Harriet M. Welsch
is a tough and sassy
sixth-grader living in a brownstone
in New York with her distant mother and father but primarily reared by an eccentric nursemaid named Ole Golly
Ole Golly and Harriet are partners in crime. At least, Ole Golly could be seen as an accomplice, and Harriet's "spy" activities could be correctly termed as stalking, but in 1964, when Louise Fitzhugh wrote the book, that was far beside the point. The point was that in creeping out of her priveleged home and into the homes of others', Harriet is privy to a variety of ways of seeing and being.
Obsessed, like yours truly, with her notebook, Harriet takes notes on everything she sees, from the children at school ("Pinky Whitehead has not changed. Pinky Whitehead will never change") to her parents ("I once saw my mother in a mudpack. They'll never get me in a mudpack") to the folks on her spy route and places in between ("When I look at him I could eat a thousand tomato sandwiches"). I don't just wish I had written these lines, I wish I had in fact been Harriet at twelve instead of the self-hating, YM-obsessed nymphet my own sixth-grade notebooks preserve.
Harriet is drawn to eccentrics. Her "spy route" - a series of households she peeps on regularly - include the Dei Santis, a large and perpetually bickering family of Italian grocers; Harrison Withers, who collects cats, builds birdcages and eats nothing but yogurt; and Mrs. Agatha K. Plumber, a wealthy divorcee who says the secret of life is to "just take to your bed. You just refuse to leave it for anything or anybody." Harriet watches and scribbles furiously. She wants to know everything about everybody and put it in a book.
The kids at school steal Harriet's notebook and read up on themselves ("If Marion Hawthorne doesn't watch out she's going to grow up into a lady Hitler"; 'Sometimes I can't stand Sport. With his worrying all the time and fussing over his father, sometimes he's like a little old woman") do not play well with her private-school chums, who start a Spy Catchers Club in their defense. It's all the worse with Old Golly at this point off and married.
Harriet keeps writing in her notebook, even in the middle of a session with a child psychiatrist her parents dig up for her. "Something is definitely happening to me. I am changing. I don't like me at all. I don't ever laugh or think anything funny. I would like to hurt each one of them in a special way that would hurt only them."
Old Golly makes one last big rescue, writing Harriet a short and eloquent letter: "Remember that writing is to put love into the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth." And everyone is happy.
This book spares none of the pain of being twelve years old and borderline brilliant (the movie, though slicker and cheerier, is faithful to the ache as well). It spares none of the small wonders of the universe, either: teachers who pick their noses, men who hoard cats and feed them liver, little girls who dream of blowing up the world, boys in purple socks, boys who handle the money for their dads - all are prominent citizens in Fitzhugh's New York.
Every neurotic, scribbling girl in the country needs a copy of Harriet the Spy; my own has survived multiple years and moves, and salvaged numerous bad days, and at times is way over my head, though I was well within the throe of adolescence when I found out. It is among the tangible reminders I have that beauty still exists in the cobwebby corners of the universe, that inspiration is still more than possible if you keep your eyes and notebook open. The end.