Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why I Like What Katy Did

If we're going to talk about books in which people recover from an illness, we really have to talk about What Katy Did, the 1872 novel by Susan Coolidge.

What Katy Did is the classic girl-gets-paralyzed story. That actually is a thing! So many girls' books from this time period are about girls who suffer from paralysis, either from illness or injury (Pollyanna,  Jack and Jill, The Lilac Lady, Heart of Gold). I always thought that this literary phenomenon was so strange. Why was it so common? Why does it always happen to girls? This book might answer some of those questions. By the way, if you like books about people recovering from illnesses, there are five books by Susan Coolidge about Katy Carr and her family, and someone gets sick in every single one of them.
 (In this illustration, Katy learns from her saintly Cousin Helen, another character who is confined to bed.)

But What Katy Did is the one where Katy Carr has an accident and ends up unable to walk for at least two years. Before her accident. she's unruly and disobedient, but while she's confined to her bed, she learns to be self-sacrificing and domestic. So, yes, the moralistic tone of the story is a bit much at times, but I still love this book.

 (Katy with her brothers and sisters at Christmas.)

I think I love What Katy Did so much because the children in it seem so real. Susan Coolidge (really Sarah Chauncey Woolsey) based them on her own sisters and brothers, and she's obviously the model for Katy, who is always writing serial stories. In the book, Katy writes this never-ending serial called "The Blue Wizard, or Edwitha of the Hebrides," and I wish I could read it! It's about "a lady, a knight, a blue wizard, and a poodle named Bop," and Katy keeps it stuffed down the back of an armchair in the parlor.

 (The Carr children on their way to "Paradise," a shelter they built out of jump ropes and branches.)

I love all of the strange games that the Carr children invent: a dangerous game called "Kikeri," which is a kind of Blindman's Bluff played in the dark, and the Game of Rivers, which basically just involves everyone running around and screaming. I love Katy's sister Johnnie and her little chair that she names "Pikery" and treats like a doll. I also love what the children imagine they're going to do when they grow up: Katy has a million schemes, but mainly wants to look like the lady on the Tricipherous bottles (a hair tonic); her brother Dorrie just plans to eat turkey and batter-puddings every day; and her sister Clover is going to live in a yellow castle, wear gold and silver dresses with satin aprons, and have a pond in her back-yard full of Lubin's Extracts (a fancy perfume).

(You can buy this image as a poster and dream about having that hair yourself.)

What Katy Did is so funny, and the characters are so human, that the moralizing is balanced out for me. But I still laughed out loud when I came across E. Nesbit's satirical take on this book in The Wouldbegoods, which is about a group of children trying to be as good as the characters in a Susan Coolidge novel and failing spectacularly. They are wild and disobedient, like Katy, but they are never able to reform. At one point their misbehavior leads to one of the girls cutting her foot badly:

"The worst was when Dora couldn't get her shoe on, so they sent for the doctor, and Dora had to lie down for ever so long. It was indeed poor luck.

When the doctor had gone Alice said to me -- 'It is hard lines, but Dora's very jolly about it. Daisy's been telling her about how we should all go to her with our little joys and sorrows and things, and about the sweet influence from a sick bed that can be felt all over the house, like in What Katy Did, and Dora said she hoped she might prove a blessing to us all while she's laid up.'

Oswald said he hoped so, but he was not pleased. Because this sort of jaw was exactly the sort of thing he and Dicky didn't want to have happen."

No comments:

Post a Comment