Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mrs. Wiggs

The first assignment for my tween lit class (4th to 8th grade) was to read a childhood favorite. The first one that came to mind was Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, which I read numerous times when I was a kid. After my stepdad died in 2002 and I was staying with my sister while we were preparing to go to his funeral, I discovered that my niece (then 31) still had the book in her room, and in fact had been reading it, and I think she had also read it several times when she was younger. She got it for me; it was quite dilapidated, with some pages falling out. I think it was something my mom might have picked up in a bargain bin, perhaps having been one of her childhood favorites (It was originally published in 1901). At any rate, everybody in my household (my mom, sister, niece and I all lived together until I left for college) has fond memories of this book.

I discovered it had been digitized on Google Books, so I read it there for the assignment, and I was both delighted and disturbed. The narration is pretty clever and witty sometimes, and I now have more understanding of the references (e.g. the chapter entitled "The Annexation of Cuby" which escaped me in childhood). Mrs. Wiggs has a positive attitude similar to the one my mom tried to project in difficult times, and that really is reassuring when you are a kid.

The disturbing part was that I had forgotten there were about half a dozen racial or ethnic slurs or stereotypes (including The Big One at one point in Mrs. Wiggs' dialogue). I can't remember if it appeared in the edition I had, and if it did, I would have mulled that over. It is a book of its time and place, and it probably would have been authentic for Mrs. Wiggs to say it, although Mrs. Wiggs makes a lot of linguistic miscues; I believe it would have been out of ignorance rather than hostility on the part of her character.

I started feeling kind of guilty for liking this book, and started looking around for more information. There was a paperback edition published in 2004, and a copy is available at Michigan State University. It appears to be beloved by those who are familiar with it, although the person who writes the preface in the 2004 edition (the part that's available to read for free online) acknowledges problems, such as a sometimes patronizing attitude towards poor people.

I have to give a booktalk about this, and I'm trying to think about how to approach it. There is much to recommend it (being aware of others, service, interdependence). Obviously there are people besides me who think it is worthwhile to keep it circulating. Although I loved it as a tween, it was not really originally intended as that kind of book. While certainly no Huck Finn, is that the kind of approach to take in a booktalk? To say, look, this is how it was in that time in that place. And, of course, unlike Huck Finn, I don't think the intention is to satirize that behavior. That's not good, but there you go. And sometimes, if you protect kids from that, they don't understand Now.

The areas of my concern are not really a major part of that book, but as a young student, particularly a member of one of the slurred or stereotyped groups, I might perceive them as major. At the same time, it's a very sweet and funny book, even if somewhat melodramatic and old-fashioned by today's standards.

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