Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Strong Young Women Part 2: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

My copy of REBECCA

Kate Douglas Wiggin’s 1903 novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, was an odd choice for a boy of seventeen. I stumbled across a copy in a used book store, picked it up as a campy lark, and was hooked from the first page. I expected a cloying, moralistic tale about an irritatingly good little girl. To some extent that was what I got, but Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm offers a great deal more. There is good reason why both Jack London and Mark Twain publicly admired the book.

In many ways, Rebecca Randall is the opposite of Pippi Longstocking. Rebecca is generally obedient, decidedly nonviolent, and always pays for her sins. But the two characters share a fearlessness, a boundless optimism, and irrepressible self-confidence. They get things done. I like that.

Such fearless, optimistic, confident adolescents formed the backbone of children’s literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Horatio Alger, Jr. made a career of it, as did Edward Stratemeyer, the man behind Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. I read my share of such books, most of which featured male protagonists, but the ones that stuck with me were the ones about tough, spunky girls. I think it’s because the boy characters were expected to misbehave and resort to extreme solutions to overcome their challenges, whereas the girls sometimes shattered my preconceptions about what a girl should, could, and would do. In other words, they challenged my sexist presumptions in a very satisfying way.

By today’s standards, Rebecca is not a rebellious child. But Wiggin’s book quickly places the reader in that very different world of the early 1900s, and her small acts of kindness, courage, and hopefulness—her refusal to accept the status quo—loom large. She is a strong-willed child of ten when the book opens, and an even stronger young woman of seventeen when the book reaches its bittersweet end.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s much better known and more widely read Anne of Green Gables was published five years after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. It is in many ways a better book, but I wonder if Montgomery could have written it without the ground work laid by Kate Douglas Wiggin. The similarities in plot, story, and character are striking. Even the endings are nearly identical.

I’m not suggesting that Montgomery stole from Wiggin—their books are both classic coming-of-age tales about a strong-willed girl in a rural environment during the first decade of a new century. There are probably hundreds of examples of the same, most of which have been forgotten, and all of which draw from the same cultural well. I love them both. In fact, I think the last time I wept at anything on television is was near the end of the 1980s “Anne of Green Gables” adaptation (you know which part I’m talking about).

Next up: Gone with the Wind and Vanity Fair


Daughter Number Three said...

I never read Rebecca of SBF... now I'll have to. I did check out Pippi some time a decade or so ago. And Anne and her many books -- I did enjoy those.

Another oldie I read as an adult is Daddy Long Legs (and its sequels). I recommend those, also.

Pete Hautman said...

I have not read that! Thank you.