Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"American Girls" and Their Dads

Mrs. G. did all the work on this one.

As I wrote yesterday, Mattel has introduced a new doll in the American Girl line. Julie, from 1974, is the child of divorce. Each American Girl comes with books introducing her life and describing her distinctive adventures. What happens when we compare how Julie and the other girls relate to their fathers?

Amazon makes it easy to “look inside” the first few pages of books. In historical order, try these experiences.


Felicity Merriman pushed open the door to her father’s store and took a deep breath. She loved the smell of coffee beans and chocolate, of pine soap, spice tea, and apples. No place in the world smelled as good as her father’s store.

“Good day, Mistress Merriman!” said her father. He smiled and bowed.

Felicity grinned. Her father always pretended she was a fine lady customer when she came into his store. “Good day, Mr. Merriman,” she answered. She liked to pretend to.


Josefina shaded her eyes. Even from this far away, she could see Papa. He sat very straight and tall on his horse. He was talking to the workers in the cornfield near the stream. The rancho had belonged to Papa’s family for more than one hundred years. All those years, Papa’s family had cared for the animals and the land. It was not an easy life. Every one had to work hard. Some years there was plenty of rain so that the crops grew and the animals were healthy. Some years there was not enough rain. Then the soil was dry and the animals went thirsty. But through good time and bad the rancho went on. It provided everything Josefina and her family needed to live. It gave them food, clothing, and shelter. Josefina loved the rancho. It was her home. She believed that it was the most beautiful place in all of New Mexico and all of the world.


Addy Walker woke up late on a summer’s night to hear her parents whispering. She thought no more of their quiet voices than of the soft chirping of the crickets in the woods just beyond the little cabin. Often she awoke to her parents’ whispering. Addy liked the sound. It made her feel safe, knowing her mother and father were close by.


Papa’s black wool jacket flapped like a gull’s wings as he crossed the deck. “There’s a storm coming,” Papa said. “It could be dangerous. The coast is rocky here, and the wind is getting stronger.” Papa lifted Kirsten out of the coiled rope. Then he pulled Marta out too. “Come below where we’ll be safe,” he said.


“Jessie, did you know my mother and father?” Samantha asked.

Jessie spoke gently. “You know I didn’t, child. That accident in the boat happened when you were just five. You know I didn’t come to work for your grandmother till you were seven.”

Samantha had known that. Asking had really been wishing. She touched the locket pinned to her dress. Inside the small gold heart was a picture of her mother and father. She would have loved to hear Jessie talk about them. When Jessie told stories, she made everything sound like magic. Jessie would have made Samantha’s parents seem like a princess.


Sometimes, now that Dad was gone to the war, Molly would climb into the plaid chair and sniff it because that vanilla pipe smell made her feel so safe and happy, just as if Dad were home.

Molly remembered the fun they had at the table when Dad was home. He teased Jill and made her blush. He swapped jokes with Ricky and told riddles to Brad, Molly’s younger brother. And he always said, “Gosh and golly, olly Molly, what have you done today?” Suddenly everything Molly had done-whether it was winning a running race or using a multiplication bee—was interesting and important, wonderful or not so bad after all.


“Remember when we built that fort out of clay we dug up from the garden? And we dressed up our Liddle Kiddles in old time clothes.”

“I remember,” sighed Ivy. The room turned middle-of-the-night quiet. Julie and Ivy couldn’t look at teach other.

“I can’t believe you’re moving,” said Ivy, flashing her dark eyes at Julie.

It’s only a few miles away, across town,” said Julie. “It’s not like I’m moving to Mars.

“I won’t be able to blink lights at you from across the street anymore to say good night,” said Ivy.

“But we can call each other up,” Julie pointed out. “And you’ll see me on the weekends when I come visit my dad.” There was that lump again. She felt it every time she thought of being without Dad. She thought she’d gotten used to the idea of her parents being divorced, but now that she wouldn’t be living with Dad any more, suddenly it wasn’t just an idea. It was real.


So, for the first hundred years of the stories, girls start their stories by delighting in their fathers’ nearness. Then the one orphan is allowed to mourn, and the soldier’s daughter is allowed to pine. And then the child of divorce gets to protect her friend by hiding her grief out of sight.

Isn’t that an amazing triumph of individual liberation?

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