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One of my favorite books is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. It’s very similar to Anne of Green Gables, which I didn’t read until I was a teenager, and Little Women, which I think I first read as an adult. As a child I read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm over and over. Rebecca may have seemed a bit more accessible to me than the other books because the edition I had, a Scholastic paperback, is abridged. I have read this book so many times that I remember some of the passages almost word-for-word, and little seems changed except in the last chapters, which do drag a bit in the unabridged version. I think maybe even the author didn’t want to leave Rebecca! This novel is wonderfully well written for both children and adults. Children identify with Rebecca’s escapades, which always start with the best of intentions, but the unnamed narrator describes these events from an adult perspective.
As a child, I remember sympathizing with the pain that Rebecca must have felt by being pulled away from her mother and sent to live with her aunts, especially when the older one, Aunt Miranda, was so mean. Of course, now I’m a bit more sympathetic to the aunts and appreciate their situation. As an adult, I can see how Aunt Miranda struggles to reconcile her responsibilities, her values, and her love for her family. As a child, I didn’t understand why the aunts didn’t just send money to Rebecca’s family; taking a child away from her mom seemed harsh. As an adult, I understand the bigger picture. I also didn’t appreciate that older children’s going to some other household was common and was a way of educating and training them. This idea appears in the depiction of Rebecca and her aunts, but also in the subplot of Rebecca’s brother, John, who goes to live with a widowed cousin to trade his work on her farm for a medical education. Older children move around to balance out the distribution of resources which in the end, also strengthens ties across the extended family.
Although this book is supposedly a children’s book, there is plenty for the adult reader. The narrator uses a wry, ironic tone that lets the reader appreciate Rebecca’s dramatic view of the world and how frustrating a charge she might have been for 50-something spinsters (never-married women). But this narrator also shows the reader Rebecca changes as she grows up and how both of her aunts are essential to her “making”.
In addition to being the story of a girl, this book is also the story of a family and of a town that is appealing to adult readers. Set in Maine, many of the inhabitants are portrayed as rigid and frugal Yankees on the surface, but underneath, they seem to be a bit softer than they like to admit. They avoid giving handouts, and they avoid asking for them. There are no secrets among these people either, yet the gossip also ensures that people get help, when they really need it. This depiction of small-town New England life stands in sharp contrast to the infamous novel Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, set just 50 years later, yet both stories, if you think about it, might make you a bit nostalgic for small town America, no matter what your past.
Some may struggle with the dialect that Wiggin sometimes uses. It is meant to provide local color and also indicate the characters’ backgrounds and educations. If you have trouble understanding it, try reading it out loud, and just pronounce everything phonetically. After a while you will probably get the hang of it, but either way, rest assured the dialect passages are not extensive. For some of the characters, Wiggin will throw in a mispronounced (dialect) word only occasionally: it is not a misprint, and your eyes aren’t deceiving you.
An aspect of the story that you might actually find offensive is the depiction of a 30-something year old man who takes an interest in 11 year old Rebecca; this subplot may be the primary reason that Rebecca is not as widely read as Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. Read through modern eyes, it is a little bit off-putting, no question about it. It is clear that the character, Mr. Ladd, or Mr. Aladdin, as Rebecca calls him, becomes interested in Rebecca as a woman well before she is of age. But he also makes a point of keeping his distance from her until she is completely grown. Also note that none of the characters in the novel find his behavior strange, including Rebecca’s very suspicious and shrewd Aunt Miranda and Rebecca’s worldlier English teacher, who are aware of everything that Mr. Ladd does to help Rebecca. Pedophiles manipulate their targets through secrecy; Mr. Aladdin is careful to behave appropriately by collaborating with Rebecca’s adult female mentors. Prepare yourself and try to keep a sense of the time and place in mind. Also remember that in the Little House novels, set at about the same time as Rebecca, Almanzo Wilder is in his mid twenties when he begins “courting” fifteen- year-old Laura Ingalls. Both these characters are based on real people who were the same age when they started “courting”. In These Happy Golden Years, Laura’s parents are well aware of Almanzo’s intentions (to eventually marry her) and have no concerns.
To me, the real issue of the book is not so much whether Mr. Aladdin’s intentions are appropriate or not, but whether he can or should keep Rebecca from working after her graduation, and I think this issue is probably what’s modern about this book for its time: the “happy ending” is not necessarily going to be found at the alter.
Regardless of my annoyance with the Mr. Aladdin subplot at the end of the book, I found myself wiping my eyes when I finished reading it, even though the last lines were running through my head the entire time: “God bless Aunt Miranda; God bless the brick house that was; God bless the brick house that is to be!”
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a charming read, and you will be sad to let go of many of the characters at the end, not just Rebecca.
Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca, is not someone you might have heard about, but she is an interesting figure. She was instrumental in starting the first free kindergarten program for poor children in San Francisco, California, and her first books, The Story of Patsy (1883) and The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1887), were written to support this program. She married twice but never had any children, so all of her books are now in the public domain (which happens if the author or the author’s estate do not renew the copyright after a certain number of years). A distant relative through marriage, Eric E. Wiggin, has updated and added to stories about Rebecca that are primarily marketed to homeschool families.
As much as I love Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, I have not been able to get into any of Wiggin’s other books. Many of them are romance stories, which I think are readable for people who like them; they just aren’t my thing. Some cherish The Birds’ Christmas Carol, especially as a Christmas story tradition, but it is far too sentimental for me. The Story of Patsy is interesting, especially to educators, because any realistic depiction of a special needs child during this time, especially from the perspective of another educator, as this was a time when these children received little education at all, especially if they were from poor families. I’m disappointed that there are no companion volumes about Rebecca that follow her into adulthood; I would have enjoyed seeing where Wiggin took her character as there are several possible directions she could go, but unfortunately, they just don’t exist. There is the New Chronicles of Rebecca (1907), which are additional stories set during the same years of Rebecca’s life as Sunnybrook Farm. I find the whole concept rather jarring, and anyway the writing is not nearly as strong. I don’t find it readable.
All of Wiggin’s work is in the public domain and easily available as e-books (Kindle) for download.
The slightly fictionalized story of 15-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder’s courtship with 25-year-old Almanzo Wilder is told in These Happy Golden Years.
The Story of Patsy is striking for its portrayal of a disabled child in the late 19th century and was written to financially support an early free kindergarten.
The Birds’ Christmas Carol is a Christmas tradition in many American homes, but I prefer The Romance of a Christmas Card, with the caveat that children probably won’t get it.
New Chronicles of Rebecca consists of additional Rebecca stories that supposedly occurred concurrently with the events in the original novel.
All of Kate Douglas Wiggin’s books are in the “public domain” and can be downloaded for free here, at Project Gutenberg’s Kate Douglas Wiggin page.
Cover photo: Bangor, Maine, a rough idea of what Rebecca’s village might have looked like (this photo is modern). Slashinme [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]