SUGGESTIONS FOR WEEKEND READING
Review: What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
As a child, I remember reading with fascination What Katy Did. Victorian children’s novels are known for often being didactic in nature, and while What Katy Did is no exception, Susan Coolidge delivers an enchanting, nuanced bildungsroman (or coming of age story) with profundity.
Katy Carr is an adventurous, endearing child of 12 who is described as “the longest girl that was ever seen,” and who feels herself to be “all legs and elbows, and angles and joints.” Her hair is “forever in a snarl’ her gowns were always catching on nails and ‘tearing themselves’; and in spite of her age and size, she was as heedless and innocent as a child of six.” Like many imaginative girls, Katy has great dreams about the feats she will accomplish and the heroic, famous lady she will one day become. In her childish naiveté, she seems completely unaware of the adversity that all heroes and heroines must inherently overcome to accomplish something truly remarkable.
Like most of life’s actual challenges, the trial that does present itself to Katy is not of her own choosing. About halfway through the novel, Katy disobeys her strict Aunt Izzie in using the new swing, not knowing that it was yet unfinished and dangerous. Katy falls and is paralyzed … and feels all her grand dreams shatter to the ground beneath her.
Katy’s paralysis lasts over a period of 4 years, and during that time Katy initially sinks to the depths of despair. Her energies are all turned inward, and she becomes bitter, fractious and selfish. The turning point in her journey is when Cousin Helen comes to visit. Cousin Helen can encourage Katy in a way no one else can … for Helen too is paralyzed. The first time she visits in the novel, Katy is still an active, vivacious child running about, but even still she is struck by Helen’s kind, gentle demeanor and joyfulness, despite her condition. In her second visit, it is Helen who throws open the curtains in Katy’s dark room and encourages her to still care for beauty in the world around her. Helen completely alters Katy’s outlook on her future life and thus revolutionizes her attitude. Katy does eventually regain the use of her legs, an exciting climax to the story, but Coolidge makes it clear that a good attitude does not necessarily alter ones basic circumstances.
In her insightful introduction to the Folio Society edition, Amanda Craig writes, “The School of Pain is a hard one, but one most of us experience at one time or another. Some of Cousin Helen’s lessons may strike modern readers as too pious, but what she says about how ‘everything in the world has two handles’, including people, is one of the most useful any adult can possibly tell a child. The best novels are not only those that stimulate our imaginations, our hearts and our minds but those that give us true and useful information about how to live in the world.”
This novel struck a deep chord with me as a child, and I remember soaking in Cousin Helen’s example and wisdom, hoping that if I were to ever have a similar experience that I would be like she. It was delightful to revisit this redemptive, childhood favorite, and as always it is so refreshing to read true literature for children where the writing is as beautiful as the story.