Sunday, 30 March 2008

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy was my favourite book when I was 12. I read it, in Italian obviously, on a fantastic holyday in Corsica, and I’ll never forget how much I liked reading it sipping milk and honey, while cooling down after a day on the beach. It was part of a series of young adult books specifically chosen for girls. After reading this I started reading all the books in this series, which made me discover Philip Pullman (Sally Lockhart), Tanith Lee, Astrid Lindgren (Ronja), and many more wonderful authors. But I’m digressing…
So, I’ve read this for the first time more than 15 years ago and except for the fact that I loved it, I couldn’t remember much about it. So, when I saw it in English in a charity shop I knew the time had come to refresh my mind. It’s always dangerous to re-read your childhood favourites. They will never have the same effect on you, and you might discover that the book you loved as a kid, is a disappointing read as an adult. The charm can only live in the past and in your memories.
But re-reading Harriet was almost like going back at that time, because its charm didn’t fade with the years. I was completely enthralled all over again with this little self-absorbed, curious, energetic little girl. And since I didn’t remember much about it, it was like reading it for the first time.

For those who never heard of this classic, Harriet the Spy is the story of Harriet M. Walsh (though she has no middle name, it just sounds better) a privileged 11 year-old girl who lives in New York in the 60’s. Her much loved nanny, Ole Golly, had told her once that if she wanted to become a writer, she had to observe people and write down everything she saw. That’s how Harriet becomes a spy, jotting down any thoughts about anything or anyone that would cross her mind or sight, and keeping a daily spy routes to monitor her targets.
Her notebook is always with her, ready to host all her observations about her friends and schoolmates:

Sport's house smells like old laundry, and it's noisy and kind of poor-looking. My house doesn't smell and is quiet like Mrs Plumber's. Does it mean we're rich? What makes people poor or rich?

about the big and small questions of life like:

I wonder if when you dream about somebody they dream about you

or about why she didn’t understand math and other people did:

Either we each have a brain and they all look alike or we each have a special brain that looks like the inside of each of our heads. I wonder if the inside looks like the outside. I wonder if some brains, for instance in people who have longer noses, I wonder if those people have a longer nose part to the brain. I have a very short nose. Maybe that’s where the maths should be.

But what happens when her friends find her notebook, revealing her most honest thoughts about everyone?

This is not a plot-driven story. Until her friends find the notebook, nothing much happens, other than Harriet’s normal routine life. There’s a lot of time to get to know her, to hang with her friends, to spy on her favourite people and find out what happens to them, to sympathise with her when Ole Golly leaves to get married and to miss her comforting presence. In other words, there’s plenty of time to fall in love with Harriet, so that even when she acts like a spoilt brat it’ll be hard not to like her anyway.
I’ve found an article on the internet, Harriet The Spy: Iconoclastic, American Lezebel Icon, that made me look at this book in a different way. I never thought about the impact of a heroin like Harriet could have had in the 1960’s. Never thought she could be controversial, but apparently an outspoken 11 year-old wasn’t a great role model to give to girls, so much that in some schools the book was banned! Times have changed and Harriet's legacy still lives on, so much that a movie was made in 1996, starring Michelle Trachtenberg, which I can't wait to see.
Also, I found out Louise Fitzhugh has written more books about Harriet, and I plan to read them all!

other blog reviews
Heatherlo at Book Addiction
Josette at Books love me


Nymeth said...

"It’s always dangerous to re-read your childhood favourites. They will never have the same effect on you, and you might discover that the book you loved as a kid, is a disappointing read as an adult. The charm can only live in the past and in your memories."

Yup, this is very true! I'm glad it wasn't the case with this book for you, though. It sounds like a very fun read :)

Darla D said...

I remember very clearly the enormous sense of relief and happiness I felt when I picked up Harriet after twenty years and reread it - it was exactly as wonderful as I remembered! I had no idea the books were controversial at one time, although unfortunately it makes perfect sense. I hope we will look back at books that are making waves today and scratch our heads and try to figure out why on earth that could have been.

Josette said...

I only read this book last year! Harriet is certainly an interesting character - I like the bit where she writes notes in her notebook!

Here's my review.

valentina said...

nymeth, get it as soon as you can!! or read it for the classics challenge, it truly is a must read for anyone who loves children's books.

darla, yeah I hope so too. I do scratch my head already for a lot of books that are "controversial" now!
but I can't imagine the impact of a book with a female character "cross dressing" in a book for children in the 60's...:P

josette, thanks for the link, I've added it to my post!