addy learns a lesson: maybe don’t be friends with the kid who brags about not having been a slave

when we last left addy, she was fleeing from slavery. this book picks up with addy & her mother arriving in philadelphia. they are met on the dock by mrs. moore & her daughter sarah, who are also escaped slaves who have been free for a while. sarah is just about addy’s age & promises to help addy adjust to philadelphia (which is understndably culture shock for addy, who spent her entire life living on a tobacco plantation & has never seen a city) & go to school. addy is very excited about the prospect of learning how to read & write.

somehow they all end up at a little sewing shop. i think the quakers had something to do with this. the woman who runs the sewing shop agrees to hire mrs. walker (addy’s mom) as a seamstress & allow the walkers to live in the garret apartment upstairs. mrs. walker agrees to let addy go to school.

addy is amazed that her teacher is a black woman because she never knew any black people back on the plantation that could read or write. sarah explains that there is a special school in philadelphia for black people who want to become teachers, & says that maybe when she & addy are old enough, they can go there together. but addy is concerned that she’s too old & that she will never become literate. sarah promises to help her & says that you’re never too old to learn something new.

addy notices another girl in class. her name is harriet & she is wearing a really fancy dress. addy asks sarah about harriet & sarah explains that harriet is the richest girl in class–& the snobbiest. she says that it’s not really worth addy’s time to try to get to know harriet because she doesn’t have time for any of the poor (ex-slave) girls. but addy is still very impressed by harriet’s perfect ringlets & expensive dress.

the next day, the teacher shuffles up the desk assignments & asks addy to sit next to harriet in the front row. harriet is one of the best students & she wants harriet to help addy catch up in lessons. addy is breathless over harriet’s dress. she herself has only one dress–a pink striped number given to her by the woman who helped addy & her mother escape from slavery. harriet is helpful with lessons, but she’s definitely a little snooty. she explains that her family has always been free (is that something to brag about?) & they have plenty of money. addy is in awe. she thinks that harriet has the life she thought she would have when she was free. & i just have to ask…really? because addy’s only exposure to people was the other slaves on the plantation & the master & his guests. did she really think freedom meant that she would just *poof* be rich? i don’t know. maybe she did, since the only free people she knew were also rich. but this is straining my credulity a little bit.

anyway, sarah is not wild about how addy is acting so impressed with harriet. but she keeps her word to help show addy around philadelphia. addy starts doing deliveries for the sewing shop her mother works at, & sarah tags along to help read & find the addresses. addy also starts teaching her mother how to read & write by forming letters with biscuit dough while cooking & spelling words. i wonder how grimy the dough got in the process. seems like it would aldo overwork the gluten, making for some pretty tough biscuits. but it’s a nice image, so let’s move on.

a spelling bee is coming up at school & harriet brags that she’s the best speller in class. she tells addy she is having friends over to study & kind of semi-invites addy to join them. addy is ecstatic, but worried about how to tell sarah that she’s walking home with harriet instead. this is all so awkward because harriet & sarah are both kind of forcing addy to choose between them & i always think that’s a dick move. addy should ditch ’em both. but he chooses harriet because she is still in awe of harriet’s fancy wardrobe. “she must have ten or fifteen dresses!”

but when they start out on the walk home, harriet & all of her rich friends pile their books up in addy’s arms & make her carry everything. addy thinks to herself that all those books weigh just as much as the water bucket back on the plantation, but it’s worth it to hang out with harriet. &…really? she’s not having any slave-related PTSD flashbacks? harriet & her friends say that addy makes a great “flunky,” & then they take their books back & rescind the invite to study for the spelling bee. addy doesn’t get it & accepts harriet’s invitation to walk home the next day too. the same thing happens. addy finally realizes that harriet wants addy to “be her slave” (those are really the words the book uses), & addy won’t play that game.

whne she gets home that night, she finds that her mother has made her a beautiful new blue dress out of some scraps in the sewing shop, to wish addy good luck on the spelling bee. i have to say, these earlier american girl books really do a stellar job of weaving the outfits & accessories available for sale into the stories. & i’m not being sarcastic about that. this was addy’s school story, & the related items for sale included this blue outfit, addy’s school desk, her lunch pail (complete with pretend biscuits that spell out the word “love”), & her school supplies, which included a spelling book & an abacus. very cunning.

the next day at the bee, sarah fumbles in one of the early-ish rounds & misspells a word. addy is up next & has to spell that same word correctly to stay in the bee. she considers misspelling it on purpose in solidarity with sarah, but then she sees harriet smirking over sarah’s mistake & decides to try to show harriet up. it all comes down to just addy & harriet…& then harriet gets cocky & makes an asy mistake because she’s spelling too quickly. addy spells the word properly & wins the bee, she also apologizes to sarah for ditching her for harriet.

can i just say that this book was totally weird? maybe it’s difficult for me to imagine a little girl (harriet, in this case) being such a smug asshole about having never been a slave because from where i sit in 2011, slavery is a horrifying, shocking thing. this story takes place during the civil war, when slavery was still widespread. obviously many people found the institution abominable, but maybe it wasn’t this totally taboo thing like it is now? i don’t know. it’s just really difficult to imagine someone now crowing about not being descended from slaves, like that makes them better than someone who is descended from slaves. & the fact that harriet wants to treat addy like a slave…i get that the point of the book is that addy learns a lesson about sticking by the friends that accept you for who you are (like sarah) than chasing after the shiniest bauble on the block (harriet), but i feel that the book made me loathe harriet to the point that it was difficult for me to appreciate the actual story. this book originally came out about twenty years ago & is geared for children. i wonder if being an eight-year-old reading this book in 1993 would have made me feel differently. maybe moral lessons need to be painted in broad strokes like this so kids will get it? i don’t know.

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