How Harriet the Spy Shaped My Identity by Melissa Roske
Until the age of ten, I assumed Louise Fitzhugh had written Harriet the Spy about me. The signs were all there: The novel was published in 1964, the year I was born; it featured a bookish only child living in Manhattan; and, perhaps most striking of all, when I anagrammed the protagonist’s full name – Harriet M. Welsch – the result blew me away: It was my first name… MELISA! (The fact that my name is spelled with two s’s seemed irrelevant at the time.)
There were other spooky similarities. Harriet attended a small private school like mine; she had loving-but-distracted parents like mine; and she was cared for by a straight-talking, tea-drinking nanny… again, like mine. Or kind of like mine. My nanny sneaked Irish whiskey into her tea and chain-smoked Marlboro Reds while my parents were at work. Oops.
Similarities aside, Harriet’s story diverges from mine in some significant ways. My dad was a cautious, mild-mannered civil engineer, not a martini-swilling, Mad Men-esque ad executive, and my mom – a hard-working children’s wear rep – was too busy schmoozing with customers to meet her gal pals for afternoon bridge. We also didn’t live in a lavish, three-story townhouse across the street from Carl Schurz Park, or employ a full-time cook. Our apartment was more humble, located in a redbrick building opposite the Queens Midtown tunnel, and the only one who cooked was my mother. Oh, and I didn’t have a spy route. The possibility of getting caught – and possibly arrested – was too much for my nervous stomach.
I did have one advantage over Harriet, though: Through my bedroom window, I could watch the Ringling Brothers circus animals make their yearly pilgrimage through the tunnel from Queens to Manhattan, en route to the big top at Madison Square Garden. And of course I chronicled the marvel in my journal. How could I not? Like Harriet, I loved to write.
It’s no surprise, then, that Harriet the Spy resonated in a way no other book had. The reason, I suspect, is that Harriet was the anti-Melissa. She was bold, and brash, and fearless, and her notebook entries (or “dossiers,” as her mother called them) were as outrageous as they were insightful. Whether describing her friend Sport’s lack of early-morning hygiene (“He has funny little dry things around his eyes”), or her sixth-grade nemesis Marion Hawthorne’s obnoxiously awful behavior (“If Marion Hawthorne doesn’t watch out, she’s going to grow up into a lady Hitler,”), Harriet kept it real. I kept it real in my journal too, but my childhood musings were as bland as Farina compared to Harriet’s on-the-edge exploits. To be fair, I didn’t have the advantage of sneaking into rich ladies’ houses and hiding in their dumbwaiters, but that was okay. Harriet could be audacious for me.
Over time, Harriet the Spy became more than a book I read for comfort and adventure, year after year. It was a part of my identity, the key to who I was: An only child. A daughter to loving-but-distracted parents. A friend. A native New Yorker. And now: Melissa with two s’s. A wife. A mother. A writer.
I still hold up this wondrous book as a mirror, reading it year after year to keep myself, and my writing, in check. Am I trying my best or coasting along? Working through the tough stuff or brushing it off? What do I want to say in my writing, and how much should I reveal? If I don’t have the answers, I turn to Ole Golly. As she wisely said to Harriet: “…To yourself you must always tell the truth.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Harriet the Spy so irresistible to me; what has affected my life, from the age of ten until the present, in such a profound and authentic way: It’s Fitzhugh’s message to search for the truth, even if it’s a struggle. But that, as every Harriet fangirl knows, is nothing to shy away from: “Life is a struggle, and a good spy gets in there and fights.”
Melissa Roske is a New York-based writer of middle-grade fiction. Her debut novel, KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN, will be published by Charlesbridge on May 2, 2017. Find her on her website, on Facebook, on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.