Saturday, March 24, 2007

Harriet Redux: Harriet Spies Again

It's normal to see an old book friend and sadly ruminate that its author has died or become inactive and there are no more like the old favorite to look forward to (or as Harriet M. Welsch's Ole Golly would frown and say " more like the old favorite to which to look forward."

Well, I seredipitously ran across Harriet Spies Again at my public library branch. I read Harriet the Spy as an adult, in what is now a long time ago, because my oldest child loved it, and the two sequels The Long Secret and Sport soon after when I became an elementary librarian. Those books made me wish I had had such books to read when I was ten years old. Despite many years and a mediocre movie about Harriet, the books remain mind-altering chronicles of childhood.

In this "companion book" by Helen Ericson, Harriet's cheerfully oblivious parents go to Paris on business for three months and persuade former nanny Catherine (Ole Golly) Waldenstein, just married and living in Montreal, to stay with Harriet during their absence. Harriet is at first overjoyed but then perplexed that Ole Golly seems a sadder and less forthcoming version of her former self and sets forth to spy out the cause. Harriet's best friend Sport, her cantankerous cook, and the upscale New York City neighborhood of Harriet's apartment and school are faithfully re-created by Ericson, and Harriet's "voice" seems familiar as she notes her observations in her voluminous journals. After rather a longish bit of surveillance, Harriet puts the results of her findings together to conclude the Ole Golly is both estranged from her new husband and pregnant. Harriet cooks up a convenient solution to this problem which comes to fruition as planned on Thanksgiving Day.

So what to say about this "companion book?" It's not bad: it reproduces the sardonic tone of Fitzhugh's writing and catches the slightly compulsive and solipsistic world view of Harriet M. Welsch fairly well. Harriet seems less estranged from her peers than would have been expected from the Fitzhugh books; she's bored with her classmates' "yammer, yammer," but seems to have come to the decision that it's something "up with which she must put" as Ole Golly might phrase it, to get by in seventh grade. (Which seems like the sort of rational decision a more mature Harriet the Spy might have come to, er (Sorry, Ole Golly) which a more mature Harriet might have come.)

The central fault, I feel, is not in the characterization or style, but in the too facile conclusion of Ericson's plot. One can almost see the climactic scene (in which Mr. Waldenstein staggers into the Thanksgiving dinner scene half-frozen and collapses at Ole Golly's feet) in the movie of Harriet The Spy II. It is the kind of ending that Louise Fitzhugh couldn't have written, and as such it reflects back negatively upon the rest of the book.

For sure kids should read Harriet The Spy and Fitzhugh's two sequels first. I wouldn't discourage any of them from reading this book if they wish. In some ways it's a good try, not the real thing, but not bad reading either. I just wish it could have been better.

As for the sequel to this "companion book," Harriet the Spy, Double Agent, by Maya Gold, my opinion is "Don't bother." It's a fair girl detective story, but it's not Harriet. Harriet's complexity and sly take on her world are not there, and the rest of the characters, Harriet's parents and classmates, are stereotypes of their original selves. Harriet just can't be franchised.


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