by Barbara McClintock
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002
I still have my first doll, a cloth Raggedy Ann handmade for me by a neighbor.
I don’t remember much of what I did with her, only that she went almost everywhere with me. Later, I passed her on to my own daughter, who played with dear Raggedy until she literally fell apart.
She’s now on the top shelf of my closet, footless, one embroidered eye rubbed away, bald patches scattered through her red yarn hair. I’m trying desperately to figure out how to fix her, but my sewing skills are sorely lacking.
The funny thing about all this? As a child, I wasn’t that into dolls. While other girls in my class brought their “babies” to school and played house at recess, I played handball and foursquare with the boys.
One of my teachers was so concerned about this apparent lack of feminine interests that she actually pulled me aside one day. “You know, you don’t have to play with the boys all the time,” she said conspiratorially. “I bet the girls would play with you, too.”
So I tried playing with the girls. That lasted for about two days–make-believe tea parties just weren’t my thing.
I’m sure that’s why Barbara McClintock’s Dahlia immediately caught my attention.
Set in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, this is the story of Charlotte, a budding naturalist whose favorite pastimes include hunting for birds’ nests and making mud cakes with Bruno the teddy bear.
One morning, Charlotte receives a package from her Aunt Edme. Inside is a prissy blond doll, dressed in a feathered hat and ruffly, lacy dress.
Charlotte takes one look at the doll and issues an unapologetic warning: “We like digging in the dirt and climbing trees. No tea parties, no being pushed around in frilly prams. You’ll just have to get used to the way we do things.”
“The way we do things,” it turns out, involves fishing, digging in the garden (Charlotte names the doll after her mother’s flowers), beating the local boys at wagon racing, and just generally getting dirty and rumpled. All in all, a glorious day.
But when they return home for dinner, they find Aunt Edme waiting for them. She’s the very picture of delicacy, attired in pristine lace, linen, and silk. And she wants to see what Charlotte has done with her new doll.
The elderly aunt’s reaction to Dahlia’s ragged condition is the book’s crowning moment. Instead of scolding Charlotte for ruining the doll, Edme suddenly smiles and confides, “I thought she needed to be out in the sunshine, and played with, and loved. I knew that is just what you’d do for her.”
This is one reason I love McClintock’s book: Edme’s affirmation of Charlotte the Adventurer, Charlotte the Bold and Fearless (and Dirty). I think young girls crave–need–this kind of validation from older women. At least, I know I did. It meant the world to me when my female teachers, relatives, even just the babysitter, said, “I understand who you are, and I love it!”
I still carry those moments of affirmation with me. They’re like the picture inside a locket; most of the time, they hang hidden in my mind. But I can take them out and look at them whenever I need encouragement to take some bold and unusual step, the path that’s right for me but a mystery to those around me.
I also love Charlotte’s aggressive immunity to cultural expectations. She knows they exist; she even knows what they are. But she’s not buying them, even for a minute.
To borrow Walt Whitman’s beautiful phrase, she’s already learned to dismiss whatever insults her own soul.
Finally, I love McClintock’s elegant watercolors, full of expressive faces, period detail, and little gems for the observant reader. Reference, for example, Charlotte’s tongue-in-cheek resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s prim and proper Alice. Or the hallway in Charlotte’s home–she’s obviously not the only adventurer in the family.
Ultimately, this is an incredibly satisfying book, proof that picture books can have just as much “meat”–and inspiration–in them as novels.
With whom would you share this book, and why?