Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Harriet the Spy”
I was surprised when you told me that you’d never read Harriet the Spy, because it’s one of those children’s books that seems so ubiquitous. Maybe that’s a girl thing? I mean, I’ve never read a Hardy Boys novel. Maybe we’re both missing out. (Maybe you more than me, though.)
The titular Harriet M. Welsch, eleven years old, lives with her parents in New York City’s Upper East Side but is largely being raised by her nanny Ole Golly, who encourages her to write and read and think for herself. Harriet’s main passion is for “spying,” which amounts to wandering around her neighborhood and taking notes on the comings and goings of an assortment of relative strangers. She writes down all of her thoughts — harsh and honest and very much what you might expect from an insightful 11-year-old — in a notebook. And that, of course, gets her in trouble.
Well, eventually. First, book-quoting Ole Golly leaves Harriet to get married, shaking up Harriet’s life considerably. And Harriet gets cast as an onion in the school pageant. Harriet pals around with her best friends Scout (the numbers-minded son of an alcoholic writer) and Janey (an aspiring scientist determined to blow up the planet with chemistry). Harriet makes her rounds, scribbling down details from the lives she observes, there are some temper tantrums… This book? PLOT HEAVY.
The big plot twist is when one day, during a game of tag, the other kids in Harriet’s class manage to steal her notebook, reading the secrets within, including Harriet’s blunt thoughts about their personal appearance, behavior, parents and hygiene. The other kids proceed to ostracize her, Janey and Scout joining up with the popular girls to create an “anti-spy” club, and she’s harassed and humiliated at school to the point where she ends up staying home for several days. The worst bit is that her parents take away her notebooks, meaning that she has no way to express her thoughts.
She’s flat-out miserable until she receives a letter from Ole Golly, telling her to start writing seriously, and she gets her notebooks back. After some consultation between her parents and the school, she gets the opportunity to write for the school paper, and uses the opportunity to delight her classmates with real gossip drawn from the schoolyard. Eventually, she publishes a proper apology to her classmates for having written mean things about them, and she, Scout and Janey become friends again…
…and that’s about the end of it. The end.
Really, the major appeal of the book is the writing, specifically the truths written and spoken by Harriet and Ole Golly. Harriet’s thoughts, for example, after her notebook’s secrets are first revealed:
Something is definitely happening to me. I am changing. I don’t feel like me at all. I don’t ever laugh or think anything funny. I just feel mean all over. I would like to hurt each one of them in a special way that would hurt only them.
And from Ole Golly’s letter to Harriet towards the end of the book:
Another thing. If you’re missing me I want you to know I’m not missing you. Gone is gone. I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. I guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down. You can even make stories from yours, but remember, they don’t come back. Just think how awful it would be if they did.
I definitely read Harriet the Spy more than once growing up; I even bought notebooks like they were crack and tried my hand at spying, from time to time. But despite the fact that this book had a major impact on me, I wouldn’t say it was a childhood favorite of mine. I wasn’t sure why that was until I sat down to reread it for you this month, and discovered that the reason it’s always been stuck in my craw.
Harriet the Spy, it turns out, was the first book to make me uncomfortable in that way great fiction can when it speaks directly to you, and at the time I didn’t know how to process it. Here was a book about a girl who wants to be a writer, wants to understand a world that doesn’t make much sense even to the grown-ups in it, and feels isolated from the people around her as a result. It was too close to who I was, which meant I didn’t love it at the time. But rereading it now, remembering who I used to be, was a beautiful experience.
And then, of course, I made the stupid mistake of doing a little Wikipedia-ing, and discovering… Oh, Frank, it’s almost too hard to explain, I think I just have to show you:
Just so we’re clear, Frank: HARRIET THE SPY: BLOG WARS. FOR FUCK’S SAKE. I mean, I’m fine with the 1996 movie in concept — nothing wrong with Rosie O’Donnell as Ole Golly — but BLOG WARS?!?!? WHY IS THE WORLD TRYING TO VIOLATE EVERYTHING THAT MATTERED TO ME AS A CHILD.
(I mean, Ole Golly would probably be disappointed in me for getting bogged down in nostalgia. But Ole Golly would also probably be disappointed to learn that she was portrayed by the only actress in Canada to never appear in an episode of Stargate.)
Let’s just try moving forward, remembering fondly a novel for children that captures simply so many feelings which have evaded adult literature. Harriet the Spy is ultimately about how everyone feels sad and lonely and misunderstood. Some more than others, more often, but in the end, no one’s as alone as they think.