people’s homes … and they have no idea. They are going to the opera, to benefits, the theatre … They are not involved in the nitty-gritty of Harriet’s life. But Ole Golly sure as hell is.
I grew up in a small university town, with acres of turf farms on one side, and the Atlantic ocean on the other side. I had parents who loved me and who were very involved. Catholics. I did not have a nanny.
But I related to Harriet’s soul. I still do. I still learn from Harriet. I probably read that book once a year. She’s one of the greatest female characters of all time. She’s right up there with Jane Eyre and Anna Karenina, as far as I am concerned.
I still try to live up to Harriet’s high standards. I can be unforgiving like Harriet. I can have contempt for other people’s weaknesses. I can hold people to a standard which is impossibly high, so that it sets me up for crushing disappointment. But through writing – through the act of putting pen to paper – I am usually able to see deeper, to go beyond the surface of things.
And to never … ever … lose interest in people. Like Tracy Lord says in Philadelphia Story to “Mike” – “The time to make up your mind about people … is never.”
And if I had to say how Harriet relates to current events? I don’t know. In terms of my own current events, I think I have already covered that. But in terms of the world? I’ll riff a little bit, and see what I come up with:
— Harriet learns that honesty is not always the best policy. Sometimes it is the better thing to soften the blow, to be more diplomatic. “Sometimes you have to lie.” That seems to be relevant.
— In terms of parenting, and the whole craze of over-protective parents everyone talks about all the time: Harriet is indicative that little kids can handle a lot of independence, and they may get into trouble- Harriet gets into major trouble – but by avoiding trouble, or by protecting your kids vigorously from every brand of trouble – you will be robbing them of great life experiences. Harriet is laid LOW through her troubles. She goes through the bleakest time imaginable when the entire school hates her. It’s even hard to read about. But she needs to go through that. Even Ole Golly bails on her. Ole Golly realizes that Harriet no longer needs “a nanny” … and the best thing for Harriet would be for her to be abandoned. I mean, this is a tough tough lesson, and Ole Golly is willing to do it. Harriet needs to grow the fuck up, and she will be unable to do so as long as Ole Golly is around as a crutch. So Ole Golly leaves. Harriet must fend for herself. This is not an easy book, and Harriet’s loneliness and fear is palpable. You want to climb into the book and tell her it’s going to be okay, this too shall pass, she’s an amazing person, she will be an amazing woman … but that wouldn’t help Harriet. Harriet can’t skip that step of growing up. Her parents can’t protect her, Ole Golly can’t protect her … Harriet makes mistakes, and she has to learn how to clean up her OWN messes. And she does. This book is a perfect example of how sometimes letting kids just go is the best policy.
The other thing the book shows, in terms of parenting, is that parents can invest too much in their little progeny. They actually believe that they can mold the child’s personality, that they can create a mini-them. I’m not talking about instilling values or morals – I’m talking about parents who believe that they can create little mirror images of themselves, and then are SHOCKED when the kid has a mind of her own. Well, that’s the parent’s fault. The kid is a person on their own. Why don’t you just sit back and let the KID tell you who they are? Sure, help them with tough decisions, teach them right from wrong … but other than that? Leave them alone and maybe YOU’LL learn something from THEM.
Look at her belt! Look at her sneakers! She didn’t need the glasses, but she wore them because they made her look sharp and smart. Harriet is NUTS. I love her to death.
This is one of my favorite books of all time.