The previous description makes the book sound like some sort of sociological treatise for young readers. But Fitzhugh's work is nothing if not entertaining. The story revolves around a creative sixth grader, Harriet M. Welsch, who lives in a very nice neighborhood in New York City with her rather distant parents and her wise nanny. Harriet wants to grow up to a writer, and in the interest of pursuing that goal, has been following a daily "spy" route--and keeping a series of notebooks detailing the doings of her family, friends and neighbors--since she was eight, and "wrote so big my regular route took almost the whole book". The budding author values realism in literature, so she faithfully records her observations, and more dangerously, her opinions about everyone she encounters. This includes comments on the lives of her friends and classmates, such as "The reason Sport dresses so funny is that his father won't buy him anything to wear because his mother has all the money" and "Carrie Andrews' mother has the biggest front I ever saw". Harriet knows the first rule of spying, "Spies--should not get caught." But one fateful day, while she is distracted, her classmates find, and read, her spy notebook.
This is the beginning of a long and painful odyssey of discovery and growth for our heroine. Naturally, the other children drum Harriet, never the socialite of the class anyway, from their ranks. This rejection--so close on the heels of her nanny's departure--hits Harriet hard. Her reactions, beginning with fear and hurt, and escalating into hatred and retaliation, ring absolutely true to anyone who has ever been ostracized. Along the way she learns about self-reliance, self-love, and the duplicity, but necessity, of social mores. This is enough ground for any book to cover.
But Fitzhugh manages to insert little vignettes of other lives seen through the eyes of our "spy". Looking into other people's windows helps Harriet find her way back from the brink, through lessons she teaches herself.
She observes the volatile Dei Santi family, Italian immigrants, who run a small grocery in her neighborhood. The family fights and makes up with a dramatic intensity completely foreign to Harriet. But she learns not to apply upper middle class standards to their behavior when the delivery boy, Little Joe Curry, is finally caught giving an entire ham to three poor children, whose diet he has been supplementing with thefts from the store. Harriet writes, "That was a scene I am glad I saw, because I would have guessed that Mama Dei Santi would have bopped him over the head but when she saw the children she burst into tears and commenced wailing and giving the kids everything in sight.... People are funny".
She learns something of love and adult sexuality by observing the romance between Ole Golly, her middle-aged nanny, and Miss Golly's suitor, Mr. Waldenstein. She notes her practical nurse's uncharacteristic behavior, and concludes, "There is more to this thing of love than meets the eye. I am going to have to think about this a great deal.... I think maybe they are all right when they say there are some things I won't know anything about until I'm older."
And there is Harrison Withers. Harriet has watched Mr. Withers, a recluse who builds ornate, Victorian bird cages, dodge Health Department officials who felt that perhaps 26 cats were too many for a two-room apartment, for several years. The cat lover is caught around the same time Harriet is, and loses his cats near the time Harriet loses her beloved nanny. Both are devastated. But after a period of mourning, Withers gets another cat. This persistence in the face of adversity makes Harriet feel "unaccountably happy".
Fitzhugh also reveals the insights children have into adult behavior,in a manner guaranteed to make grown-ups take a second look at themselves. The author's profile of a high strung, frustrated, dance teacher extremely taken with the Stanislavsky Method, for example, will likely go over the heads of most children-but not their parents. The teacher tries to help the children imagine the birth of the vegetables they will play in a pageant about Christmas dinner: "[T]he farmer comes in on this lovely morning when the ground is freshly broken, open and yielding, waiting to receive". "Let's split, she's gone," is Harriet's friend Sport's all too appropriate comment.
And the portrait of Dr. Wagner, the child psychiatrist Harriet's concerned parents take her to see, is right on point. The good doctor seems a bit strange to Harriet, particularly when she notices his closet full of toys. "Do you sit here all day playing with all those things?" she asks. "Don't you have toys at home?" he responds. "Yes...but I'm eleven years old," the exasperated child shouts back. The professional appears rather pathetic to Harriet, and she begins to cooperate only because she feels sorry for him. Yet his diagnosis and prescription for her healing are correct. (This may very well be the way these things really work.)
Baby boomers who read this charming, insightful book in the Sixties should pick it up again. It will help them remember how complicated life can be at eleven. And they ought to share it and talk about it with their children. It should inspire some lively conversation about the "olden days" of their youth, about how people from varying backgrounds are different and how they are the same, about how the world is different for kids today, and how sometimes, now and then, you do have to lie. And also about Ole Golly's corollary to that statement:, "But to yourself you must always tell the truth."