Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Not Recommended: HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy
Written by Louise Fitzhugh
First published by Harper and Row in 1964
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Review Status: Not Recommended

A biography about Louise Fitzhugh is in the news. She is much-loved for Harriet the Spy. The biography description says that Harriet is "erratic, unsentimental, and endearing." But like many (most?) people,  Fitzhugh and her character have problematic views of Native people. The biography will likely prompt people to purchase Harriet the Spy again, and gift it to children. Should they do that? 

For those who did not read Harriet the Spy (first published in 1964), here is the description of the book:
Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?

In chapter one, we meet Harriet and her friend, Sport. Harriet is drawing and writing in her notebook. Sport looks over her shoulder (location 67 in e-copy), watching her. She says:
"Now, as soon as you've got all the men's names down, and their wives' names and their children's names, then you figure out all their professions. You've got to have a doctor, a lawyer--"
"And an Indian chief," Sport interrupted. 

Harriet ignores Sport's suggestion, saying she needs someone who works in television. There is no further mention of Sport's comment. 

Some of you may know the rhyme that Sport was going with as "Tinker Tailor." It is a counting or jump rope rhyme for girls that is supposed to tell them about their future husband. It starts out with "Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief." It juxtaposes "good" things, like being rich with being poor, or being a thief. Given that pattern, I think it is safe to say that it is preferable that a future husband be a doctor or a lawyer, but not an Indian chief. Near as I can tell, the rhyme with "Indian chief" in it is dated to the late 1800s in the US. I did a lot of jump rope rhymes when I was a kid but don't remember this one. Do you? Do you see kids saying it, today? If yes, where?

Not mentioned in the book description is Ole Golly, but she figures throughout the story. In the midst of Harriet and Sport's conversation in chapter one, we read "Harriet! Get up out of that mud!" from someone in the brownstone behind them. It is Ole Golly, her nurse. In chapter five, Harriet spies on Ole Golly when she goes out to be with her boyfriend, Mr. Waldenstein. She hears him tell Ole Golly that she is attractive, who is embarrassed by the compliment and changes the subject. She blushes. The text there is (location 1007):
The crimson zoomed up Ole Golly's face again, making her look exactly like a hawk-nosed Indian.
Big Chief Golly, Harriet thought, what is happening to you?
In the space of a few words, we see stereotypical depictions of Native people: the hawk nose, the red skin, and the use of "Big Chief" to describe someone with authority. 

When I call attention to this kind of content in popular or classic books, someone invariably replies that there's a lot in the book that is important, and that those things are more important than the problematic Native content. Those who say that are pretty much saying that the impact of this derogatory content on a Native reader doesn't count as much as the others who will, in some way, be affirmed by the rest of the story. But I hear that a lot. Over and over, Native kids are expected to push through that kind of content, for the sake of the other kids. 

That's deeply troubling! It is spoken as if there is only one book in the entire world that can do what Harriet the Spy does. And of course, that isn't true! You may have an attachment to it because it did something for you when you were a kid, but come on. You can let it go, right? 



Ellen Fleischer said...

You know, reading this, I remembered my mother reading poems to me out of A.A. Milne's "Now We Are Six." The rhyme you quoted, I thought, came from that book, from a poem titled "Cherry Stones". But when I looked for an online copy, I discovered that Milne had actually changed the line you're calling out. As you can see here: (he also changed "beggar man" to "ploughboy".

So now, I'm wondering whether Milne was writing with the awareness that his readers might be hailing from different walks of life, be they cultural, ethnic, or socio-economic. (I should also note that the online edition is the 16th Dell printing, but the book was originally published in 1927 by E.P. Dutton & Co. So, it's also possible that edits were made at some point in the publishing history, but if they were, they're not mentioned on the copyright page.)

Debbie Reese said...


I was going down that rabbit hole of the various editions, who did what, US versus Europe, etc. but realized I was gonna be in that rabbit hole for a long while and wanted to get the post finished.

I think an article on that rhyme would be fascinating! If you do one... let me know!

maecarmel said...

Love the way you respond to the objection that these books,are still "important"!
I dont like the way Ole Golly is portrayed anyway. It is like,the cook in the movie Madeline. Because she is a servant we are meant to laugh along with the protagonist at the "absurd" thought that she has a,life outside her job.

Unknown said...

Hmm. I never thought that Harriet or the reader was meant to laugh at Ole Golly's having a private life, rather that Harriet was baffled in the way children often are when they come to face the fact that their parents/caretakers have lives beyond taking care of them. (Although, I also loved the cook's past in the Resistance in the Madeline movie--it was one of my favorite parts, in part because the first Madeline book came out in 1939 and features a doctor named Dr. Cohn, and as an adult, I worry about what must have happened to him in subsequent years, so I enjoyed the acknowledgment.)

That said, I completely agree that there are other books that can do what Harriet the Spy did, and that there's no reason to preserve/pass down books that mock Native people.