Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh

I have re-read with pleasure, in the course of a few hot summer nights, this classic book from my childhood and classic of modern children's literature. I always liked The Long Secret even better than its precursor and companion story, Harriet the Spy, because I could relate to Harriet's and her friends' summertime adventures more than I could to their school days in swanky Manhattan. Being (and remaining) a child of the suburbs, the very urban setting of that book always puzzled me. What kind of kids, I wondered, lived in apartment buildings, stopped at a local drugstore after school for an "egg cream," had full-time nannies, and attended weird stand-alone schools not a part of any comfortable and generically named district? Later on when I read other juvenile fiction also set in New York, I used to wonder what "P.S.," followed by a number, meant; later still, I wondered at the insularity of New York editors who think that all American children will understand that, and no explanations necessary.

The Long Secret spins out on slightly more familiar ground. In Water Mill, New York ("slow down and enjoy it" reads the motto on the welcome sign), we are far from the perplexing and gigantic city. There are forests and farm fields here, long gravel roads with real individual houses along them, and a town with a main street, a filling station, a post office, and a little grocery store where the kids buy cookies. We read of long bike rides, of the sun on hot handlebars, and of long days at the beach with nothing to do but swim, read, eat, and get back home in time for dinner.

Harriet's and her friends' escapades are certainly a bit implausible -- the essence of fiction, no? -- yet when I read them at twelve, I found them spot on. That a set of pubescents should "spy" on the adult goings-on at a country resort, concentrating particularly on the bar staff, plus meet an extraordinary family of Bible-thumping Southern evangelicals in the patent nostrum business headed by an obese single mother, all the while one of the pubescents endures a dreadful reunion with a long-lost Eurotrash mother of her own, seems a pretty outlandish set up even for a young adult novel. (Do we assume that kids want to read crazier plotlines than adults do? Perhaps.) Yet I drank it all in. I think it seemed right because the friendships among the main characters, Harriet, Beth Ellen, Janie, and the late-come Mississippian, Jessie Mae, are so right. These four friends are everything twelve-year-olds are: viperish, rude, self-absorbed, prickly and critical with each other most of the time, and yet capable of a sort of clodhoppy affection and of rudimentary adult manners troweled like plaster over the rough bricks of childhood. This scene, for example, struck me then, and still does, as emotionally perfect:

They were having a discussion about where to go.

"Let's go back and see Mama Jenkins. She said come back one day before they work and get lemonade, remember?" said Harriet, looking at Beth Ellen.

That seems a thousand years ago, thought Beth Ellen, but all she said was, "Let's go to the hotel."

" 'Let's go to the hotel, let's go to the hotel,' -- that's all you ever say," said Harriet.

"What hotel?" asked Janie. "Anyway, I thought people went to the beach out here. Isn't that what you come out here for?"

Harriet looked at Janie. Beth Ellen knew what was going through Harriet's mind: Janie was a guest and whatever she wanted they would have to do. She watched Harriet and her inner struggle.

"Yes. Let's go to the beach," said Harriet in a limp but friendly way.

"I couldn't care less," said Janie. "The sun gives you skin cancer anyway."

"Why don't we do all three?" said Harriet as though a light bulb had gone on in her head.

"Smashing," said Janie.

Beth Ellen felt a secret smile that she wouldn't let crawl out onto her face. She would see Bunny ...

The story's "secret" concerns the question who is leaving a series of bizarre red-crayoned notes all over Water Mill. Harriet, Beth Ellen, and briefly Janie are vacationing here, and witness the resultant small scale turmoil. Random people find random notes at their workplaces, in their homes, as they sit down to restaurant meals, in Harriet's case in the basket of her bicycle. Playing detective as she is, and planning to write a story based on the mystery, she's beyond thrilled when she finally gets one. (" 'It's HAPPENED.' ") The notes are faintly Biblical, scolding, and horoscope-like, " 'like some sort of nasty fortune cookie,' " as a minor but terrifically outre character, Mrs. Plumber, puts it. Beth Ellen's breathtakingly beautiful and awful mother, Zeeney Baines, gets the worst -- because truest -- of them all: IN SORROW THOU SHALT BRING FORTH CHILDREN.

If you've never had the pleasure when you were twelve, I won't go any further, for fear of spoiling things for you; only do please read this funny, un-syrupy, and need I emphasize lavishly plotted book. Even the asides cover just about everything in a preteen's head and experience, including the first independent thoughts about religion, the crush on the older man, the first menstruation, and those late night pajama-party conversations about God. Harriet starts this topic abruptly. " 'Listen, I want to ask you something, both of you. Do you believe in God?' "

Adulthood has given me just one little soupcon of delight more in this delightful book. Of course, I can see some scenes anew, as at the very beginning when Beth Ellen's grandmother is furious that the maid MOVED her perfume bottles. No, she's mad at more than that. But more fun is that, having spent some years reading Vogue and other materials, I understand the setting of The Long Secret. These are the Hamptons, whither all the celebrities retreat in summer when swanky Manhattan grows unbearable. Montauk, where Harriet's father buys lobsters for the clambake, is a real place, as is Mecox Bay, on the shores of which Harriet's and Beth Ellen's families have their respective houses. The Montauk highway and Water Mill are also real, although I hardly think, almost fifty years on, that Louise Fitzhugh's descriptions of the town as a truly hick wide spot in the road, whose locals roll their eyes at "the summer people" and whose woods still shelter the house of an elderly black sharecropping preacher, can now be accurate.

It never occurred to me when I first read both books that Harriet and her circle were very rich. That background, which Harriet at least suspected, neither drove nor interfered with the fun of either story. But it turns out that Fitzhugh knew whereof she wrote on this score, because besides being an adoptive New Yorker she was herself a trust fund baby and an owner of grand (Connecticut) properties. Doing enough perfunctory researches into her life to learn that much gives another soupcon, not of delight but of half-appalled fascination, to the re-reading of her work. If I had wanted to find out anything about her when I was twelve, I would have had to ask a librarian at the public library for help in unearthing details, painstakingly slowly, from sources like the once absolutely necessary Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. It would have required dogged work for us simply to find her obituary there -- for by the time I read her two finest, almost her only novels, she was already dead. To learn the fact of "her death in 1974" from the back of a book jacket meant nothing to a twelve-year-old in 1977; to google her, and learn in a moment that she died of a brain aneurism at 46, is rather choke-inducing now that I am 45. "MY GOD," Harriet would shout, "YOU'RE KIDDING." And then, her eyes narrowed to slits: "What is this?"

For more information:

Purple Socks: a Louise Fitzhugh tribute site

"Regarding Harriet: Louise Comes in From the Cold" by Karen Cook (originally published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, April 11, 1995, reprinted at Purple Socks)

Louise Fitzhugh (wikipedia article)

Harriet the Spy (movie, 1996)

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