For some reason, I sometimes forget about Harriet the Spy.
If someone else brings it up, I’m immediately all, “Oooo, oooo, oooo, yes! Harriet the Spy! ZOMG!” *faints* But more than once I’ve been asked to name the books which inspired me in my youth and I’ll reel off Watership Down, The Mystery of the Witches Bridge, and The Lord of the Rings (among others), but somehow forget Harriet the Spy.
This fact is so weird to me. I’ve read it at least as many times as Watership Down, though perhaps not as often as The Mystery of the Witches Bridge. In terms of how I thought about myself as a young person, Louise Fitzhugh had far greater influence than Tolkien. I had my spy kit and my notebook. I played Town. I even attempted a spy route, though that was a disaster from the get-go. (Got caught my first time out, and it was super awkward and resulted in me being grounded.)
One theory might be that I’m unconsciously dismissing a woman writer, which isn’t a ludicrous notion. But if that were the case, how does Barbee Oliver Carlton of Witches Bridge make the cut, or Judy Blume, or Madeleine L’Engle—two others I often name?
This has been troubling me the last few days because I re-read Harriet the Spy for the first time in a long while. At age 51 the book is no less powerful to me than it was at age 11. It seems downright absurd that I would forget such a profound part of my reading life.
After puzzling over it for the last few days, I’ve come to a provisional hypothesis: I identify so closely with Harriet that she’s become something of a “goes without saying” figure from my youth. Of course Harriet the Spy was important to me: she’s an isolated, only-child curmudgeon with weird parents who lives in as much in her imagination as in the real world. Certainly the comparison breaks down in many areas, but I think it’s fair to say that at age 11, and 12, and 15 and, yes, 51, I see a lot of myself in Harriet, and not just the stuff we might find admirable, charming, or entertaining. Harriet is an amazing figure: complicated, difficult, and even unlikeable. But also eminently identifiable to not just myself, but to many, many people.
And, after my recent re-read, it’s clear she’s as important a character today as she was in 1964. She’s a fabulous jumble of contradictions: with strengths that are also weaknesses, insight and blind spots, a streak of cruelty but also a capacity for understanding, a feisty determination tempered by a developing adaptability. She’s believably 11, yet shows signs of the adult she can become: strong, fierce, creative, but also compassionate and genuine. She would be a difficult friend to have, but well worth the effort.
Going forward, I resolve to not forget Harriet. And I urge you to return to her yourself, or—if you’ve never read Harriet the Spy—get to know her for the first time.
1 Harriet the Spy is not without its problems. There’s a lot of fat-shaming language which seems to be more than the character of Harriet being her at times judgmental, cruel self. The presented-as-wise Ole Golly shares it, and she’s none too kind about her mother’s intellectual limitations as well. Throughout the book you’ll also find hints of classism too.
One might argue Harriet the Spy is a product of the times, and quite progressive all things considered. That may be true, but it doesn’t absolve us of a responsibility to address the problematic aspects of the book. Nor would I suggest we can’t love problematic things. Of course we can. The fiercely feminist Courtney Summers loves Supernatural for all its problems with its treatment of women, and often speaks eloquently—and hilariously—about its strengths and flaws (also, I think Dean is her boyfriend, but it’s not clear is he knows that2]). One of my own influential books mentioned above, The Lord of the Rings, is downright horrible when it comes to women and race. I can still love it, even as I acknowledge these serious flaws and endeavor to keep such things out of my own work.
This thoughtful post on how to be a fan of problematic things speaks more clearly on the matter than I can.
2 Correction: Dean is absolutely positively Courtney’s boyfriend.