Before picking up HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh again, I tried to remember why I didn’t like it many years ago. And all I could remember was that it gave me an uncomfortable, squirmy, unhappy sort of feeling that stemmed from reading about Harriet doing things she shouldn’t that were clearly going to cause Bad Things to happen. Now what’s odd is I wasn’t really a goody-two-shoes kid, and I liked lots of other books about characters that were naughty, or even who did things I felt they shouldn’t, who did things that I saw as hurtful, etc. So there must have been something more to it than that, but my memory consists entirely of the squirmy feeling.*
And then I opened the book, and the degree to which this is an obnoxious girl with no discernable redeeming qualities, with whom I cannot sympathize at all, and who is not even interesting to make up for it, absolutely bowled me over. Harriet’s attitude towards the people on the subway when they go to visit Ole Golly’s mother really turned me off. I began to get slightly more interested in Harriet as a character only when her spy notes began to be less observations and more musings. Like:
What is too old to have fun? You can’t be too old to spy except if you were fifty you might fall off a fire escape, but you could spy around on the ground a lot.
Harriet’s reaction to being an onion for the Christmas play went a long way towards endearing her to me as well, so by mid-book I actually cared about the main character, which is helpful. I vaguely recollect that my original reaction to Harriet’s friends reading her notebook was more on the friends’ side, but this time through I thoroughly empathized with Harriet, particularly as she goes through the subsequent days miserable and misunderstood. So from that turning point on I was properly hooked, and I really did enjoy the rest of the book, but I likely wouldn’t have gotten that far naturally (like, without being determined to finish and blog about the book).
A few other random thoughts:
- What the hell kind of a name is Ole Golly? I mean, seriously.
- I think Harriet seems like a 9 year old, not an 11 year old. The things she wonders about, her level of awareness (or lack thereof) of her friends’ and classmates’ having feelings, and just her general behavior, don’t ring true of an 11-year old for me. That made it hard for me to buy into the character; I eventually just decided that in my mind she’d be 9, and that made it all work much better.
- I suspect as a child I was confused by the progressive-type school Harriet attends, particularly as it would have seemed incongruous with the other time period cues given in terms of the parents’ behavior, etc.
- I’m not sure I find it believable that Harriet was permitted to print the newsletter items she did – but I enjoyed the twist of her not actually being reformed or learning her lesson.
*I recall a different kind of squirmy feeling from some books that I loved but that creeped me out or were deeply affecting in a way that stuck for days after reading (especially Time windows book), so that I started hesitating to re-read them, even though I loved them, because it was too big a psychological commitment. I do a similar thing with some movies now – I really want to see them, but I’m sure they’ll leave me depressed, and I’m never willing to commit to that so I keep really wanting to see them but when the time comes to actually sit down and watch something I choose fluff.