Thursday, October 17, 2013

Girlhood classic

I’ve shared quite a few memories of my favourite girlhood books, but I’m not nearly done yet. Today’s post is inspired by my visit to a book fair a couple of weeks ago. As I wrote earlier, I like to hunt for treasures in the used books' hall there. I found a few wonderful books this time, too, that I didn’t even know I wanted until they were there.

One great find was a 1950 edition of An Old-fashioned Girl by Louisa M. Alcott (1869). It doesn’t have a cover image – it has perhaps had a dust jacket at some point, now gone – and the gilded letters on its red spine have worn off, but that doesn’t matter. It looks and smells just like an old book should. I instantly knew I had to have it so I bought it. And unlike so many impulse buys on fairs, I haven’t regretted buying it and I know I won’t.

An Old-fashioned Girl tells the story of fourteen-year-old Polly Milton, a country girl who comes to visit her cousin Fanny Shaw in town. I’m not entirely sure where; the town is not named, but I think it’s somewhere on the US east coast. Boston, perhaps. The first part of the story consists mostly of incidents where Polly’s country manners clash with those more fashionable of Fanny and her friends. Polly is often tempted to have what they have, but whenever she succumbs she usually learns a lesson on the virtue of simpler lifestyle; many times she teaches that lesson to others too. The latter part of the book returns Polly to the same town as an adult. The Shaw family loses their fortune and Polly has a chance to help them to live a simpler, happier life. She finds her love, too, in the form of Tom Shaw, Fanny’s brother, a former wild boy who has grown into a decent man.

I loved the book and read it many times. When I was younger, I was moved by Polly’s struggles among the mean rich girls. I was particularly taken with the story of bronze shoes the peer pressure makes her buy but then can’t enjoy because she can’t afford to buy Christmas presents for her family. When I was older, it was the romance that I enjoyed most, the misunderstandings and broken hearts.

An Old-fashioned Girl is one of those books that teach you without being preachy. I learned that it was better to be poor and good than rich and mean, and that a suitable suitor needs more than good looks and addresses. They’re not exactly life lessons I’ve needed to live by, but they have stayed with me all these years.

I haven’t read the book in ages, and I’m not sure I’ll read it now that I have it on my shelf. But it’s a book that makes me happy to know that I have. Who knows, the mood might strike me for something sweet and good-natured. Something old-fashioned. Then I’ll know exactly what to read.