May 31, 2012

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

One of my favorite books as a kid was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I reread it as an adult and loved it just as much, if not more.  I didn't think of myself as an incipient writer as a child, but now that I look back on it, was that yet another reason I loved Harriet?

HARRIET WAS TRYING to explain to Sport how to play Town.“See, first you make up the name of the town. Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it. You can’t have too many or it gets too hard. I usually have twenty-five.”
“Ummmm.” Sport was tossing a football in the air. They were in the courtyard of Harriet’s house on East Eighty seventh Street in Manhattan.

“Then when you know who lives there, you make up what they do. For instance, Mr Charles Hanley runs the filling station on the corner.” Harriet spoke thoughtfully as she squatted next to the big tree, bending so low over her notebook that her long straight hair touched the edges.

“Don’tcha wanta play football?” Sport asked.

“Now, listen, Sport, you never did this and it’s fun. Now over here next to this curve in the mountain we’ll put the filling station. So if anything happens there, you remember where it is.”

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root.Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up into his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

Sport put the football gently on the ground and knelt beside her, looking over her shoulder at the notebook in which she scribbled furiously.

“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.

“No. Someone who works in television.”

“What makes you think they have television?”

“I say they do. And, anyway, my father has to be in it, doesn’t he?”

“Well, then put mine in too. Put a writer in it.”

“OK, we can make Mr Jonathan Fishbein a writer.”

“And let him have a son like me who cooks for him.”

Sport rocked back and forth on his heels, chanting in singsong,“And let him be eleven years old like me, and let him have a mother who went away and has all the money, and let him grow up to be a ball player.”

“Nooo,” Harriet said in disgust. “Then you’re not making it up. Don’t you understand?”

Sport paused.“No,” he said.

“Just listen, Sport. See, now that we have all this written down, I’ll show you where the fun is.” Harriet got very businesslike. She stood up, then got on her knees in the soft September mud so she could lean over the little valley made between the two big roots of the tree. She referred to her notebook every now and then, but for the most part she stared intently at the mossy lowlands which made her town.“Now, one night, late at night, Mr Charles Hanley is in his filling station. He is just about to turn out the lights and go home because it is nine o’clock and time for him to get ready for bed.”

“But he’s a grown-up!” Sport looked intently at the spot occupied by the gas station.

“In this town everybody goes to bed at nine-thirty,” Harriet said definitely.

“Oh” – Sport rocked a little on his heels – “my father goes to bed at nine in the morning. Sometimes I meet him getting up.”

“And also, Dr Jones is delivering a baby to Mrs Harrison right over here in the hospital. Here is the hospital, the Carterville General Hospital.” She pointed to the other side of town. Sport looked at the left root.

“What is Mr Fishbein, the writer, doing?”

Harriet pointed to the centre of town. “He is in the town bar, which is right here.” Harriet looked down at the town as though hypnotised. “Here’s what happens. Now, this night, as Mr Hanley is just about to close up, a long, big old black car drives up and in it there are all these men with guns. They drive in real fast and Mr Hanley gets scared. They jump out of the car and run over and rob Mr Hanley, who is petrified. They steal all the money in the gas station, then they fill up with gas free and then they zoom off in the night. Mr Hanley is all bound and gagged on the floor.”

Sport’s mouth hung open. “Then what?”

“At this same minute Mrs Harrison’s baby is born and Dr Jones says, ‘You have a fine baby girl, Mrs Harrison, a fine baby girl, ho, ho, ho.’”

“Make it a boy.”

“No, it’s a girl. She already has a boy.”

“What does the baby look like?”

“She’s ugly. Now, also at this very minute, on the other side of town, over here past the gas station, almost to the mountain, the robbers have stopped at a farmhouse which belongs to Ole Farmer Dodge. They go in and find him eating oatmeal because he doesn’t have any teeth. They throw the oatmeal on the floor and demand some other food. He doesn’t have anything but oatmeal, so they beat him up. Then they settle down to spend the night. Now, at this very minute, the police chief of Carterville, who is called Chief Herbert, takes a stroll down the main street. He senses something is not right and he wonders what it is…”

“Harriet. Get up out of that mud.” A harsh voice rang out from the third floor of the brownstone behind them.

Harriet looked up. There was a hint of anxiety in her face.“Oh, Ole Golly, I’m not in the mud.”

The face of the nurse looking out of the window was not the best-looking face in the world, but for all its frowning, its sharp, dark lines, there was kindness there.

“Harriet M.Welsch, you are to rise to your feet.”

Harriet rose without hesitation. “But, listen, we’ll have to play Town standing up,” she said plaintively. “That’s the best way” came back sharply, and the head disappeared.

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