Harriet the Spy

I was a bit disappointed by Harriet the Spy. Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 novel had been recommended to me, and although I didn’t exactly rush to read it, I fully expected it to be something it wasn’t.

To begin with I quite liked it, but grew to actively dislike Harriet herself. I’m unsure as to whether she’s not meant to be likeable, or if she’s more of a Pippi Longstocking girl that the reader is meant to admire because she’s so different. I believe Harriet the Spy was suggested as an aspie book, and it is, I suppose. Harriet’s problems in relating to her school friends suggests a lack of theory of mind. (With my aspie hat on, I also noticed a couple of ‘mistakes,’ like Harriet going to school on a Sunday.)

Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy

It’s a rather charming period piece, set in New York over fifty years ago. It’s the kind of New York it’d be nice to be able to see for yourself, and almost impossible to imagine today.

You have to admire [some of] Harriet’s observational skills. She creeps round the neighbourhood collecting data on people in her notebook, to which she is permanently attached. She sees all these things, but she fails to understand what they mean, what makes people tick. Harriet also fails to allow others to be different. It’s all about her and her ways.

Her nanny is sacked, and everything goes wrong. Her teachers ‘don’t understand her’ and her friends and non-friends alike turn on her. In a way, what this really is is a book by Rebecca Stead, turned on its head. I.e. it’s the plot as seen by the ‘bad’ child, rather than the usual point of view.

And then, everything is ‘fine’ again, which is fine by me, but I didn’t admire the ways it was made fine.

(I have used a book cover image different to the one on my copy, because among other things I dislike is ‘the film/television’ book cover. Especially when it seems to bear little relation to the story.)

Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy

6 responses to “Harriet the Spy

  1. The Black Hat Writer

    Harriet was an aspiring writer and her spy routines were to help her improve her skills. Ultimately, she was, as most writers are, a bit separated from the herd and, in that separation, she observed the others around her–like a writer. One thing we must consider here is her young mind. She couldn’t always make sense of what she saw and sort of filled in her own explanations, sometimes. Being a kid, she was judgmental above objective, and she learned her lesson in that after the Spy Catcher Club was created.

    Her imagination and ability to correctly perceive existed, as was shown in the part where she discussed being able to properly guess people’s appearances by listening to them talk. But, what she lacked was maturity. The errors of her ways were realized as she spied on the Spy Catcher Club.

    And we know how kids are–they are quick to forget feuds and be friends again.

    Something to maybe keep in mind is that Fitzhugh grew up wealthy, but her parents were divorced. So, I think the parental detachment and observations of class separation were a personal touch.

    I think your analysis is pretty spot-on and fair. I just like to bounce around interpretations of novels with other people.

    • Thanks, BHW. That’s a good analysis, and I’m glad you found my post and have so much to share. I think you are right on much of it. I just wanted more of a solution at the end. The school newsletter thing I felt was extraordinary in what the teachers would allow.

  2. Highly recommend finding the book’s original cover as it was by the author herself (she also did the illustrations). For those of us who grew up with the book , they are iconic.

    • I wondered which one to pick, Monica. There was a nice one which I wondered if it might have been the original, but not knowing it back then, I picked one at random. Could you link to the right one, please?

  3. Thanks! I have added the original (I hope).

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