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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On Harriet

Some years ago, columnist and author Regina Brett spoke to one of my English classes at Ursuline about being a columnist and author. When asked what made her decide to become a writer, she gave an answer that took my by surprise... she said she decided when she was 10 and read Harriet the Spy. This took me by surprise because I decided to write when I was 10 and read Harriet the Spy. In the new version of Mr. Deeds, Winona Ryder's character, Babe, credits Harriet the Spy with her decision to become a reporter, and a quick Internet search tells me that the three of us are far from the only ones.
So what is it about Harriet? Harriet is an upper class girl living in 1960s New York City with no parents to speak of - flaky strangers who barely know her name, and a nanny who, though wise and deeply supportive, is about as maternal as a rock. Left alone every day after school, she wanders through the city spying on folks - through skylights, from dumbwaiters, in back alleys, and writing down her observations. She writes down her observations about friends and family too, and none of it is particularly nice. She writes things like "I bet that lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and just feels terrible," and "My mother is always saying Pinky Whitehead's whole problem is his mother... Does his mother hate him? If I had him, I'd hate him."
The thing is, I had nothing really in common with Harriet. We weren't rich, my parents weren't flaky absentee parents, I didn't really write, and I didn't spy. So what was it?
I guess it starts with the things Harriet writes. Harriet writes the things that everybody thinks but nobody admits they think. Well she writes the things I think and don't admit I think anyway. And she doesn't fit in - not because of anything external or because of a conscious choice but because she just isn't like others and can't seem to force herself to be. She's driven by loneliness, by a desire to be something and someone else, to break out of what's expected, not because she wants to, but because she's meant to.
Harriet dresses like a boy in a time when that isn't done. She crawls around like a spy while her classmates take dance classes and talk about boys. She wants a career when women in her time and place were supposed to want to be wives and mothers and go to parties.
I think that's why Harriet has appealed to so many folks. We all think things we're not supposed to think and hate being hemmed in by arbitrary rule and expectations, and we're all meant to do things that everybody thinks we shouldn't do.

So how about you, readers? What book inspired you to be who you are?

Glasses, hoodie, notebook, bad posture, sneakers... yeah, this could entirely be a line drawing of me.

1 comment:

Bonnie Jacobs said...

When Harriet the Spy was published in 1964, I was a busy mother of preschool twin daughters and an infant son. Tonight, I put this book on reserve at my library and will try to rectify my lack of knowledge of this girl ahead of her time. While waiting for the book to arrive at my branch of the library, I'll try to narrow down the books that influenced me to be me until I arrive at one. Recently, I produced a list of my fifteen favorite books, so I'll peruse the list and let you know.