Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh (1965)

I first tried reading my mother’s paperback copy of The Long Secret when I was a kid, and the subject matter and writing style both went right over my head and I pretty much wrote off the entire story. Back in February, when I read Shelf Discovery, I learned that this book was actually a pretty interesting, multi-layered work of fiction, and I decided that my adult brain could probably handle it. Though Shelf Discovery’s “book report” spoiled the ending for me (which I will not do for you here), I still got something out of reading this sequel to Harriet the Spy.

It’s summer, and Harriet and her family are at their summer home, where Harriet spends much of her time palling around with Beth Ellen, whom she calls Mouse because she never stands up for herself or takes any risks. Though Harriet’s strong personality is ever-present, the story belongs to Beth Ellen, and to her difficulties dealing with her flaky mother who is in and out of her life, as well as other pitfalls of growing up. All summer long, Harriet drags Beth Ellen around with her, trying to use her detecting skills to figure out who is leaving mysterious, nasty notes all around town.

I liked this book, but I have a harder time imagining a contemporary child who would like it. The language is very rich, and Fitzhugh’s style is so distinct it would be impossible to say this book is not well-written. However, the language is so adult and the layering of the story threads and themes so complicated, that I think it could be a hard sell. In fact, my library (which is in an affluent part of the city, where kids regularly request highly literary books) doesn’t even own a copy, and in 18 months, no one has ever asked me for it. I couldn’t tell if some of what seemed adult about the book was really just a product of the differences between adolescence during the 21st century and adolescence in the mid-1960s, or if Fitzhugh’s writing just has that tone of maturity, but either way, it might take awhile for a child reader to get used to the flow of the language.

Thematically, I was surprised at how much the story touched on big life issues, like religion, puberty, menstruation, marriage, and feminism. In that sense, I really thought it compared well with Judy Blume books, as well as contemporary titles by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (the Alice series) and Lauren Myracle (Ten, Eleven, Twelve, etc.). It was interesting to me how the concerns girls have about growing up both change and remain the same over time.

I’m really glad I read The Long Secret, and I think any girl who has ever held back her feelings or felt like a mouse will really relate to Beth Ellen and find themselves much more interested in befriending her than domineering, bewildering Harriet.

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