On Being a Spy

I’m one of those adults who never read Harriet the Spy during my childhood. In her review of the 50th anniversary edition of the book, Hillary Busis from Entertainment Weekly observes that “Harriet M. Welsh would eat Anne of Green Gables for lunch.” Probably so. And as an eleven year old, I had happily read and ingested all the Anne books. So chances are I wouldn’t have liked Harriet all that much then.

A few months ago I finally read Harriet on the recommendation of a writing student. And when I first started, I didn’t like Harriet at all. I found her appalling and unsympathetic. Here was a girl who makes the most terrible observations about people – about their minds, about their bodies, about the bleak futures she foresaw them having – and writes them down in her notebook. No one is spared, not her loved ones, her friends, her teachers, or strangers on the street. On top of that, she’s rude, self-involved, and spies on people – sneaking into their homes, peeking into windows. Why? Because she wants to be a writer, and to be a good writer is to be a good spy.

Now being a writer, naturally that idea stopped me. And I have to say, it interested me, too. So I kept reading, through Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. By the end, I was completely enthralled by the sheer bravado of this story.

This year marks the 50th year anniversary of Harriet the Spy, a book written by Louise Fitzhugh and edited by the legendary editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Many regard Harriet as one of the most influential books in children’s literature, and rightly so. Harriet is a completely new kind of character: flawed, brash, someone who speaks her mind, and who isn’t afraid to be a “truth teller” as Jonathan Franzen notes, no matter what the price. Instead of being a role model in manners, she’s a role model in ideas.

As a writer, this book made me think deeply about what it means to write for an audience. How does one find truth and represent it on paper? As a child, I too, kept a notebook, just like Harriet. I called it a journal, but it was a place where I wrote down my thoughts. But unlike Harriet, at even a very early age, I understood what it meant to be caught. I didn’t take my journal everywhere, I never left it lying around the house for anyone to see. Instead, I kept it hidden in my room.

Most of all, from day one, I edited. I left out the parts that could truly incriminate me. Throughout the rest of my childhood, all the way through college, I continued my journals, and I continued self-editing.

During my MA in fiction program at Boston University, the ten of us would sit in class reading each other’s short stories, and wonder every time, was this a thinly veiled autobiography of the person we were reading? Did this embarrassment, this disappointment, this failed relationship in the story, actually happen to the writer? We filled in shadows, connected the dots, no matter how unfairly, because speculation led that way. And knowing that, I continued editing myself.

But Harriet, as a fictional character, never does this. She never edits, she never lies in her notebook. She never lies at all. And perhaps the lesson is there. Especially when what happens to Harriet is that her notebook full of sharp, unflattering observations of her friends and classmates, is eventually found and read in class, and suddenly Harriet is faced with the consequences.

I’ve read many reviews of Harriet in recent days, and while most of them focus on the groundbreaking character of Harriet, few mention the other reason this book is so compelling – it’s a masterfully written novel. It’s a story where the stakes are high, and where Harriet loses not one, but two of the most important things in her life, and how she recovers with her integrity intact.

Harriet the Spy is great book for anyone who wants to think about the challenges of being an honest writer. But it’s also a great lesson in storytelling, and how to build relationships between characters, like the one between Harriet and her nurse, Ole Golly, the most important person in her life who leaves her midway in the book. In creating Harriet, Fitzhugh and her brilliant editor forged a new kind of story, an audacious one that pulls at us and makes us squirm, and then makes us want to be better writers.

1 Comment
  1. A beautifully done piece, Sheela. Thank you for reminding all of us huge fans of HARRIET THE SPY why we love this book so much – and why it’s so groundbreaking.