Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nostalgia Review: The Long Secret

Everyone who's worth knowing has read "Harriet the Spy". But if you are even more devoted, as I was as a child and budding spy, you followed Harriet's adventures into the summertime on Montauk, Long Island with "The Long Secret". Harriet remains her own curious, judgmental, uninhibited self. The real revelation in this book is the story of Beth Ellen, who lives with her imperious but loving grandmother. The mystery at the premise of "The Long Secret" is a series of Bible quotations delivered to Montauk residents aimed at their secrets. Of course there are some eccentric Montauk residents, including Bunny, a resort piano player; the Bible-thumping Jessie Mae Jenkins, her brother Norman, and crackpot entrenpreneur Mama Jenkins; and, in a surprise twist, Beth Ellen's socialite mother Zeeney, recently returned from Europe.
Fithugh's gift, and why her books remain classics, is something she has in common with other great authors of children's books--a realistic and uncompromising view of adults. Adults in Harriet and Beth Ellen's world are well-meaning, often loving, but distant and concerned with their own priorities. "The Long Secret" is a little dated only in the degree of freedom that Harriet and Beth Ellen have to explore on their own. Their stories of growth and learning are realistic, humorous, and a great read even today.
While not moralistic, Fitzhugh delivers some good messages. Beth Ellen asks Zeeney, "Mother, what profession should I be?" and Zeeney erupts in laughter. Then she gets serious, and says, "You will, of course, finish your schooling, take a year in Europe, return to New York, make your debut, and marry...You shall attend a suitable school, for two years at the most." (This was 1965, after all). In the end, Zeeney is sent away, and Beth Ellen triumphs and decides to become an artist. Beth Ellen's grandmother tells her, "She is just as silly as ever; a silly woman who contributes nothing whatsoever to life. She might as well not be alive except that she consumes". These are hard words in a book for ten-year-olds, but they are real and valuable.

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