February 25, 2014
On Living With Harriet the Spy #Harriet50th
I never read Harriet the Spy when I was a child, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would have been sophisticated enough to appreciate it if I had. There are subtleties at work in the novel, a subversion I might not have been comfortable with. Instead, I loved The Long Secret, the lighter, sunnier Harriet novel. In The Long Secret, Harriet’s father is always home, and doesn’t say “rat fink” once. It’s Beth Ellen’s novel, the girl they call “Mouse”, and really, this novel is subversive too. I was just too stupid to know. Beth Ellen, like Harriet, can wield the power of the pen, but that’s the secret. I loved the map in the book, tracing my finger along its paths and roads. I never owned the book, but The Long Secret is one I borrowed from the school library over and over again. It acknowledged that people could be ugly, and I appreciated that. (Of course, I own a copy now.)
I didn’t read Harriet the Spy until I was 28, and I couldn’t remember why I did, but a search through my blog archives reveals that it was the internet’s fault (and isn’t everything). In 2008, I found an article on Harriet the Spy (via Steph at Crooked House), and it was only then that I realized that Harriet had not been a girl-sleuth solving boring neighbourhood mysteries, but had in fact been a writer. So I finally met Harriet in her original form, and was besotted. The novel was a guide to life, a guide to how to write and be a writer, and guides to such things were important to me in 2008, when I was just a year out of grad school with my writing career going nowhere at all. And that character–she was everything I love about everyone that I love best. She was the best and worst parts of me as well, and I adored her unabashedness.
“When I have a daughter, I am going to call her Harriet.” I remember telling my husband this news in the waiting room at our dentist’s, and lucky for me, he likes most of my ideas, and this was no exception.
Harriet was born in May 2009, and right away, I saw where I’d gone a bit wrong. All these spirited heroines are very nice to dream of, but to have to live with them is a whole other matter. To have to be the person whose job it is to teach Harriets civility, or at least enough to get by–can you believe that I signed up for that? But we’re figuring it out, and so is she, and she really is everything I dreamed of her being when I first dreamed of my own Harriet seven years ago. She loves books, has a vivid imagination, swears too much and is often rude, has a jam-smeared face and messy hair, makes up great stories, is full of faults, is absolutely perfect, and fierce as all get-out. She’s the kind of girl I want to see in the world. She’s worthy of being a Harriet namesake. It might have been easier to name her Beth Ellen, but would probably have been less fun.
Last summer we read Harriet the Spy. Our Harriet had just turned 4 and was much too young, but she was eager to read the book she’d been named for, and I wanted her to hear it too. And I think most of the book went over her head, but she never complained of being bored (and believe me, she would have if she were). As I read aloud, I noted to myself that this was the first book I’d ever read her that contained the word gestapo, and fortunately, she didn’t ask for clarification. I would have told her, but it might have interrupted the flow of the book.
As we were reading the book, Harriet found a notebook of her own, and took to going around scribbling in it. That she didn’t know how to write as much as her name at the time to my Harriet was no deterrent.
It’s a complicated legacy, Harriet the Spy. To give it to a daughter is to open a can of worms, and yet it also contains almost everything a daughter will ever need to know. About character: the sense of self and strength of conviction I wish for her, for one. I want her to know the power of her own voice. Harriet is a good way to learn how to be a woman. And yes, I want her to learn the lessons that Harriet learns too–that indeed, people can be ugly. People can be horrible, but you don’t have to tell them. That we go wrong when we always privilege the truth–sometimes you have to lie. People are rotten and sometimes you have to lie, but also the world is fascinating, full of things to be seen, and you just have to pay attention. Stories are everywhere. Stories are also everything, and happiness and freedom can only come when yours belongs to you.