Thursday, July 23, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Long Secret

My freshman year in college, way back in the pre-Internet days, I was assigned to read Susan Minot's Monkeys.  I found it baffling and esoteric.  Who were these east coast children with yacht club memberships?  It was like reading Salinger.  I showed up in class ready to talk about how foreign the book was to me--and then the first comment anyone made was, "This book was just like my family!" to which a chorus of other voices agreed.

This was when I knew I wasn't in Kansas any more.  Or Oregon, as the case may be.

Despite four years of college in Vermont, plus a year of grad school in the same state several years later, New England remains very Other to me.   Still, it is an Other that is familiar, in the way ancient civilizations are familiar to archaeologists.  Books about New York and New England, like books about London, charm me with their oddities while reassuring me with their literary familiarity.  I don't really know these places, but I feel like I do.

The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh is, to me, a very East Coast book.  It's more famous companion, Harriet the Spy, is set in NYC itself, but The Long Secret finds Harriet, her family, and her friends' families on vacation on...well, they're at the beach, and they have lobsters at their clambake, so clearly it's some sort of New England-y location.  The author apparently summered on the coast of Connecticut, so I'm guessing that's where the characters are summering as well.  (And only in New England is "summer" a verb.)

Harriet and parents aren't poor, but they are less rich than some of her friends.  Beth Ellen, called "Mouse" because of her timidity, lives with her grandmother in a grand summer home that features maids, a cook, and a chauffeur.  The two girls are not terribly close during the school year, but spend much of their summer together, since they are living in the same coastal town.  As they bike around town, they meet a cheerfully religious and decidedly NOT rich family, the inn's piano player (on whom Beth Ellen develops a mighty crush), and an old black preacher.  Harriet's insatiable curiosity is attracted to the mystery of who is leaving sharply pointed Bible quotes and misquotes for everyone around town.  Beth Ellen, meanwhile, is dealing with a surprise visit from her flighty mother and current stepfather.  While Harriet and her spy's notebook are still featured, we also see a lot from Beth Ellen's point of view.  Being a shy girl myself, I always appreciated that.  Harriet was fun to read about, but Beth Ellen would have been a good friend.

First published in 1965, the book is surprisingly frank for its era (Beth Ellen starts her period, her new friend Jessie May explains that a fancy woman is a whore, and some of the adults are clearly alcoholic idiots).  The girls' personalities are strongly drawn, and their inner lives are as important as the events of the story.  The ink drawings, done by the author, add a mid-century charm, and are astoundingly unflattering to nearly all of the characters.  In an era where gorgeous models grace most book covers, these lumpy, freckled, bespectacled illustrations are refreshingly relateable.

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