Barren Bitches Book Brigade: Harriet the Spy

December 3, 2008

Barren Bitches Book BrigadeAfter yesterday’s One-Bitch Book Brigade, in which I was the only person who read The Baby Trail, it is a delight to go from monologue to dialogue for one of my favorite books ever, Harriet the Spy.

Oh, Harriet, how I’ve missed you.

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

Some parts were so familiar, as if I’d read the book last week. The names — Ole Golly, Harriet M. Welsch, Pinky Whitehead. The tomato sandwiches every day (which I emulated by having the exact same sandwich every day of 6th grade, but with a different filling). The egg cream (which led to me trying my first egg cream at the only old-fashioned soda fountain in town — I was disappointed that Harriet had led me astray). The spy route. Janie’s chemistry experiments. Sport’s good nature. That sketch of Mrs. Golly is forever burned into my brain. But I’d totally forgotten about the bizarre Welsch family dynamics — if they ever registered in the first place, in my childish brain.

What would you have done in Harriet’s position after her friends discovered her notebook?

I’d also forgotten about her notebook getting discovered — a scene which resonates so much more now, after I had a similar episode during adolescence in which suddenly a dozen of my friends were surrounding me, staring at me, and one friend (the one who’s, uh, boyfriend, I’d, uh, stolen… not my finest moment) was asking me pointed questions and not backing down. The kind of scene that I thought would never happen again once I finished adolescence. Until it did, a decade later. Except this time I’d done nothing wrong to draw the stares of two dozen classmates, except for being infertile… but that’s a story for another day.

When I was rereading the book now, I thought about whether Harriet was wrong. Wrong to think truthful things? Certainly not. Wrong to write them down for herself? No. Wrong to publish a column in the school paper calling people out by name? Yes. And then I wondered about my own situation, and how if some people in my life ever discovered my blog, a blog which has occasionally said very un-nice things about just a few people, there would be hell to pay. Even though, just like Harriet, all of the mean things I have said have been completely true. In fact, my husband estimates that I have disclosed only 1.2% of his mother’s many faults. So really, I’ve been incredibly easy on her. If she ever discovered my blog, she should thank me for painting her so favorably.

In Harriet’s situation, I think that I would have covered it up by claiming that it was all fiction. Not sure if that would work, but worth a try. Short of that, I think that confronting the kids with the truthfulness of the statements (even if hurtful) could be effective. I’d also try to divide and conquer — go to people individually and try to get them back on my side.

That, or I might change schools.

Harriet’s parents almost entirely delegate all parenting tasks to Ole Golly or Cook. Did you have any particular reaction to their uninvolved parenting style? Was your reaction influenced by your own infertility/journey toward parenthood?

I had no recollection that her parents were so utterly uninvolved in Harriet’s daily life. I think that as a kid, it didn’t seem weird to me. I knew plenty of kids who were raised by the nanny, and it was no big deal. Now, as someone who has tried so desperately to become a parent, I can’t fathom having no idea about your child’s interests or true self, nor can I imagine being so poorly attuned to her emotions. I tried to sympathize with her parents, to share the “Oh, shit!” moments when they realize that they don’t know their daughter at all, but I couldn’t. Age 11 is not the time to start parenting.

Looking at it from this side of childhood, I’m surprised that Harriet doesn’t feel unloved by her parents.

When you read it, do you read it as an adult reading a child’s book or do you forget that you’re grown-up and think of it in the part of your mind that is still 12?

Both. Except that I was 10, not 12.

Her observations on class, child maltreatment, gender politics, and why people do what they do are fascinating now, as a grown-up. But so many feelings come rushing back when Harriet feels them.

How do you think Harriet would have upgraded for the new tech? Would she be blackberrying instead of the notebook?

In this age of ubiquitous information and constant invasions of privacy (whether from cell phone cameras or wiretapping governments), it is difficult to think of a child being able to spy the way Harriet does. Sure, thanks to technology she could set up a teeny remote webcam in a dumbwaiter, but people now almost expect to be observed and I feel like Harriet would be discovered constantly.

I like to imagine that Harriet would go both low and high tech, supplementing her Blackberry with a moleskine notebook. I think that Harriet would enjoy being old-school, and that she also might have concerns about the most secret secrets being electronically intercepted. Plus, a girl who enjoys the flourish of her signature that much could never abandon paper and pen. Sounds like someone else I know… Gotta run, time for my cake and then my route… I’ve said too much.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens. 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.

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8 Responses to “Barren Bitches Book Brigade: Harriet the Spy”

  1. Deb Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    It is interesting to read the responses of those that read it as a kid. I didn’t so my take on it is completely as a grown up 12 year old.

    I can see her going with a combo of technologies now that I read your thoughts on it. But I do think she would definately have a camera on her tool belt to capture the stranger moments 🙂

  2. Delenn Says:

    I agree that Harriet would probably do low tech and high tech. I also agree with you about her parents. Nice comments.

  3. Kristin Says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment quite like what Harriet experienced when her notebook was discovered but I think, if I had, I would try to cover it the same way you suggested…by saying it was all fiction.

  4. loribeth Says:

    I love your observations about how much harder it would be for Harriet to spy these days. Sad, but true. I also dread people finding out about my blog, even though I’m pretty careful not to name names. Dh reads it so I tend not to vent too much about him on it, even though sometimes I’m tempted…!! ; )

  5. Betty Says:

    I have never read Harriet. Perhaps I will have to put it on my reading list.

  6. Annie Says:

    Yeah, sometimes I wish my blog was private so I could vent more about people I know IRL, but unfortunately a lot of people I know read it…which is okay with me, just keeps me from being completely honest at times.

    I hadn’t thought about it, but I think you are right about Harriet going low and high tech. I can also see her snapping photos on a camera phone and then uploading them to her anonymous blog where she dishes about everyone in her town.

  7. Mel Says:

    Oh my G-d; I am seriously going to show you how dumb I am right now–I had literally never put together the “finding of the notebook” and the “finding of the blog” situations. And how it really could happen to any one of us (and it has happened to me before that someone has found my blog).

    The first thing we’re going to do when we finally get to meet face-to-face is that I’m going to make you an egg cream. You must not have had a good one. I make a damn fine egg cream.

  8. Queenie Says:

    I don’t remember reading this book as a kid, but I think I’ve taken a lesson from it. I tend not to write about people at all on my blog, despite the fact that I anonyblog, because if I was ever discovered. . .well, let’s just say I wouldn’t like to be in Harriet’s shoes.

    I was completely struck–and horrifed by–Harriet’s parents. I think it’s one of those things I wouldn’t have even picked up on as a child, but as an adult, I found upsetting.

    I think if Harriet was spying today, she might discover that some people know she is spying, and allow her to do it–there is such a voyeuristic component to our society nowadays!


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