Saturday, February 23, 2013

Happy Birthday, Kate! ... Analyzing Happy Birthday, Felicity!


Happy Birthday, Kate! ... Analyzing Happy Birthday, Felicity!

My friend Kate asked me to analyze an American Girls book and point out things that are inaccurate or just plain misleading as a birthday present to her. Because the analysis is a birthday present, I chose a birthday book – Happy Birthday, Felicity! It’s the fourth book in a series following the life of Felicity Merriman, a ten-year old girl in 1770s Virginia. The Felicity books came out in the early 1990s, and while the American Girl empire keeps expanding, Felicity’s stories are one of the ones I remember from my own childhood.

Before I begin, I just want to say that there are a lot of great things about the American Girl books, and I don’t mean my criticisms to be a condemnation of the books. Some things are not wrong but oversimplified, and in some cases I would have chosen to simplify them differently or not at all. Some elements of the American Girl books disproportionately represent girls with lives of privilege, and sometimes the attempts to portray diversity come off as tokenism or insincere. However, the books are also many children’s first introduction to social history and to the personal side of history, and they are valuable for that.

General Tone and Setting

Felicity is the eldest of three children – she has a six-year-old sister and a three-year-old brother. There is a historical note in the back of the book that admits that colonial families usually had many more children than this, and that child mortality was also common, but personally, I find the tiny family one of the strangest inaccuracies, and I don’t think the note in the back makes up for it. Most families in colonial Virginia had eight or nine children, born less than two years apart. The only methods of birth control available were abstinence and continuing to breastfeed. People would notice, and not in a good way, if a family only had three children, because not being abstinent was considered a part of a woman’s duty to her husband at the time. If you only had three children, something was wrong. The alternative, prolonging breastfeeding to prevent conception, was equally unusual and unlikely. If the Merrimans were doing this, three-year-old William would still be nursing, or else Mrs. Merriman would be pregnant by now. 

This is a case of oversimplification – I imagine the creators of the books wanted Felicity’s family to be more relatable to a modern audience – but I don’t think it’s an appropriate one. Giving Felicity only two siblings dramatically changes the feel of her family life as compared to giving her a realistic number of siblings. What is the point of historical fiction for children if not giving them a feel for what life was like in the past?

One thing that is not wrong, but not necessarily right, either, is the Merriman family’s social class and wealth. Felicity’s Grandfather owns a farm, and he is clearly wealthy – a gentleman farmer who, by the way, almost certainly owned slaves, even if he did not run a major plantation. However, Felicity’s father runs a general store, which suggests that he had an older brother who inherited or will inherit the family farm. Felicity’s family is just a little too wealthy for the family of a shopkeeper – not so much that it’s inaccurate, just enough that it’s unusual. The family has fine clothing and eats good food, and apparently has enough land and other resources that it’s no burden for the grandfather to give the children a lamb as a present. Many shopkeepers would have lived on small plots of land in town, or above their shop, and would not have had the kind of yard you could keep sheep in. Felicity has her own bedchamber (bedroom), and goes to a private tutor shared with only one other family. Felicity’s situation with the tutor is also not quite wrong but odd, since women who taught lessons in their own homes, as Miss Manderly does, usually had a whole class full of pupils.

Oversimplified Politics

Happy Birthday, Felicity! takes place at a time when the colonies are on the brink of Revolution. Felicity is trying to sort out what makes people support the King or support independence, and what makes them so passionate about it. Felicity’s grandfather is a Loyalist, meaning he supports the King, as are her best friend’s parents. Both the grandfather and the friends’ parents fit a stereotype of Loyalists that began in the Revolutionary period and has been perpetuated up through today: wealthy, born in England, and supporting Great Britain simply because they are traditionalists. In fact, Loyalists were a diverse group. Until around the 1760’s, all colonists of English descent considered themselves British, whether or not they were born in England. In some areas, Patriots had stirred up the fervor of poor and working-class people who were angry at the status quo, and rioting in the streets and mob violence and destruction of property were becoming more and more common. If this was what “rule by the people” would look like, not everyone wanted it. A number of free and slave Blacks were Loyalists, as well, because the governor of Virginia offered freedom to any Black who joined the royal army. Some other colonists agreed that recent British policies were overly harsh, but felt that the Patriot response was too extreme.

Speaking of the word “Patriot,” Felicity’s grandfather uses the term to describe those he disagreed with, which isn't right. He would have called them “rebels,” because saying they were Patriots was a way of supporting their belief that they were doing what was right for their land. The Patriot side is overly simplified in the book, as well. The idea that people should be able to govern themselves was only a portion of the reason people supported the American Revolution. Generations of colonists had lived under a fairly lenient form of British rule without complaint. In the mid-1700s, however, Britain started to become more involved, and pass more restrictions and taxes. It was these specific policy issues escalating that people were concerned about (and in the Southern colonies, some feared that Britain would interfere with the right to own slaves). Saying that the American Revolution was about people being free is a gross oversimplification, even for a book aimed at elementary readers. It's not too hard to avoid oversimplifying. It's the difference between saying, "We're angry because Britain doesn't give us a say in the laws they pass for us," and "We're angry because we don't like the laws Britain passes for us, and they don't give us a say in them.

Smaller Details

On page 5, Felicity refers to a beverage as “hot chocolate.” Colonists in Virginia did drink a hot beverage made from chocolate, but they only called it “chocolate,” not “hot chocolate.” “Chocolate” referred only to this beverage, because chocolate was not yet used in candy or baking. By the way, this was not hot chocolate as we know it today, either – it was made with hot water, powdered chocolate, some spices. Little to no milk or cream was used, and it was minimally sweetened. Incidentally, many people in the 1700’s believed adding chocolate, coffee, or tea to water was a good way to make the water safe to drink. In fact, these beverages were safer than plain water, which often carried diseases, but not because of the additives. It was just because the water had been boiled.

Several times (the first time being on page 13), the book refers to Felicity’s friend Isaac as being  “a free black.” There were some free African-Americans in the colonies at the time, but there is no reason to say “a free black.” I fully understand why a modern children’s book would avoid the period-correct term “negro,” which is now considered derogative at best. However, if you’re going to use a modern term, use modern usage – if you use a person’s race as a noun (which is questionable in itself from a fair treatment standpoint, but not a grammar one), the term is capitalized. Isaac is a free Black.

On page 39, while Felicity is watching the minutemen practice muster, she exclaims, “They look fine!” It’s not clear whether she’s referring to their appearance or just how the men are marching in formation, and it’s possible a ten-year-old would think the volunteer soldiers did look very good. However, by most standards, the volunteer militias did not look particularly “fine.” Unlike British soldiers, they would be dressed in their own clothes rather than uniforms, and the men involved were generally middle or working class farmers and workmen. Even the most well prepared band of minutemen would have looked rather motley at their drills.

Conclusion

You’ll notice that one of the inaccuracies that I did not point out was Felicity and her friends alerting the townspeople that the governor of Virginia had ordered men to remove Williamsburg’s store of gunpowder to a Royal Navy ship. As the book mentions in the historical note in the back, the Gunpowder Incident was a real event. No one knows who discovered the Governor’s plan, and it could have been a few kids just as well as it could have been anyone else. This is the kind of liberty that historical fiction should take. The event is simplified without being oversimplified, and it brings readers to the heart of the action.

I would happily read Happy Birthday, Felicity! to my child if I had one, but I’d make sure to discuss the fact that not everything in the book is quite realistic. Hopefully, he or she would become curious about learning what the period was truly like.

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