Friday, February 12, 2010

"There is no Frigate like a Book, to take us Lands away," Emily Dickinson

Or in this case, Lands near home. I've spent some hours lately in Salem and, as usual, it made me remember a book I had enjoyed as a child - 'Tam Morgan, The Liveliest Girl in Salem". It's still in print and I thought it would be fun to reread it.

I remember liking a lot about the book, but I didn't love it, although I can't remember why I didn't love it. And I have to say that upon rereading it I had very mixed emotions.

As in all my favorite childood books, the heroine, Tam, was a red-haired orphan who was always in trouble. If these favorite heroines weren't orphans, they were neglected or even mistreated by their supposed caretakers. I think I loved these books because I instinctively knew from an early age that in adulthood I would have to overcome the stigma of a happy childhood in a stable, two-parent family. Girls like Tam, and Anne and the rest of their sisterhood gave me valuable pointers.

Tam was motherless. Her father was alive, but he worked long hours as a ship builder. Tam was responsible for cooking and housekeeping and, frankly, she wasn't very good at it and had a tendency to go off playing around the docks with her best friend, a boy. She had bare feet and her clothes were always a mess and she only washed herself on Saturdays. All the neighbors thought she was shockingly badly behaved. Midway through the book, her father marries and brings back her 2 little brothers (6 and 4ish) who have been reared by an aunt since their mother died. The new stepmother is pretty and nice and soon Tam is minding her manners and enjoying wearing pretty dresses and, generally, acting like a girl.

I'd like to believe that my childish memory of liking the book was from her pre-girly behavior and the part I didn't like was the girly Tam at the end. But I'm not entirely convinced of it. The only sop to my feminist consciousness is that there's a pretty, very girly girl named Felicity who becomes a friend of Tam. Her prissy behavior gets modified to be more like Tam's tomboy behavior and that is considered to be a Good Thing in the books. So, in the end, the female role model presented is polite and pretty, but at least, it is also adventurous and out-going.

And why not? There's nothing wrong with being polite and liking pretty things, as long as you aren't polite because you are swallowing rage at the Patriarchy etc.

Apart from the story, it was fun to read this book set in old Salem - actually in 1789. I know this because in the book George Washington visits Salem - which really happened. And I know that, in the real world, after spending a few nights in Salem he rode on to Ipswich, where he had lunch with the Important Men of Ipswich, including the Heards, and then on to Newbury where he spent the night.

So that was kind of fun. And, also, Tam and her father go to Marblehead to pick up her little brothers and to meet his new wife-to-be. Marblehead is described as a kind of huggle muggle fishing village, much less grand than Salem. As I was in Marblehead a few days ago, it was fun to read about. And the author had clearly taken pains to be somewhat historically accurate, as she credits the Peabody Insitute and the Essex Museum, which have since merged to become the Peabody Essex Museum.

I'll just end with this quote, which seems apt:

"The books one reads in childhood, and perhaps most of all the bad and good bad books, create in one's mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments throughout the rest of life, and which in some cases can survive a visit to the real countries which they are supposed to represent." George Orwell.

1 comment:

peaceable_tate said...

That's a great, true quote from Orwell, that the books from our childhood create a false map of the world. I've been almost shocked on occasion to reread books from my childhood and realize just how much false geography I internalized.

I'm sure lots of doctoral theses have been written looking at girl fiction--the many narratives of spunky, adventuresome girls who are gently prodded and molded as they grow into proper grooming and socially acceptable manners: Mary Lennox, Caddie Woodlawn, Jo Marsh, Betsy-Tavie, etc. Even Phillippa Somerville, sigh. Of course, now the popular fiction for girls is all about spunky, adventuresome girls who defy the narrative and grow up into feisty, accomplished career women.

You've no doubt read Kipling's short story, "the Janeites," about English soldiers who read Jane Austen in the trenches to sustain the memory of the world they were fighting for. There's the false map of the world working for the good.