This past summer, as I reflected on our summer reading, Dan Coyle’s The Talent Code, and his term “deep practice,” I kept thinking that I wanted our students to engage in deep practice in terms of reading, and that rereading was a key component of that. As a longstanding fan of literature, I understand the pleasures of rereading. (What torture my job would be if I didn’t!) For me, one mark of a worthy book is its ability to support a rereading. A rich, complex work of literature continually reveals itself in various ways. This year I will be rereading The Things They Carried for the thirteenth time—and I still look forward to it. Song of Solomon, too, is always a satisfying read. Flannery O’Connor short stories, Annie Dillard essays…I wait on pins and needles for these to come back around, so I can experience the pleasure of reading them again. So I began my Rereading Project with a visit to a childhood favorite.
I reread Maida’s Little Village this past summer. It was my mother’s book when she was a little girl, and I remembered reading it as a child—the yellowed pages, the old-book smell; the stylized silhouette of Maida on the blue cloth cover. I remembered visualizing the children working in the garden, fashioning homes for themselves, playing house in the little village. I couldn’t wait to return to that comforting, comfortable place. The glow around the book—for me—was one of safety and security.
I have wondered through the years—through my own reading and the reading I engaged in with my daughters when they were young—about the psyche that children’s literature taps into. What are the needs of children that can be addressed through literature? What fears are quieted, what emotional longings are fed?
We’ve worried through the Disney sanitation of the darkness of old fairy tales. In the Grimm Brothers’ version of “Cinderella,” the stepsisters cut off their toes in order to fit into the slipper; Cinderella’s beauty and goodness save her. She is not disfigured as her sisters are—certainly not at her own hand. In “Hansel and Gretel,” the siblings battle abandonment by their father and their selfish stepmother and face a cannibalistic witch. Through their own goodness and ingenuity, they find their way back to home—to love and safety. They leave a trail of breadcrumbs so they can find their way; Hansel offers a bone to the blind witch when she checks to see how her fattening process has been working (“the better to eat you…” oh, no, wrong fairy tale! Is eating children a theme in fairy tales?). Gretel shoves the nameless witch into the oven as she demonstrates how Gretel is to climb in (children are young but they aren’t fools!). With the witch dead, the children find her cache of jewels and head home to their loving father (the wicked selfish stepmother has conveniently died) and they now have love, safety, and financial security.
I read Goodnight Moon–a comforting day’s end ritual (that I can understand)–with my own children, and Where the Wild Things Are in which Max strays to his wild side (anger? temper tantrums?) but is pulled back home where “supper is still hot.” Children’s literature introduces us to adventure, but pulls us back to a place of love and security. And there is a theme—from Cinderella through Hansel and Gretel, Max, and contemporary children’s shows–that children are often more clever, more astute, and more loving than adults. Note Roald Dahl’s Matilda in which the father is a crook and the mother frivolous and self-centered—neither of them has any inclination to nurture whatsoever. The infant Matilda cooks for herself, and the toddler finds her way to the local library to begin her education long before the young girl Matilda discovers her telekinetic powers. She has skills, and it is clear that her brains and ingenuity take precedence over her innate but late-to-the-show magical powers. I tried (and failed) to ban my young daughters from watching “You Can’t Do That on Television” on the 1980’s Nickelodeon channel, where the fathers were crude, the mothers ditzy, and the adolescents snarky and wise-cracking– the only smart and clever characters on the show. I wanted my kids to believe in their own goodness and wisdom, but not at the expense of mine.
I think I always knew that Maida is a very dated, very gendered children’s tale. It was, in ways, the perfect socialization tool for little girls in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The children are playing house—certainly still a central myth as I was growing up in the 60’s and the 70’s. It may have been the tail-end of the era of free love, hippies, and “the revolution,” but a good local factory job and domestic bliss, the capital of my parents’ generational myth, were still dominant stories. The revolution was counter-culture.
So Maida, I thought, tapped into a very white, middle-class, feminine longing. The Little Village was part of a series, and not the first book, so there was background I didn’t have. Maida, like Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel (and yes, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, and pretty much any other young girl in any other fairy tale you can name) was motherless, and her wealthy father “Buffalo” Westabrook had a penchant for creating “experiences” for Maida and a group of children who seemed to somehow live with her much of the time—at least whenever they went on one of their adventures. Mr. Westabrook was warmly solicitous, swooping in now and then (there were always, of course warm and loving caretakers for the children) to bring surprises and to solve whatever problems arose. Luckily for Maida and the other children, money was never an issue for her very wealthy dad.
There was a list of the other books inside the front cover so I knew that there had been Maida’s Little Shop, Little House, Little School, and more. As a youngster, I loved Maida, but I did not try to seek out the earlier books. Perhaps I figured they were long gone, a relic of an ancient history. After all, in 1966, my mother would have been 41. To the eight-year-old me, I suspect you may as well have been thinking of recovering cave paintings. After all, there was no internet, no inter-library loan, no local bookshop, and a very limited local public library. It would never have occurred to me that such a book might be readily available, or available at all. In fact, it’s a bit shocking to me to recollect how disconnected the world was in those terms at a time that now does not seem so distant, even though I am more distant from the event of my first reading than my mother, in 1966, would have been from hers.
So as I approached this book again—over 40 years since my initial reading—I wondered if my experience would bear any resemblance at all to the cerebral and emotional place I went to when I was about eight years old. As a child, I longed for a beautiful, conflict-free world. My favorite film was Mary Poppins because it was happy and had few villains or dark scenes. And Maida fit the same bill. (In the running for least favorite were The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio—nightmare visions, both.)
I loved the pastoral nature of the book. The Little Village was remote, in the woods. When I pictured the children on their hands and knees planting flowers in the elaborate and carefully designed garden (there were diagrams in the book!) I had a very concrete image of a very specific location—a slightly altered version of the Girl Scout camp I went to as a youngster. So imagine my surprise when, upon a rereading, I discovered that there is no actual scene of the children working in the garden. In fact, many of the scenes I retained in my head were not represented into the book in a concrete way. They never actually worked in the garden or sewed curtains for the windows—they just talked about it or referred to it. My memories were memories by way of implication—not concrete action. In fact, there was very little concrete action. Today’s writers would likely be more conscious of the imperative for writers to “show, not tell.” For Irwin, exposition was not necessarily kept to a minimum.
I looked through the book several times for the detailed plan of the gardens that I recalled. That recollection was false, too. The gardens were represented on the one diagram of the plan for the village, but they were small—not what I remembered at all. My daughter’s suggestion to me now is that I, in the spirit of “fan fiction” in which readers continue the stories of their favorite authors, draw the diagrams of the gardens in the Little Village.
With a little online research into Maida (oh brave, new world!) I discover Elizabeth Thomsen’s “Maida’s Little Website” (why didn’t I think of that first!), where I learn that Irwin was:
“a distinguished and influential writer, feminist leader and political activist. She was a co-founder of the National Collegiate Equal Suffrage League and a member of the National Advisory Council of the National Women’s Party. The Maida books reflect the author’s interests in feminism and social change, as Maida’s father uses his wealth and insight to provide Maida and her friends with a series of alternative environments for living and learning” (Thomsen)
Maida’s little website (http://www.ethomsen.com/maida/) reveals that the first book in the series was Maida’s Little Shop, published in 1910 and there I learn that the good-hearted little Maida has become who she is through pain and loss—her mother died when she was eight, and she was sickly and unable to walk until her father brought in a world-renowned surgeon. Following the surgery
“her father and her doctor are worried that she remains listless and want to help her find some interest in life to improve her health and happiness. On a chance visit to Charlestown, on the outskirts of Boston, they visit a little neighborhood shop, and Maida is enchanted and wishes that she, too, could keep a shop just like this one. Buffalo Westabrook, delighted to see Maida take an interest in something, buys the shop and arranges for Maida to live above the shop with elderly Irish housekeeper, Granny Flynn. The only two conditions are that she must make the shop pay, and she must not reveal her true identity” (Thomsen).
Oh, what a kind, smart and trusting dad! As she makes her way through the Little Shop adventure, Maida meets the neighborhood children, learns “common, everyday things that she doesn’t know, and must be taught… keeps her shop and makes it pay, learns about the ordinary games of childhood… and becomes happy, healthy and strong,” (Thomsen) causing me, upon this rereading, to wonder what powerful childhood myths are being constructed/replicated/perpetuated in this story. Unlike Dahl’s Matilda who is an outsider in her family, Maida is loved and pampered, but her wealth and her health issues make her a social misfit. Her work in the little shop gives her measures of responsibility that she hasn’t had as a frail little rich girl so, like Matilda, she lives up to her clear ability to be strong and smart as she “keeps her shop and makes it pay” (Thomsen). It also provides her with a community and friends, and teaches her to value those small things that are most important in life. It’s a set of overt social lessons, and I wonder what a comparative study of contemporary literature for young girls would reveal as the central social messages of our time.
“Rosie’s housekeeping preoccupation was always manifesting itself” (p. 29, Irwin).
The division of labor in Maida’s Little Village is clearly defined along gender lines, the girls sewing the curtains, after the boys have carried the machines in for them. Mr. Westbrook tells them at the outset that “You’ll all have your regular work to do here just as at home. There’ll be flower beds planted in front of the houses but they’ll be tiny ones. And there’ll be a vegetable garden at the back. The girls will have to help take care of the flower gardens and the boys the vegetable garden. (35)
Gender biases and class privilege are inherent and apparent all through the book. While the thoughtful children worry about Mr. Westabrook spending so much money to purchase and renovate the Little Village, he assures them not only that he “got it for a song” (21), but that he has “no doubt that one day I shall sell Maida’s Little Village for much more than I paid for it” (35).
One surprise for me was the vocabulary. When Mr. Westabrook is showing the houses in the little village to Bunny and Robin Hood, the children’s caretakers (no kidding), he points out that “some of the panes must be more than a hundred years old.” He then, in the clearly didactic spirit of the book, makes it into a lesson for the kids. “Notice how this building is put together, children. There doesn’t seem to be an iron nail in it anywhere, nothing but wooden pegs. And look at the shingles, many of them have been adzed out by hand” (24). Adzed?! I learned that an adz (or its variant, adze) is an ax-like tool for roughly dressing timbers. The verb form is “to adz”—to dress or shape the wood with an adz.
The children discuss vocabulary, too. Early on, Rosie announces that “I don’t know what reprehensible means…but it sounds terrible” (9). Later in the book, one of the girls, Silva, announces that she feels “like a word I’ve just come across—all-whither. It means everywhere. And I feel as if I were flying all-whither.” Laura responds that “It never occurred to me that words could be beautiful.” After the youngsters discuss words like “else-whither,” “linnet,” and “wan-hope,” the “Anglo-Saxon word for despair– wan-hope,” the wise and responsible Bunny responds that “There’s a line in Keats, ‘Forlorn! The very word is like a bell. Let’s all be looking out for beautiful words” (58-59).
My favorite vocabulary word, though, is introduced when Mr. Westabrook asks the children which building they’d like to tour first. “Mr. Westabrook did not have to go further with his plebiscite,” for the children all agreed that they wanted to tour the old mill first. Plebiscite, you ask? It is a direct vote of the qualified voters on a matter of import.
Irwin’s “lessons” are still at work. They are heavy-handed, transparent, gendered, and classist. And I wonder at the sway that this book still holds over me.