I reread Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret (which I didn’t properly appreciate as a young reader) in April, to write a pair of essays for the Literary Ladies site, hosted by Nava Atlas, author of (among other books) The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Literary Life (2011). Follow the links from each title, if you’d like to read more about Louise Fitzhugh (and a little more about me, too). This time around, I took notes about different things (like the names of all 26 of Harrison Withers’ cats). Revisiting, rereading: a pleasure and an education.
Harriet was just the girl I needed to find when I discovered Louise Fitzhugh’s classic novel Harriet the Spy (1964).
Because I wasn’t enough of a tomboy to climb trees. (When I was old enough to have my first pair of high heels, I wore them with everything: my skinny-jeans with the zippers at the ankles and the turquoise fleece pants that I sewed in home economics class.)
But I was enough of a tomboy to climb a tree high enough to see over the fence to the house next door. (Not the house I lived in – which was a second-floor apartment, with a view of the house next door’s yard – but the house of an older family member.)
The residents of that house next door were older. Not as old as Mrs. Plumber (and not as wealthy either, which is why I did not have the option of squeezing into their dumb-waiter, like Harriet) but maybe as old as Mrs and Mr Robinson, and certainly they lived lives just as exciting as the Robinsons did (which is to say, not at all exciting).
The entries in my à-la-Harriet notebook revolved around when and how they crossed the distance between the house and the garage. (It looked like a proper house and the men in the family – their grown adult son lived there too – spent most of their time in the garage, only returning to the house for meals and the ‘facilities’. And there was a proper mystery attached, because although everyone called the building ‘the garage’, their two cars were parked outdoors in the driveway.)
They travelled between the buildings more often than you might think, but not often enough to make their movements very interesting either. So although I’m sure that initially I must have climbed that tree with only my notebook in my pocket, I spent far more time sitting in that tree with a book for reading rather than writing.
I was already in love with notebooks and spying before I met Harriet, but she made that okay. Even something worth writing about. (I loved stories about other girls with notebooks too: Anatasia Krupnik and I, Trissy, for instance.) So, notebooks were familiar territory. But Harriet took me to unfamiliar places too: her life unspooled in what Leonard S. Marcus called “one of the New York-iest of all children’s books” (in the tribute included with Delacorte Books’ 50th-anniversary edition of Harriet the Spy, the library copy pictured above).
She was quite likely the first literary character who whispered to me of the possibilities that city life could hold, in a good way.
Almost everyone I knew, in life and in books, viewed cities as necessary evils: places you went to because you had to, for education or employment, for touring musical shows or hospital procedures. In my experience, big cities were places you visited only because you were forced there for a spell. But Harriet loved her life in New York City: it was her home and there were plenty of other families calling it ‘home’ too.
The stories I read that unfolded on farmland and in rural areas, they reflected a world I felt I already knew. The majority of my young life in Ontario was spent in small cities, towns, and villages, so stories about families in small settlements with a single school and neither a theatre nor a hospital (from Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn to Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy, Tacy and Tib) were reflections for me. Harriet showed me another world, through a window rather than a mirror. And, even more importantly, she told me that someplace else was not only okay but desirable. That there was so much worth spying on that I hadn’t even imagined yet.