Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy picks me up and dumps me right back into the desk I sat in during the sixth grade. I never had a nanny and I couldn't have guessed which borough was which in New York City, but before I finished the story, I had my own notebook.

Harriet, a precocious eleven-year-old, wants to be a writer so she spies, writing down everything about everyone. Her spy route involves climbing onto roofs, peering through windows and even sneaking into dumbwaiters to observe the private lives of people she finds interesting. The people on her spy route are all alone, as Ole Golly is alone and Harriet is alone. It's easy to see the emptiness around Amanda K. Plumber and Harrison Withers--but even the Robinsons, who fill the hole in their life with extravagant, often frivolous items, and the Dei Santis, who orbit one another without ever colliding in a meaningful way--are isolated from those around them.

Compounding her violation, Harriet makes biting criticisms about her subjects. As myopic as she is, Harriet understands neither her transgression nor that the judgments she's made of others apply equally to herself. Throughout the book, Harriet continues to spy--first out of habit, then out of an intense desire to know what people are saying and doing about her.

Ole Golly tells Harriet to always be honest with herself in her writing. What Harriet needs to learn, however, is when honesty is more harmful than a lie. Harriet learns to take responsibility for the contents of her notebook but more importantly she learns how to repair some of the hurt she has inflicted. Ole Golly could have fixed it, and indeed she is instrumental in Harriet's eventual solution and growth, but first Harriet must struggle for weeks, the butt of classroom pranks and as a stranger to her parents. It is only by standing alone that Harriet is able to step into another person's shoes.

Final Note: I feel Harriet the Spy has as much to offer parents as it does children. Most of the Welsh's discomfort stems from the fact that they do not know Harriet well. They flounder and focus on the tangible but ultimately recognize the need for--and seek--assistance. As parents, it can be frightening to admit when we cannot help our children. Sometimes, just being there with them and rolling around on the floor like an onion is not enough and we need a trained, objective observer.