While much can be (and has been) said about the novel Harriet the Spy, what stands out most to me upon rereading it as an adult is how much childhood has changed since the novel was written in the 1960s.
A modern Harriet would truly be a greater anomaly than the character is intended to be. Harriet M. Welsch, as she calls herself in her writing, is clearly written as a tomboyish, non-conformist young girl. But we have met this type of girl before in many novels: she prefers hanging out with her male best friend to other girls; she prefers jeans to dresses; she does not like the pettiness and superficiality associated with preteen girls; she is book-smart and enjoys writing; she is a keen observer of others; and she spends a lot of time on her own, exploring her neighbourhood and eavesdropping on her neighbours.
It is that last part that is particularly strange in 2015. To start with, a child – even at eleven years old – going out on her own would be cause for concern. Rather than assume she was simply playing, exploring, or looking for a quiet place to read, an observer would think she was in trouble. Her parents would be contacted and pilloried for not supervising her.
The second thing that is strange about Harriet is how her spying connects to her wanting to be a writer. She hides, watches, listens, and then writes down her notes, turning them into compositions and exposés for her school newspaper. Unfortunately, this is where technology has turned the story into historical fiction. A modern Harriet would be recording whole conversations, capturing video, and taking pictures with her smartphone, not simply taking notes. Unless we argue that Harriet’s family could not afford to give her a smartphone, we have to assume that Harriet would also upload said videos and photos online rather than write compositions. Not to mention how much more obsessed with security we have become over the past few decades. Harriet sneaks into apartments!
There is much to be gained by children (and parents) being more safety-conscious than they were fifty years ago. However, Harriet reminds us that children can look after themselves if taught properly to do so and that being independent used to be part of growing up. As a fellow only child, I can sympathize with Harriet spending a lot of time on her own. Going outside, making up stories, exploring new places – this used to be part of childhood and early adolescence. Children are rarely let outside with the order to “keep out of trouble and be back before dark!” anymore. Indeed, being let outside is a rarity – all the moreso when one is by oneself. Counterintuitively, an individual child is more likely to learn from their mistakes and take more responsibility for themselves and their actions than children in a group. Harriet, for example, learns to apologise and to control her spying. She also has learned how to look after herself and be aware of her surroundings.
Much of what Harriet observes is mundane, daily life, viewed and often misinterpreted through the eyes of an eleven-year-old. Nowadays, that information that fascinates her is easily and readily found online. Harriet would not have to go out into the world to do her spying. That is too bad, because the thrill of exploring is not easily replicated by a computer.
Fitzhugh, Louise. (1964). Harriet the Spy. New York : Yearling Books. 300 pgs.