Monday, September 17, 2007

HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh

The Book: Louise Fitzhugh, HARRIET THE SPY. Dell New Yearling trade paperback reprint, 1984 (originally published 1964). Book is in fair condition; spine is slightly cocked, paper shows age-related browning.
First read: 1972
Owned since: c. 1990 (this copy)

I should get a new copy of this book. For one thing, I dislike the cover intensely; "Harriet" is depicted as a chubby girl in pigtails, which tells me that the artist never read the book. Harriet is proud of not being fat, and she would never consent to pigtails. In my mind, Harriet looks a little like a childhood version of the mystery novelist Karen Olson (Karen, I hope you take that as the compliment I mean it to be).

My parents brought my original copy of this book home from a book fair at St. Leo's parish school, when my sister Kathy was in first grade there. I don't remember what they brought back for Kathy; this book was always and only mine. That book eventually fell to pieces; this one is at least the third copy I've owned.

It feels like a cliché to say that this book made me who I am today, but it's the truth. I have been distressed, throughout my life, to find that this book is equally significant to some women I wished I didn't have that in common with.

If you haven't read the book, it's about Harriet M. Welsch, the 11-year-old daughter of a New York television writer and his socialite wife. Left to her own devices under the supervision of her philosopher-nanny, Old Golly, Harriet records the comings and goings of her neighborhood -- among them, the Italian family who runs the grocery, a hermit who keeps too many cats, the most boring couple in the world, and a hypochondriac divorcee. Harriet also turns her laser-like powers of observation on her closest friends and classmates -- and when her notebook is discovered and read, she becomes a pariah. Whatever we may say, none of us wants to know what other people really think of us.

The book is a powerful coming-of-age story about the need to temper sharp observations with compassion, and I reread it once a year or so -- because I still need reminding.


Jennifer Lechner said...

I won some contest at school and got to choose whichever book I wanted. I chose Harriet the Spy because it was the biggest book. It became one of my favorites. My copy has long since fallen apart. I will have to buy a new one for Grace.

Karen Olson said...

I do take that as a compliment! (Although I think perhaps as a kid I was far too skinny and way too shy to be Harriet, but I was always writing things down.) This is one of my absolute favorite books of all time as well. My 10 year old daughter read it recently and was just as enamored of it (I was so worried she'd hate it!). My original copy has disappeared but we have a new one now, and I'm sure both my daughter and I will revisit Harriet from time to time.