Work hard for a living

I never thought I’d get excited about economic history.  Or economics, in general.  But when everything crashed in 2008, I got interested.  I remember being completely transfixed while listening to This American Life’s podcast about the real estate meltdown (A Giant Pool of Money).  And dumbfounded that I was so fascinated.  I started reading the business section of the newspaper.  And I started subscribing to the Planet Money podcast.

A few weeks ago, they posted the following graphic on their blog–all about “children in gainful occupations” according to the 1920 census.  The timing for this piece was wonderful–at work, we’re currently working on an event where we’ll talk about work at the turn-of-the-century.  We’ve made some exhibit changes over the past few years that make business and economic history much easier to teach.  We will talk about jobs at the General Store, Bank or Hotel, but since this is a family-centered event, I want to make sure that we also talk about children working.  We probably won’t delve too deeply into child labor, but I certainly want to talk about the kids of the past that had to earn money for their family’s (or their own) survival.

So, of course, I turned instantly to kidlit history.  Here are a few examples that I’ll be sharing as part of the pre-visit packet of kids earning money–sometimes for their own purposes and sometimes to help the family.  In roughly chronological order:

Meg and Jo in Little Women.  It’s apparent from the very beginning of the book that these girls need to help their family.  Who can forget those immortal lines:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

In Chapter 4, their work is better described.  Meg, at 16, was a nursery governess for four children.  Jo was a companion for Aunt March, as a companion and helper.

Laura in Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.  First, Laura is a seamstress, earning money to send Mary to the blind school.  Later, she becomes a teacher (and has some horrifying experiences!)

Sara in A Little Princess.  When Sara’s father dies, bankrupt, her boarding school could have turned her out on the street.  Instead, they put her to work.  Miss Minchin tells her:

“You are like Becky–you must work for your living.”

To her surprise, a faint gleam of light came into the child’s eyes–a shade of relief.

“Can I work?” she said.  “If I can work it will not matter so much.  What can I do?”

As a child, I don’t think I got how terrifying this situation might have been.  Of course, the magical dinner that appears later might have helped with that illusion.

Perry Miller in Emily of New Moon and Peter Craig in The Story Girl.  There are tons of hired girls in L. M. Montgomery’s fiction–and of course, we know that before Anne found Matthew and Marilla she was working in a household, assisting with the children.  I think it’s really important to remember that not all of the hired boys and girls in LMM’s fiction are as alone as Sara Crewe appeared to be.  Perry had an aunt whom we occasionally see.  But these were still kids that needed to grow up quickly–Perry was only 12 or 13 when he went to work.

Interestingly enough, the divide between the kids who had to work and the kids who just want some extra money lines up  chronologically.  The books mentioned above are set from the 1860s to the 1890s.  The books below are the late 1890s to the 1900s–a sign of how the world was continuing to change?  That may be a bit of a reach, but it is interesting.

Lucinda in Roller Skates.  She wants to throw a proper Christmas party for Trinket, but needs the money to do it.  She finds all sorts of odd jobs with her neighbors–walking a dog to tutoring English.  There’s this lovely exchange, just after Lucinda is offered the dog-walking job:

“How perfectly glorious!  It doesn’t seem right to earn money so pleasantly.  Mama never paid me to do anything except what I positively hated to do.”

“That’s too bad.  I think money ought to be always earned pleasantly.  Think of how much gayer the world would be if everybody went to work in the morning knowing he was going to do something he enjoyed doing all day!”

Amen!

Tom in the Great Brain books.  Oh, Tom.  A pint-sized con man.  He earns money in all sorts of crazy ways–tricking kids and adults.  But, that wonderful chapter about charging kids to see a flush toilet?  Yep, we’re totally borrowing that idea for the event at the Village.  Even cooler?  There’s a story of one of the Sullivan kids doing the exact same thing with “our” toilet.

My goal for all this list was to stick with the museum’s time period of 1840-1910–so no Henry Reed or the Melendys or others.  But these are all such good examples of kids entering into the workforce–sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity.  So often, when we think about the past, we’re using rose-colored glasses.  But so many kids had to work to survive.  It’s a startling thought for many young people, but using these stories is a great way to get started.

And then we can start talking about child labor laws. . .

So, what have I forgotten on my list?  Some friends mentioned Understood Betsy and Five Little Peppers.  I’ve never read the other Betsy, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read about the Peppers.  I was hoping to get a reread in, but I think I’m out of time.  Other thoughts?

What’s left out. . .

I know the tagline at the top of my blog says “Everything I need to know about history, I learned through children’s literature.”  And I stand by my claim that my reading of certain books (over and over and over again) helped form my love of history.  But in reading books like A Little Princess as an adult, part of me just feels icky.  Because I know that there’s a whole other side to India’s history that Burnett would never have even thought about.

Honestly, I don’t know much about Indian history–I’m almost ashamed to admit how much I learned after reading most of this wikipedia article.   But as I was reading Princess, there was always this nagging feeling in the back of my mind–“You’re being enchanted by this glamourous vision of India, but all of this really sucked for the Indian people.”  Sara’s father, who she loved so much, was one of those white men who occupied India–and later profited from its resources.  Diamond mines, as glamorous as they sound, are horrible places to work.  Even today.

So I read these wonderful passages, and part of me was enthralled.  Who wouldn’t be, with descriptions such as this?

She did not know what being rich meant.  She had always lived in a beautiful bungalow, and had been used to seeing many servants who made salaams to her and called her “Missee Sahib,” and gave her her own way in everything.  She had had toys and pets and an ayah who worshipped her, and she had gradually learned that people who were rich had these things.

Replace the word “servants” with “slaves” and “ayah” with “mammy,” and you could very well have a book about life in the ante-bellum South.  There’s the same hot climate from which the wealthy must escape.  And perhaps this book has survived because its about India, a story in history few knew about, rather than about the American South, of which most know at least the basics.

But I digress.  Am I blaming Burnett for not being more balanced towards the Indian people?  Not at all-she wrote about what she knew.  And in this time period, few thought that what was happening in India was wrong.  Quite frankly, the way she wrote about India always made me curious about their culture.  Ram Dass is such a fabulous character.  He is human–well, as human as a fairy godmother-type can be!–which is more than we can say about most minority characters created during this era. 

But to really know about history, we certainly can’t rely solely on the images that children’s literature have placed in our heads.  I know that Laura Ingalls Wilder is frequently cited as being insensitive to Native Americans.  She’s not insensitive per se, but she’s not balanced either.  And I understand concerns about her books–they are so popular and I know that most readers won’t ever try to find out more and get the bigger story.  She is indeed creating ideas in children’s heads about the past–ideas that aren’t entirely right.

And this is part of the reason I’m championing, in my own small way, the genre of Kidlit History.  For those books written in the time–that some classify as historical fiction, but were written before there was the distance to properly assess the big picture.  There are still plenty of lessons in them, but we must acknowledge that they are biased to that one author’s experience.  Little House is not the only story of the pioneer experience, though it seems that some folks believe that it is. 

My childhood reading had extraordinary bias in it.  Almost all of the books I read were about white, middle or upper class, protestant females.  Yet, as a historian, one of my specialities is African American history.  I can’t trace that interest back to childhood reading.  But I don’t have to.  My hope for kids that read kidlit history is that this is a first step into a life-long love of history.  So, if they don’t figure out that colonial India wasn’t all about being pampered until they’re adults, that’s okay.  When they do, though, there’ll be a spark of recognition as they realize they’re discovering the rest of Sara’s story.

Trying to remember the first time. . .

I wish I was one of those people that could remember exactly how old I was when I read key books of my childhood.  I’ve been slowly reading Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book by Anita Silvey, and there are lots and lots of essays that include something like “I was 8 when I. . .” or “I discovered this book. . .” and they remember all the details.  My brain is just fuzzy around those kind of details. 

Consequently, I don’t remember when I first read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I do know it was post-Little House and pre-Anne.  I remember really liking the Shirley Temple movie and then seeing a two-pack of books in the Scholastic catalog–Princess and Anne.  I didn’t know who that Anne person was, but I had to read Princess.

However, unlike a lot of the other books I loved as a kid, I haven’t picked this one up in a very, very long time.  At least 15 years, probably more.  But I remembered really liking it–enough to see the more recent movie version and pick up interesting older editions of the book.  It was past time for a reread.

Because it can be more fun to read beautiful old editions rather than 1980s paperbacks, I pulled this version off my shelf.  And then I was completely blown away.  I had forgotten how good it was–how much was packed into this book.  How dark and scary it was.  How Sara, while incredibly good, is still far from perfect.

For those not familiar with the book (and seriously if you’re not–get to the library immediately!), it’s the story of a motherless little girl sent to a boarding school.  It’s not a horrible school, just not perfect.  However, she’s protected because her father is rich.  But he dies penniless and she becomes an overworked servant.  Burnett’s writing frequently carried me away.  I stayed up far too late one night, because once the Magic happens, I just couldn’t put the book down. 

This is a book that I really need to see if my neices have a copy of it.  They are obsessed with all things Disney Princess, which annoys me to no end.  But Sara’s thoughts about being a princess are very different from the schlock Disney puts out.  Check this passage out:

Sometimes, when she was in the midst of some harsh, domineering speech, Miss Minchin would find the still, unchildish eyes fixed upon her with something like a proud smile in them.  At such times she did not know Sara was saying to herself:

“You don’t know that you are saying these things to a princess, and that if I chose I could wave my hand and order you to execution.  I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, unkind, vulgar old thing, and don’t know any better.”

This used to interest and amuse her more than anything else; and queer and fanciful as it was, she found comfort in it and it was a good thing for her.  While the thought held possession of her, she could not be made rude and malicious by the rudeness and malice of those about her.

“A princess must be polite,” she said to herself.

Now, isn’t that a much better way for a Princess to behave, rather than waiting around for a Prince to rescue you?

As I read, I also couldn’t help but think of Anne Shirley.  Can you imagine if Anne and Sara had gotten together, what stories they could create?  Both girls used their imaginations to escape a harsh, unloved life.  But Anne’s time of escape is just a memory in her book.  For the reader, they’re right in the midst of Sara’s need to escape.  Terrifying things happen to Sara–she had known love and safety and privilege, and it’s all yanked out from under her.  Not only is she left by her father at boarding school and apparently doesn’t seem him again (even though 4 years pass before his death), but then the money vanishes and her entire world goes topsy-turvy. 

One of my favorite passages is when she meets the beggar girl, a girl in much worse shape than she is because at least Sara has a bed and a roof over her head. 

It was a little figure more forlorn even than herself–a little figure which was not much more than a bundle of rags, from which small, bare, red, muddy feet peeped out, only because the rags with which their owner was trying to cover them were not long enough.  Above the rags appeared a shock head of tangled hair, and a dirty face with big, hollow, hungry, eyes.

As an adult, my heart breaks for these children, just as I’m impressed that Burnett doesn’t just talk about Sara’s plight, but other poor, abandoned children.  But what would I have thought as a child?  This is what I wish I remembered.  I think I would have been startled.  Kids aren’t supposed to be in situations like that.  I was safe and warm and well-fed in the Dallas suburbs.

The best presents. . .

I admit it–my favorite part of Christmas just might be presents.  And it’s not so much the receiving (though don’t get me wrong–I do love receiving), but the giving.  It’s the joy in finding just the right thing, something that is more than the sum of its parts, and seeing the reaction when it hits its mark.

Below, in no particular order, are some of my very favorite gift-giving incidents in kidlit history.  Most of them occur around Christmas, but not all of them.  Most of these scenes I first read as a child, and they certainly stuck in my head–particularly the first one. . .

Puffed Sleeves!  Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.  Anne finally has a group of friends, but Matthew notices there’s something different between her and her friends: she’s not dressed like the other girls.  So, he does his very best to get her a fashionable dress for Christmas, first braving the store (and winding up with rakes and brown sugar) and then enlisting the help of Rachel Lynde.  And Anne’s reaction is wonderful to see:  “Breakfast seems so commonplace at such an exciting moment.  I’d rather feast my eyes on that dress.  I’m so glad that puffed sleeves are still fashionable.  It did seem to me that I’d never get over it if they went out before I had a dress with them.”

Why I love this scene:  First, what girl hasn’t wanted something fashionable, only to be denied because it’s not “practical”?  And then, lovely Matthew comes along and does it anyway.  Anne has been so lonely for so long, and Matthew’s gift is so thoughtful.  She was already a part of the family, but this is the first time she gets a gift where others are thinking of what she wants.  Quite a change for an orphan!  And yes, part of me still wants a dress with puffed sleeves.

The feast in A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett).  Though not a Christmas gift, I can’t help but include it.  Sara and Becky are in deep trouble, and the Magic won’t save them.  But they awaken one morning and the attic has been transformed: “In the grate there was a glowing, blazing fire; on the hob was a little brass kettle hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a thick, warm crimon rug; before the fire a folding chair, unfolded, and with cushions on it; by the chair a small white cloth, and upon it spread small covered dishes, a cup, a saucer, a teapot; on the bed were new warm coverings and a satin-covered down quilt; at the foot a curius wadded silk robe, a pair of quilted slipper and some books.  The room of her dream seemed changed into fairyland . . . ‘It does not–melt away.'”

Why I love this scene: On the magical level, this is right at the top.  Yummy food and beautiful things!  I am amazed that neither she nor Becky heard a thing, but then, I guess that’s part of the magic.  Another moment where an orphan realizes she’s not alone.  Plus, the makeover of the attic sounds delightful–it’s like an early home makeover show.

Jo’s HairLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Marmee must rush off to tend to their sick father.  Money is tight, and so Jo sells her hair.  She insists it was the best thing to do in the situation, but does confess: “I felt queer when I saw the dear old hair laid out on the table and felt only the short, rough ends on my head.  It almost seemed as if I’d an arm or a leg off.  The woman saw me look at it, and picked out a long lock for me to keep.  I’ll give it to you, Marmee, just to remember past glories by; for a crop is so comfortable I don’t think I shall ever have a mane again.”

Why I love this scene:  Yes, Jo makes a big sacrifice for her family.  But the real reason I love this scene is the series of exclamations from her family when she reveals her shorn head.  Best line in the book: “Oh Jo, how could you?  Your one beauty!”  Makes me laugh every time.  And could anyone but a sister get away with that?

The Brass BowlHeaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace.  Mrs. Ray falls in love with a brass bowl and insists that her husband buy it for her.  Mr. Ray keeps insisting that he would never give her such a gift.  The entire family visits the brass bowl and insists that it’s right for Mrs. Ray.  On Christmas Eve, he caves, but the bowl is gone.  Panic sets in.  But on Christmas morning, the brass bowl is there–because Mrs. Ray bought it for herself!

Why I love this scene:  There’s almost a domino effect as each family member becomes convinced that the Brass Bowl is the Perfect Gift.  But Mr. Ray stands strong–until that last minute Christmas Eve panic sets in.  I just love how Mrs. Ray takes matters into her own hands.  It’s a scene that makes me giggle and rings oh so true.  On this reread, I also couldn’t help but love the following lines:   “‘I have no intention of buying it,’ Mr. Ray answered.  ‘I’m going to gie you a personal present, not a house present.’  ‘I love this new house so much that it’s practically me.”  My sentiments exactly, Mrs. Ray.

As You Like It Besty and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace.  “It was proper for a boy to give a girl only books, flowers, or candy.  It would be proper for Betsy to give Joe nothing more.”  And so she purchases the red, limp-leather edition of As You Like It.  Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth.  Tony asks Betsy to the New Year’s Eve dance first, and Betsy and Joe fight over it: “Either you’re my girl or you’re not.”  He tosses her present at her.  She opens it and realizes it is the exact same edition of As You Like It.  “Inside he had written ‘We’ll fleet the time carelessly as the did in the golden world.’ But Betsy knew he had written that before he knew that she was going to the dance with Tony.  She put her face into her hands and began to cry.”

Why I love this scene:  Well, it’s certainly not because it’s as happy and joyful as some of the other gift giving scenes.  But for an old-fashioned romantic like me?  Well, it’s perfect.  Not quite on the level of the O. Henry story, “Gift of the Magi,” it still has to mean something extra special to give the exact same present to each other.  If nothing else, it’s another sign that Betsy and Joe are made for each other.

Trinket’s First Tree  Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer.  Lucinda realizes that her little friend Trinket has never had a Christmas tree.  And one can’t just have a tree–but a party and presents too.  So she works extra hard to earn money in December and invites the whole neighborhood to surprise Trinket.  She is completely captivated.  “There is always one Christmas that belongs to you more than any other–belongs by right of festival and those secret feelings that are never spoken aloud.  This Christmas belonged to Lucinda in that way, and I think it belonged to many of her friends.”

Why I love this scene:  Lucinda is only 10, and it may be a bit hard to believe that she’s so thoughtful.  But I love the way the ornaments are almost all handmade and everyone joins in.  And it’s so easy to imagine the look on Trinket’s face when she first sees the tree.  What magic!  It’s not so much the gift, but the experience–they’ve made a wonderful memory.

Mr. Edwards as Santa Claus Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  No snow and a practically flooding creek means that Santa won’t be able to get to the Ingalls family in time for Christmas.  Luckily, Mr. Edwards meets Santa in Independence and is able to bring the gifts after all.

Why I love this scene:  First, it’s really funny.  When you read again as an adult, you sense the worry that Ma and Pa have that Christmas won’t happen as planned for his kids.  And when Mr. Edwards arrives, the story is told with plenty of ( )s and interjections and questions–exactly the kind of questions any kid would ask about Santa.  For example, when Mr. Edwards says he meets Santa, Laura asks: “‘In the daytime?’ She hadn’t thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime.  No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.”  Giggle.  The presents themselves are simple–a tin cup, peppermint candy, a heart-shaped cake, and a penny.  “Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.  There had never been such a Christmas.”  What puts this tale over the top for me though is Mr. Edwards–that man knows how to tell a story and keep kids believing in Santa.

Originally, I set out to find 10, but at 7, I ran out of steam.  Do you have a favorite scene that I’ve left out?  What is the greatest kidlit history gift of all time?

The Manifesto, so to speak

When I was a kid, I spent most of my time in the nineteenth century.  It all started with the Little House books.  My grandmother read them to me, and they became my very first chapter books that I could read all by myself.  From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump to Little Women, All-of-a-Kind Family, A Little Princess, and The Railway Children.  But I fell hard, really hard, for Anne Shirley.  This was in the late 1980s, when all of the books were being reissued.  Every time I went to the bookstore, I got to buy a new L. M. Montgomery book. 

Yet, there were so many things in those books that I just didn’t understand.  What was consumption and cholera?  Why were puffed-sleeves such a big deal?  What did the dresses look like?  And what did the food taste like?  Why was Sara Crewe in India?  When the Anne Treasury was published in the early 1990s, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Here, almost all of my burning questions were answered!

By the time I got to college, I was convinced that I was going to be an English major and one day write like Lucy Maud did.  Then, I got an internship at the Dallas Historical Society, going through their archives and writing educational curriculum.  It took me almost another year to admit that I was really a historian, which surprised me at the time.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have–I had already spent most of my childhood in the past.

As I began to dive into the study of history, I began to make all sorts of random connections between the history I was studying and the books I had loved as a child.  The most startling was during my History of Death in America class.  (yes, I took a death class.  It was awesome!).  We were reading Living in the Shadow of Death, about the 19th century experience of being a patient with consumption, or as we know it today, tuberculosis.  And I started thinking about Ruby Gillis.  A lot. For one of my mini-papers for the class, I wrote about Ruby’s experience, written when there were many more treatment options available, and how it took the classic literary portrayal of the disease and twisted it ever so slightly.  Eventually, this initial connection turned into a conference paper on the changes in how LMM portrayed consumption.  More importantly, it resulted in my first trip to Prince Edward Island.  Eventually, my paper was published in The Intimate Life of L. M. Montgomery, which was a whole other kind of thrill.

As I was working on the revisions to that paper, I realized that my paper didn’t exactly fit into normal categories–it wasn’t literary analysis, and it wasn’t a history paper.  It was a bit of both.

In my current job as a museum educator, I’m pulling children’s literature  in whenever and wherever I can.  When I redesigned our summer camp program, the most popular new camp was “Pages from the Past.”  Each day, we featured crafts and activities from a different classic children’s book, all set within the time period of the museum.  Little Women, Little House, Betsy-Tacy, All-of-a-Kind Family and Anne.  It was so much fun!  Using books that kids or adults are familiar with is a wonderful way to make connections with history. 

So this very long introduction leads up to where I was just over a month ago–sitting in a conference room at the Betsy-Tacy convention in Mankato, Minnesota.  I was listening to a presentation on the Syrian community in Mankato, something Maud wrote extensively about in her books.  One of the speaker’s sources, a history book, used Maud Hart Lovelace’s fictional stories as a source.  But then again, Lovelace isn’t purely fictional.

The following thought flew through my head: everything I really need to know about history, I learned through children’s literature. 

I realize this isn’t entirely true and there are all sorts of of caveats and exceptions and those things that historians love to do to make sure no one thinks we’re making a gross generalization. 

But there’s one key thing that all of the books that I loved so much have in common: they are either semi-autobiographical or they were written as contemporary and, over time, have become historical fiction.  Either way, they’re an important source in learning about history.  A source that most historians have ignored.  To me, they should be considered in much the way memoirs or oral history are considered–perhaps not true in every detail, but more true than not.  Even better, they give a voice to a group that are frequently left out in historical studies: chidren.

In talking to friends, most of whom would never consider them historians, they admit that they’ve learned all kinds of history from reading children’s literature.  Key incidents in a book become reference points for history.  But what are we learning?  And what’s the rest of the story?

That’s where this blog comes in: it’s a chance to explore the history in the books we love.  Perhaps dig a bit deeper into those stories we grew up with.

I’ve got a running list of topics and books to explore.  I do not plan on exploring contemporary historical fiction, though there are certainly some fine things being written today about the past.  Instead, I want to take a closer look at those books that are semi-autobiographical or have survived long enough to become historical fiction. 

So dear readers, what are some books you’d like to talk about?  Tidbits of history from them that have somehow lodged in your brain?  Let me know–I’m looking forward to the conversation!