Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Most of the time growing up I was happy to live in the country. There were plenty of forests, creeks and places to explore. However, every time I read Harriet the Spy, I cursed our remote existence. I longed for a "spy route" of my own, but there was no one to spy on except my parents and younger brother.

I must have read Harriet the Spy at least a dozen times and it's hard to think of a single book that has impacted my life more. Even the use of my middle initial stems from Harriet's insistence on being referred to as Harriet M. Welsch, despite having no middle name. Recently, I decided to read the book as an adult for the first time, which offered me a different perspective on one of my favourite childhood novels.

Spoilers ahead!

The story is about a young girl taking her first steps toward being an adult. At first, Harriet spends all her time inside her notebook, literally and figuratively. She writes observations about her friends, family, and a series of strangers that she spies on. Her dream is to become a writer and she plans to achieve this by seeing and recording everything.

Harriet is also a creature of routine. She loves to eat the exact same food and wear the exact same things every day. Over the course of the novel, her routines and safety nets are stripped away from her and Harriet must learn to adapt and grow. First, her full-time, live-in nanny, Ole Golly, leaves her to get married and pursue her own life. Then her classmates discover her notebook and take offense to her notes about them and start to bully her. Harriet copes by seeking revenge and retreating further into her notebooks. Her baffled parents try a number of different things to help, but it ultimately takes a letter from Ole Golly and a new position as editor of the school paper to help her get back on track. Harriet learns the value of apologies, forgiveness and white lies.

When I was a child, I sympathized with Harriet. I was angry at the violation of her privacy, but now I see how it was necessary for her growth. A lot of the things Harriet writes in there are mean. She justifies this cruelty as her observations about the world, but I don't think that's enough. It's why her classmates turn on her so harshly. They aren't just being bullies; they are hurt by her comments and don't know how else to react. And in the end, it isn't just Harriet who learns how to forgive and move on, but her classmates as well. I had forgotten that the school paper duties are split between Harriet and shy Beth Ellen, who gains some self confidence and learns to stand up to her own bullies in a healthy way.

Part of growing up includes learning how to say goodbye to our unhealthy ways and to open ourselves up to healthy patterns and growth. Harriet learns to use her writing for something other than secret judgments, and one of the subplots introduced by Harriet's spy route underlines this perfectly.

At the beginning of the book, an old man named Harrison Withers lives in a small apartment with 26 cats. He appears to eat nothing but yogurt and instead spends all his money feeding his cats. He protects himself from discovery by refusing entry to any man wearing a hat who comes knocking. The cats are confined, in what I can only imagine is absolute squalor, to his apartment.

Harriet's compulsive writing drives the adults in her life to separate her from her notebooks, she can no longer continue her spy route. When she is finally able to resume her route, she discovers that his cats were removed by the health department, but he is happier than ever because he has adopted a single kitten. Twenty-six cats is ridiculous and harmful to both him and the cats, but having one (or two) cats is perfect.

Reading or watching something that was beloved in childhood always comes with some risks. There isn't just the question of quality, but also the possibility that there might be some harmful stereotypes or offensive passages that were missed or misunderstood. I was delighted to find that I could still happily enjoy this book. I also had no idea there are two sequels by the original author, which I am looking forward to.

Anyway, I hope everyone is keeping safe and healthy right now. I'm going to use this time to catch up on some of my reading.



- Sport's life is awful. Dude needs a real parent STAT!

- I do have a middle name: Evamarie, which is a hybrid of my grandmothers' middle names.

- And tomato sandwiches ARE delicious, but I can't eat them every day.



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