Books Are Pretty

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Long Secret.

The town of Water Mill, New York keeps popping up at work, and no surprise, really, that a lot of people who do big money business with Big Machine call Water Mill home. In the summer, anyway, when the kings of Manhattan pack up the family and ship them off to the sixth richest zip code in the country.

I hadn't thought about Water Mill in decades, so long that I didn't remember ever thinking about it at all. I looked it up on Mapquest, but seeing the tiny dot indicated on the island off New York didn't ring any bells. Then it came to me: Harriet M. Welsch. Harriet's parents, and the grandmother of Harriet's excruciatingly shy friend Beth Ellen Hansen, had summer homes in Water Mill, and the town itself and its inhabitants were featured in the second of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet books, The Long Secret.

Last week the young, frazzled assistant of a Water Mill summer resident called us repeatedly on behalf of her boss anxiously checking and double-checking to make sure that we were adequately meeeting her boss' needs.

"It's just that it has to be exactly right," she pleaded. "He likes to have everything just right!"

Unlike the rest of us, I assume, who don't really care whether we get what we pay for or not.

As Beth Ellen ran across the room to where the ornate bellpull was concealed behind the heavy drapes she heard [her mother] Zeeney say, "And that's the first thing that must go. I can't imagine what possessed her father to name her Beth Ellen."

"I believe it was his mother's name, wasn't it?" said Mrs. Hansen, rolling her chair closer to the couch.

..."That doesn't matter a whit now," said Zeeney. "It must be changed. It's perfectly terrible."

"You can't just change someone's name when they're twelve years old," said Mrs. Hansen in her close-to-anger voice.

..."We can, at
least, call her Beth!" said Zeeney with what seemed like rage.

It wasn't until now that I fully appreciate the genius of Fitzhugh. In all three books featuring young Harriet and her friends, Fitzhugh wove in a very adult, very pointed social satire of the idle New York rich in the mid 1960's, knowing full well her most cutting dialogue and blistering character sketches would fly over the heads of most of her little readers.

In The Long Secret, Harriet spies on Beth Ellen's sociopathic mother and all her friends and, even though she sees and reports on all, she doesn't always realize what she's seeing. Her analyses of the situations are flat with incomprehension.

When re-read as an adult, the antics of the adults suddenly click into place, and all the rivalries and insults are made clear, sailing over the heads of the children and, if the opportunity arises, the children are used to insult their parents.

Welsch...are you Rodger Welsch's daughter?" Zeeney leaned forward.

"HARRIET!" said Mrs. Welsch in that certain brisk tone which Harriet knew could not be disobeyed. This time, however, she was too enthralled to do anything but stare at Zeeney.

"Yes!" she said proudly.

"...Well," she said doubtfully, "you don't look a
thing like him. Are you sure?"

Although The Long Secret is a "Harriet" book, the protagonist is actually the timid Beth Ellen, poor little rich girl. Rejected and abandoned by her cold but beautiful mother, Beth Ellen is raised by her grandmother until the summer Beth Ellen turns twelve. It is then that her mother, now a stranger, whisks back to New York from Europe to mold her daughter in her image. It is a sad little book in many ways, really. Beth Ellen spends much of it grieving the loss of her childhood and fighing its demise in her passive way by slipping away with Harriet and their friend Janie, (aka PZ Myers' long lost daughter*) to discover the secret identity of the person who has been terrorizing Water Mill residents by leaving nasty, Biblically-related notes around town, pointedly smiting the vain right on their particular Achilles' heel.

As the summer draws to a close and preparations are made to take Beth Ellen from her friends and the grandmother who loves her, the passive little girl must decide whether or not she will, for the first time in her life, fight.

The straightforward plot is entertaining enough for girls to enjoy, but it is the details of the adult lives, not dumbed down or held back, that fully flesh out the book and give the book its intense richness. Who doesn't remember sitting in on adult conversation and feeling tension in the air, but not understanding its genesis?

"And this - Zeeney was across the room in one white swoop - this must be your mother!" She extended a hand to Mrs. Welsch. "I'm delighted to meet you. I've always wanted to see who Rodger married."

"Oh?" said Mrs. Welsch and for some reason looked at Harriet as though she wanted to tear her limb from limb.

so sorry!" said Zeeney with a great show of white teeth, "I'm Zeeney Baines. I was Zeeney Hansen. Rodger and I used to play tennis together. We haven't seen each other since we were fifteen years old. He's never mentioned me?"

Mrs. Welsch looked calm. "I know your daughter quite well," she said pleasantly, "and of course, your mother."

Mmmmmmm," said Zeeney, "naughty Rodger. Not even mentioning me...What DAYS those were...what CHILDREN we were...Oh, the pity of it all...Les histoires d'enfance..."

Harriet's eyes were bugging. She watched her mother's eyes narrow.

Zeeney seemed to pull herself together. "
You weren't around then were you, dear? I don't seem to be able to place you...You weren't there, around the Club, I mean?"

"Oh yes," said Mrs. Welsch sweetly, "but I was much younger, of course."

"Of course," Zeeney hissed between her teeth and left the table.

...Mrs Welsch looked around the room. "Why don't you go ask Beth Ellen if she wants to sit with us in here. They don't seem to be paying much attention to her."

Fitzhugh could have left all the adult schemes and in-fighting out of her books, but she didn't. She pulled no punches, and wrote the truth as she knew it. It is this type of complexity and sense of reality, where children are on the verge of understanding, that creates a memory that lasts a lifetime, a memory that can be triggered years later, when just the mention of a small town in a completely different context brings back a flood of images of people and places seen only in the imagination of a child.
*Here's Janie explaining menstruation to Beth Ellen and Harriet. Tell me this child didn't grow up to wage war against Creationists:

"It happens to everybody, though, every woman in the world, even Madame Curie. It's very normal. And I guess, since it means you're grown up and can have babies, that it's a good thing. I, for one, just don't happen to want babies. I also have a sneaking suspicion that there're too many babies in the world already. So I"m working on this cure for people that don't want babies, so they won't have to do this."

Beth Ellen looked up at Janie and asked tentatively, "do those rocks hurt you too?"

"Rocks?" Janie yelled.

"Those rocks inside that come down," said Beth Ellen timidly.

"WHAT?" screamed Harriet. "Oh, well, if they think I'm gonna do anything like that, they're crazy."

"There aren't any rocks. Who told you that?" Janie was so mad she stood up. "Who told you there were rocks? There aren't any rocks. I'll kill 'em. Who told you that about any rocks?"

Beth Ellen looked scared. "My grandmother," she said faintly. "Isn't that right? Aren't there little rocks that come down and make you bleed and hurt you?"

"Right? It couldn't be more wrong." Janie stood over her. "there aren't any rocks. You got that? There aren't any rocks at all!

"WOW!" said Harriet. "ROCKS!"

"Now, wait a minute," said Janie, holding up her hand like a lecturer, "let's get something straight before you two get terrified."

"They both looked up at her. Beth Ellen was frightened and confused. Harriet was angry and confused.

"Now, you must understand," said Janie, looking very earnest, "that the generation that Beth Ellen's grandmother came from is very Victorian. They never talked about things like this, and her grandmother thought that telling her this was better than telling her the truth."

"What's the truth?" asked Harriet avidly.

Beth Ellen didn't care about the truth. The rocks were bad enough to think about. What could the truth be?

"That just goes to show you," said Janie, looking like a stuffy teacher, "that people should learn to live with fact! It's never as bad as the fantasies they make up."

"Oh, Janie, get on with it," said Harriet. "What is the truth?"

"Ah, what a question," said Janie.

"JANIE!" said Harriet in disgust.

"Okay, okay," said Janie as though they were too dumb to appreciate her, "it's very simple. I'll explain it." She sat down as though it would take a long time.

"Now, you know the baby grows inside a woman, in her womb, in the uterus?"

They nodded.

"Well. What do you think it lives on when it's growing?"

They both looked blank.

"The lining, dopes!" she yelled at them.

They blinked.

"So, it's very simple. If you have a baby started in there, the baby lives on the lining; but if you don't have a baby, like we don't, then the body very sensibly disposes of the lining that it's made for the baby. It just comes right out."

"It falls right out of you?" screamed Harriet.

Oh, thought Beth Ellen, why me?

"No, no, no. You always exaggerate, Harriet. You would make a terrible scientist. You must be precise."
The Long Secret
by Louise Fitzhugh
Dell Publishing Company, Inc
copyright 1965
275 pp.
ISBN: 0-440-44977-4

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