This was my first time reading Harriet the Spy, and both the tone and the details of the plot were completely different from what I was expecting. I knew the novel covered Harriet’s daily spy route and associated activities, and the plot summaries I’d read beforehand mentioned the discovery of the notebook by Harriet’s classmates. But I didn’t expect this to only happen in the second half of the novel. It’s interesting how everything that happens in the first half is so crucial to understanding Harriet’s isolation later on, yet neither the back cover blurb nor most summaries I found mention it.
(Speaking of the back cover blurb, I read the Harper Collins Modern Classics edition, and it’s so just odd that it claims the book is a Newbery winner when it isn’t. I had to double check the list of winners like five times to make sure I wasn’t the one who was wrong.)
There’s plenty to sink one’s teeth into here, and probably as many angles one could approach Harriet the Spy from as there are readers, but what interested me the most was how I couldn’t help but spot some parallels between the events of the plot and attitudes towards women’s writing that persist to this day. It can be argued that Harriet is drawn to spying for the same reasons she’s drawn to writing: because she’s interested in people. Her notebook entries are often less than tactful, but behind them there’s a genuine desire to understand what makes people tick. Part of this has to do with being a child trying to make sense of the behaviour and the emotional lives of the adults around her, but holding on to that curiosity as you grow up just might be the mark of a great writer (hopefully via perceptiveness and imaginative leaps, rather than, you know, actually hiding in people’s homes).
The reactions to Harriet’s journal made me think of the pervasive idea that girls and women (and by extension, anything they write) must above all else be nice. It’s difficult to imagine a Harry M. Welsh suffering in quite the same way Harriet does. This isn’t to say that a notebook full of unkind remarks found by a boy’s classmates wouldn’t be a source of conflict, but uncharitable thoughts coming from men, even if criticised, and never framed in quite the same way. This is especially interesting when you consider that Harriet is actively resisting a brand of femininity that some of the adults in her life want to impose on her:
“You girls need a few graces, you know, turning into young women any day now, don’t want to be clumps on the dance floor, nothing more embarrassing than a wallflower. Your mother’s worried about the way you move, Harriet.” And she suddenly focused on Harriet, waking her out of a reverie.To be clear, it’s the imposition, not the dancing lessons Janie’s mother wants the girls to attend in themselves, that constitute the problem — it always bears repeating that there’s no wrong way of being a girl. Harriet wants to move fast and not worry about grace or the lack thereof; she wants to be a writer and spy and at this particular point in her life she’s not particularly concerned with whether her writing hurts other people’s feelings. I love how the story opens up these possibilities for girls.
“Fast,” Harriet said, “that’s the way I move, fast. What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, aren’t you something. Wait’ll I tell Harry that. You’re as bad as Janie.” She laughed a lot more for good measure. “Well, we’ll just see about that. I think you girls have something to learn. I think you have to find out you’re girls. I think we might just get together, all us mothers, and blast a little sense into your heads” – her hand was on the doorknob – “and I don’t mean your kind of blast, Dr Jekyll.”
I also find the extent of Harriet’s unkindness worth thinking about. Harriet’s private writings weren’t tactful, but Fitzhugh makes it clear that she only begins to act cruelly after her writing is taken away from her. I love how Harriet repairs her friendships but doesn’t relent, and I love the quietly subversive ending: in a reversal of all the stories where women writers are pathologised or perceived as irreparably broken, Harriet is taken to a counsellor who says there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with her. She also learns that tact often involves keeping your own counsel, but she gives herself permission to continue to speak freely on the page and in the private realm of her thoughts.
I’ve heard good things about the 1996 movie version, starring Michelle “Dawnie” Trachtenberg as Harriet. Have any of you watched it?
They read it too: Valentina's Room, Book Addiction, Bermudaonion's Weblog, The Book Smugglers
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