Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer/reviewer/blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'The Long Secret', Louise Fitzhugh's 1965 sequel to 'Harriet The Spy', in which Honorary (Junior) Jezebel Harriet M. Welsch attempts to figure out the mystery of her best friend, Beth, during a summer on Long Island.
The notes were appearing everywhere.
At the end of the day, is our instinctive dislike of modern teen chick lit — the unholy spawn of Sweet Valley High, Bridget Jones, and Sex and the City, IMHO — fundamentally due to its craven attachment to AmEx and snagging hotties? (For years, the publishing biz has unofficially dubbed the adult wing of the genre "Shopping and Fucking.") As I read back through my YA library, I am starting to wonder if it may just be that all this saddle-stitched vapidity actually misses the point. Traditionally, in women's fiction, from Little Women to The Women's Room, the spotlight has been squarely on what goes down between the, you know, women. (It's in the titles and everything!) But as The Group begat Golden Girls begat Gossip Girls, we've lost the most important font of all drama.
Which is your friendsssssssssssssss! No, not friends who like the same boy as you do, thereby creating explosive competition. Not friends who turn on you and isolate you among your peers like bitchez. Not friends who stand behind you come what may all the way; not friends who become anorexic / alcoholic / cutaholic; not friends who offer witty quips when you get pregs and attend your teen-mom birth. Just your best friends — who are difficult simply because you are you and they are they.
The Long Secret, the sequel to Harriet the Spy, understands having a BFF is extremely complicated even when no one is blowing the UPS man. (Don't get me wrong. I love SATC and its ilk in a greasy, 1:00 am, fried-chicken-in-a-bag way. I've just never understood how anyone could be friends with Carrie without therapeutic intervention.) But where Harriet the Spy introduces us to, of course, the remarkable Harriet, The Long Secret takes over with Harriet's friend Beth Ellen, who has been her spiritually wispy sidekick for years. When we catch up with them, the girls have hit adolescence and Beth Ellen, whom Harriet has always called "Mouse", is coming out from under her well-meaning thumb whether she likes it or not. Here's them talking about Beth Ellen's inappropriate, itinerant, pot-bellied, piano-playing crush, Bunny (and again: I love these inappropriate crushes where'd they go!):
"I don't want to write about him; I want to marry him," said Beth Ellen.
"Well!" said Harriet, "that's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. You're only eleven."
"How can you be twelve when I'm only eleven?" Harriet looked furious.
Beth Ellen waited.
"Oh, that's right," said Harriet finally. "I always forget that about birthdays. I remember, you just had one."
There you have it: just being older than your friend briefly is sufficient betrayal, at the age of 11. (The opposite becomes true at 28, but whatever.) Harriet is also enraged that Beth Ellen cannot think of anything more interesting for her future profession than marrying a rich man and moving to Biarritz. But wait a minute, Harriet! Something far more upsetting is coming up!
"MOUSE!" Harriet gave one great agonized yelp.
"What?" whispered Beth Ellen.
"WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?"
Beth Ellen's voice suddenly found itself and came out so loud she jumped. "I'm—menstruating!"
"What's that?" asked Harriet, awed.
"I just remembered," yelled Harriet. "How come you're doing that and I'm not?"
It was an unanswerable question." "I don't know—" began Beth Ellen.
Harriet hung up on her.
Unanswerable is right. The girls are spending the summer on Montauk, Harriet with her parents and Beth Ellen with her grandmother, whom she's always lived with while her mother, Zeeney, gads about Europe. As Beth Ellen accompanies Harriet biking around on her summer reconnaissance, the sleepy town of Water Mill is being rocked — as rocked as sleepy towns on Montauk can be, that is — by a sneak who is leaving slightly tweaked quotes around for all members of the populace that are, as one recipient puts it, like a "nasty fortune cookie" and, as another admits, "kinda hit home sometimes." Harriet, being Harriet, is of course, ON IT:
"NOW THE THING IS WHO WOULD LEAVE NOTES LIKE THIS? SOMEBODY WHO READS THE BIBLE BECAUSE THEY ALL SOUND LIKE THEY'RE RIGHT OUT OF THE BIBLE. WHO DOES READ THE BIBLE? DOES ANYBODY? DOES MY MOTHER? CHECK ON THIS."
NOW I KNOW WHERE I GOT MY HUGE ADDICTION TO CAPPING EVERYTHING. More important, mirabile dictu and merci: an adolescent who is not full of preternatural wisdom! (No offense, Rory.) But while Harriet is bursting with questions about what motivates all the adults around her, Beth Ellen is in a similar quandary about herself:
Why am I so different? Why am I never happy? Is everybody like this or just me? I am truly a mouse. I have no desire at all to be me.
Beth Ellen and Harriet are still in the roles they played as children—not because one is a sap and one is a bully, but because it still shields them from the complications of the world. But the world, as it does, is not going to let their friendship alone long. Jessie Mae, a deeply religious southern girl they meet on one of their spying missions, observes their interaction and neatly dissects it, to Harriet's shock and consternation:
"You the captain and she the lieutenant?" said Jessie Mae, beside herself with giggles. "If I may say so, you do speak sharply to your friend."
"She's MY friend," said Harriet, appalled.
"Well..." said Jessie Mae, looking away and fanning rapidly, "I do feel that, like the Good Book says, we should honor our father and mother, but I, personally, think we should honor our friends too."
Harriet was stunned into silence.
It's not that Beth Ellen needs an excuse to start to dislike Harriet — it's just that she needs to stop using her as a security blanket. (Hurrying after Harriet made her feel curiously liberated, as though she could be a child and it was all right. Harriet always gave her this feeling. It was one of the few things she really liked about Harriet, as a matter of fact, because the principal feeling she felt when with Harriet was one of being continually jarred.) Beth Ellen is massively aided in this project by the announcement that Zeeney, who she does not even remember, is returning from Europe to resume her role in Beth Ellen's life:
Try as she might she could not find one emotion connected with this piece of news. She lay back on the bed. She felt the bedspread. It was nice to feel something with her hands, something solid. Was her mother coming to take her away, like something she had bought at a dress shop and couldn't wait to have delivered? Would her grandmother let them take her? Did her grandmother want her to go? Where do I live, she thought, and began to cry. She cried a long time, then fell asleep, her face lying in a white patch of tears.
Actually, the only one who is really excited about this development is Harriet, who is practically beside herself that Beth Ellen has a) A REAL MOTHER, b) a FREAKISHLY BEAUTIFUL MOTHER, and c) A MOTHER WHOM APPARENTLY HER OWN FATHER KNEW IN HIS YOUTH, ALTHOUGH HE WILL NOT TELL HER NEARLY ENOUGH ABOUT IT. There is nothing exciting about Zeeney's arrival for Beth Ellen, however, since she mainly regards her as a vaguely irritating presence to be stifled out of all recognition:
....Beth Ellen lay in the bathtub staring at her body. She and her mother had just gotten back from Elizabeth Arden's in time to bathe and dress before they went to dinner. She lay there with a blank mind...I have straight hair. I am called Beth. She had heard Zeeney and Wallace discussing her that morning at breakfast as if she were a piece of toast. Zeeney had said, "I think her head is too little." Wallace had disagreed but said, "No, I don't think that, but she does have curious knees."
Between her grandmother who wants to be a lady and her mother who wants her to have straight hair and her body which wants her to grow up and Harriet who cannot stop exploding with frustration at her passivity, Beth Ellen's mysterious activity, when we discover it, is not that surprising. (Well, except to me, like pretty much every damn time I read the books. I am the ideal reader of all mysteries, because I notice, understand and remember nothing.)
Yes! Spoiler! Beth Ellen is leaving the notes. Your basic dutiful sleuth of the third-person indirect would probably handily notice that she is present at every instance of note-discovery and never wonders herself who is leaving the notes whatsoever. But perhaps not. Beth is so successfully blank to her herself, she's a little blank to us too, even if her circumstances are not. Maybe because the long secret of the book is not really that Beth Ellen is leaving all the notes, but that Beth Ellen is angry.
This becomes monumentally clear when Zeeney declares she will be taking Beth Ellen back to Europe with her, and Beth Ellen, in her first act of rebellion, throws an enormous tantrum in the bathroom:
They started banging on the bathroom door. Beth Ellen sat on the tub and pretended she was sitting under Niagara Falls. She hugged her knees. I will flood the house, she thought. Then I will begin to grow and be huge. I will get so monstrously big that I will break the bathroom and fill the house, the yard, all of Water Mill. I will tower over the Montauk highway like a collosus. They will all run away like ants.
The cold water ran down on her, on her head, her clothes. It beat around her ears like the safe rain of a summer's day.
And just like that, Beth Ellen exits the limbo utero of the bathtub and comes into her own. As the book ends, Harriet has found her out:
"What ever gave you the idea to do it anyway?" asked Harriet with not a little admiration in her voice.
Beth Ellen smiled and said nothing.
"Well, you could have told me," said Harriet. "I knew it at The Preacher's. I watched your face and I knew. But you could have told me." And flinging the book on the bed, she stomped into the bathroom.
Beth Ellen sat on the bed and looked fondly at the book. I'm a child, she thought happily, and I live somewhere. Nobody can ever take me away.
Beth Ellen laughed, a loud, happy laugh.
"WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING ABOUT?" Yelled Harriet from behind the closed door. "Wait'll you read the story I'm going to write about you and those notes!"
Beth Ellen laughed again. It didn't matter.
I assume by the time "Harriet" did actually get around to doing it, they were friends enough that it still didn't.
* I got a little quote-happy in this piece, just because I love Beth Ellen's rise to personhood more than life, so I had no room to get into the hysterical whole club scene where a barrage of notes are left for everyone or lemonade at the Preacher's which I now realize was basically about Fannie Lou Hamer and the Civil Rights Movement or the enormous Mama Jenkins going into the water in a black dress as well as many other deeply important instances I treasure as well. So I will simply say THE MICE WILL INHERIT THE EARTH, and leave it to you.
The Long Secret
Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag]
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The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
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