Thursday, April 17, 2014

100 Years Old But Young At Heart

When my daughter brought home Daddy-Long-Legs from the library, I was delighted.  I remembered loving the book as a child and I remembered the basic premise: a young orphan girl writes letters to her mysterious benefactor, whom she calls Daddy-Long-Legs, having just seen his shadow as he left the orphanage.  But I remembered nothing else.  With plenty of time to read as I recover from pneumonia, I picked it up, and was in for even more of a treat than I had expected.

Judy's letters to her anonymous patron are so delightfully irreverent, funny and modern, that I was shocked to see that the book was written in 1912.  We have read plenty of other children's books written or set around then, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the Betsy-Tacy books, and All-of-A-Kind Family, and yet none have as modern a voice as this.

Judy is a true feminist before the coinage of the word.  Inequality between the sexes is simply so plain to her, and so obviously unfair.  She  complains of not having the right to vote, saying that while she hopes to develop into a Very Useful Citizen, "Are women citizens? I don't suppose they are."   After a sermon about how women must not "develop [their] intellects at the expense of [their] emotional natures," she wisely notes, "Why on earth don't they go to men's colleges and urge the students not to allow their manly natures to be crushed out be too much mental application?"  She even laments the lack of a neutral pronoun!

And she writes this gem, a model of economy of words, "Did you ever hear about the learned Herr Professor who regarded unnecessary adornment with contempt, and favored sensible, utilitarian clothes for women?  His wife, who was an obliging creatrue, adopted 'dress reform.'  And what do you think he did?  He eloped with a chorus girl."

Judy doesn't just address serious issues. Her descriptions of college life ring true today - friends dropping by, decorating her dorm room, deep philosophical discussions.  (All except the fudge - what WAS it with fudge a hundred years ago?  In the Betsy-Tacy books they are also constantly making and eating fudge!)  She draws a picture of the farm she is spending the summer at, explaining, "The room marked with a cross is not where the murder was committed, but the one that I occupy."

The only part of the book that might bother modern sensibilities - not that this kind of thing doesn't happen today - is the ending.  Spoiler alert.  At the end, Judy - and we - find out who Daddy-Long-Legs is.  This time, I knew all along, but I'm pretty sure as a child I was surprised.  It turns out that Judy has met him in person, repeatedly, but without knowing it.  But the real twist is that Judy marries him.  The fact that she marries a father figure, someone she's literally been calling "Daddy" throughout the book, definitely gave me pause.  The power dynamic is even more skewed by his wealth and the fact that he's gotten to know her through her letters as well as in person, while she has been kept in the dark.  Early on, my daughter predicted that Daddy-Long-Legs either was Judy's real father or would adopt her at the end of the book.  I would have preferred either of those endings and when she finished, she stated she would have, too.

Can you think of any old children's books that are similarly modern in tone?

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