The Tragic Fall that Broke a Young Girl’s Personality

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What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge, 1872

Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago, ‘bout a girl who fell off the swings and broke her will to resist patriarchy.

I think the best place to start is with Susan Coolidge’s own explanation of her tale, given in the introduction. She describes

“a Katy I once knew, who planned to do a great many wonderful things, and in the end did none of them, but something quite different, –something she didn’t like at all at first, but which, on the whole, was a great deal better than any of the things she dreamed about.”

I need you to bear that quote in mind while I describe this novel to you.

Protagonist Katy Carr is the eldest of a throng of motherless children. She’s not particularly attentive and kind to the little ones or to her lessons, because she occupies herself “dreaming of a time when something she had done would make her famous,” instead of learning her lessons or tying her bootlaces like a good little girl. She rambles in fields and meadows, and gets into scrapes including a fight with the rival girl’s school.

The setup for Katy’s character growth is the best part of the book. Katy’s inept leadership of her band of siblings is quite charming. Sure, she lacks the patience and empathy that come with time, but she’s just a kid. Merely twelve. Unfortunately, Coolidge sees Katy’s spunk as a tragic flaw and not a strength. More unfortunately, Coolidge thought that a spinal injury should be the catalyst for Katy’s character growth.

Obstinate Katy decides to use the swings after her aunt told her not to. Aunt didn’t mention that they needed repair. Katy falls and injures her spine. Four years of immobility rob Katy of her dreams and domesticate her. Conveniently, she has an angelic and permanently paralyzed cousin to guide her out of her depression with such sage advice as “get a prettier nightgown so that you don’t bum other people out with your appearance.”

Bored out of her skull, Katy decides to start taking on domestic duties like deciding what her family should have for dinner. Gradually, she becomes a mother to her younger siblings. Her spine heals and she walks again.

Garbage.

I have so many problems with this story. Do we really need Katy to be paralyzed for her to mature? She’s immobile for four years, which would have been enough time for her to start taking on household responsibilities because she saw the need, not because she literally could not do anything else with herself.

The lesson here is that instead of striving to have significance in the larger world, young girls should endeavor to be good housekeepers, because that is “a great deal better.” Shut up, Susan Coolidge. Why are you writing novels when you should be ordering servants to cook certain meals on certain days? Oh, because you want to be recognized outside your own home. . .for telling women not to look for validation, acclaim or meaning outside their homes. Shut up. You’re the worst.

 

I also really hate when characters suddenly become not paralyzed. There’s so little representation for disabled people in literature, tv and film, it’s a damn shame that authors can’t conceive of meaningful growth for disabled characters that does not involve them miraculously becoming abled. Temporary disability as a vehicle for character growth is astoundingly weak writing on many levels, especially when said “growth” means giving up your dreams and settling for your gender role.

What an absolute piece of drivel this novel is.

You might like What Katy Did if:

  • you’re a halfwit

You might not like What Katy Did if:

  • you’re fully witted

Final Thoughts: Let’s not print this novel anymore, ok? Please.

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Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn Are the Original Scooby and Shaggy

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, 1872

I did not read Tom Sawyer as a child, so I cannot give it the sentimental effusion I gave to Little Women, which is a comparable book; both are so influential that children’s literature and television still borrow techniques and elements from these seminal works. Mark Twain’s two young scamps, Tom and Huck, sneak to the cemetery at night to perform some sort of witchcraft with a dead cat. They witness a crime and spend the rest of the book wrestling with scruple and fear. Ultimately, they manage to stumble into all the right places at all the right times to thwart the villain whom adult authorities failed to apprehend. Does this not remind you of Scooby Doo and Shaggy, and a host of other children’s stories in which the kids capture the bad guy? Mark Twain invented that. He also invented or at the least popularized going to your own funeral as a plot element.

He also created or described a delightful little boy barter economy. Tom trades marbles, teeth, bugs, bits of glass, one-eyed kittens and doorknobs among other things. He notoriously exchanges a chance to whitewash a fence for a wealth of items discarded by adults in their ignorance of the value of sundry scraps to little chaps. Half the humor of the book is in the small things Tom values, such as the ability to steer the movements of a tick during a school lesson. I also appreciate the charming superstitions Tom adheres too. Very funny.

While Twain satirizes the romantic visions of knights, thieves and pirates that Tom has acquired from Robin Hood and other literature, his story is quite a romantic fantasy itself. Children thwart a hardened criminal, survive for days while lost in a cave, and we must talk about Huckleberry Finn. As the son of the town drunk, Huck is brought up by no one. He sleeps in the haylofts of kindly strangers. He doesn’t go to school. The boys in town envy his freedom. Twain does not adequately explain how Huck manages to avoid starvation. Fishing? Seems unlikely to provide year round sustenance.

When the Widow Douglas insists on giving Huck a home, Twain portrays the moment as a lamentable loss of freedom. Granted, young boys can’t be expected to recognize the value of being told to bathe and go to school. It’s natural for Huck to feel uncomfortable in an unfamiliar setting. What bothers me is Twain’s depiction of the glorious liberty of being an uncared for child. I shudder to think of Huck’s vulnerability. Being unloved, undefended and unprovided for is a horrible position for a child to be in. As an allegory for freedom from the tethers of society, Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer only kind of works. I understand what he represents, but he represents it poorly in my opinion. You can take the teacher out of the school, but you can’t take the concern for the safety of children out of the teacher. I hope this trifle will be remedied in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I have enormously high expectations for. I find that books with glowing reputations in the canon tend to deserve them.

In Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain evinces exactly the racial sensitivity and understanding you would expect from a Southerner in the 1870s. Not good. Injun Joe is a dark spot in the already dark history of Native people in the English canon. I could go on about race in this novel and I will, upon request, but if you have found this blog, you probably already know enough about race in America to know what to expect from this region during this era.

You might like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer if:

  • you like children’s literature
  • you have a silly sense of humor

You might  not like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer if:

  • your life is too short for the slightly lesser works of great authors

Final Thoughts: Certainly worth reading. Very funny and charming if not the greatest work by this author.

Little Women

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, 1868

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I’m almost nervous to share my thoughts on Little Women with you. This is one of the most influential and beloved books of my childhood. I will never be able to convey how much it means to me. Perhaps you also read and reread it as a youngster. Perhaps the March sisters mean as much to you as they do to me.

Little Women is to children’s literature what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy literature. Neither book is quite the first in their genre, but both came so early on that their respective genres had not been named and described yet. Both set the standard that all later books in their genres strove to achieve. Here’s what Louisa May Alcott did so extraordinarily well and extraordinarily early:

  • characterized a group of children simply, quickly and consistently
    • simple details that can be referenced repeatedly help children remember which character is which and help them engage in a text from the outset. Meg is the oldest, the most responsible and she likes fancy things. Jo is a boyish bookworm with a temper. Beth is sweet and shy and plays the piano. Amy is selfish, a bit conceited and her favorite color is blue. We know all of this through direct and indirect characterization within the first three pages.
  • provided the details that kids simply must know
    • she knew that before delving into plot development, her audience would need to know the ages of the girls, what they look like and who is closest with whom.
  • understood that children actually are all striving to be good
    • it might not seem like it, but they are. The engine that drives Little Women is the sisters’ desire to improve themselves, to be good and worthy little women. Their struggles, failures and triumphs are so relatable, because every child understands what it’s like to try to be good and come up short, and how dear small successes can be.
  • provided moral lessons without preaching too much
    • I can’t think of a better example of this in literature than the episode in which Amy burns up Jo’s manuscript. Jo refuses to speak to her and does not warn Amy when she is about to skate over thin ice. Amy falls through into dangerously cold water. Jo is distraught with guilt and remorse. Alcott sneaks a lesson on the importance of forgiveness and the consequences of retaliation into a story so relatable and compelling that you don’t even notice you’re being sermonized. What child hasn’t taken retaliation too far? What older child hasn’t let their frustration overshadow their sense of responsibility? It’s all so dramatic and touching.
  • included plenty of unnecessary little anecdotes
    • the plot is nowhere near as important as the sense of unity the reader feels with the March family. We witness the silly plays they put on and read their family newspaper. The book reads like letters from home, which is great. It doesn’t need to be plot driven.

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Speaking of those plays the March girls perform, this book is so entwined with my childhood memories that I’m not sure whether my friend Mary and I got the idea to put on our own plays from reading Little Women, or if we like Little Women because the sisters put on plays just like we did. We certainly read Little Women repeatedly and we certainly wrote and performed some very silly plays.

My copy of Little Women and I have been together for a long time. We both have more fine lines than when we first met. In my early teens, I was once so angry at my brother that I stormed into my room, slammed my door and flung the first object my hand could find at the wall as hard as I could. The object was Little Women. It was on a bedside table more often than it was on a bookshelf, because I reread it so often. The wall in my room was mostly taken up by a large window. The book shattered one panel and went soaring. My mood shifted quickly. I decided to retrieve it in the morning to avoid having to explain to my parents why I was going outside at night, and because I was worried it might have sailed into the neighbor’s yard. When I picked it up it was full of rollypollys. I’m still sorry, Little Women. I wouldn’t have done it if I knew what I was throwing.

This isn’t one of my best posts. I don’t have anything funny to say about Little Women. My love for it is solemn and sacred. It’s a truly wonderful and practically perfect book. I was raised by a wonderful mother, a colorful father and a handful of books: Little Women, A Little Princess, the Anne of Green Gables series, and the Little House series. I love this book like it is a member of my family. I’ve spent more time with it than I have with some of my family members.

Oh, I do want to mention that it’s enormously satisfying to have read nearly all the books mentioned in the text. The girl’s paper is even funnier now that I understand the references to The Pickwick Papers. I love that Jo and I both love The Vicar of Wakefield. I understand why Jo is caught weeping over a copy of The Heir of Redclyffe. Unfortunately, reading Pilgrim’s Progress didn’t add much to my (life) understanding of the text. To be quite honest, one motivation for starting this project was my need to have read all the books that Jo March and Anne Shirley have read. I’m always striving to have more in common with my childhood literary heroes and what’s better to have in common than a favorite book? Well, I’d like to borrow Anne’s work ethic and housekeeping skills.

You might like Little Women if:

  • you like things that are good

You might not like Little Women if:

  • you’re a black-hearted scoundrel

Final Thoughts: if you have children, give them this book.