Monday, January 14, 2008

Dear Enemy by Jean Webster

Jean Webster is best-known as the author of Daddy Long-Legs, an epistolary novel about a girl from an orphanage who is given the opportunity to attend college. I've always had a vague idea that it was a girls' book--that if it were contemporary, it would have a "YA" label attached to it, and I think that would be relatively appropriate.

I listened to the lesser-known sequel, Dear Enemy at my much -loved Librivox recently, and I would have to say that I would not classify this book as a book for children in any way. I'm sure Jean Webster did not intend it as such. Dear Enemy is also an epistolary novel, being made up of the letters that Sally McBride (Judy's college friend from Daddy Long-Legs) writes to Judy and to others. Sally has taken on the directorship of the orphanage where Jean, now happily married to a well-to-do philanthropist, grew up. Charged with the task of making over the orphanage into a healthy, supportive environment for over 100 children, she tackles head-on any number of societal problems, from basic hygiene for babies to hereditary alcoholism to divorce.

For some reason, I wasn't expecting a book so full of opinions about society, politics, social responsibility, and reform. Most of it was pretty interesting (although I was positively horrified to come across the topic of eugenics), but it wasn't what I was expecting. I didn't really know anything at all about the author, but a little research on Jean Webster revealed that she was very much interested in various social reforms, including women's suffrage. All of her books (and most of them are long out of print) reflect her interest in the reforms that she wanted to see. It was rather sad to discover that someone who had worked to see better hygiene practiced in institutions died as the result of poor hygiene in the hospital where she gave birth to her first child.

I do think that the conclusions about children in Dear Enemy are fairly accurate. Ultimately, Sally comes to believe that "heredity" (a buzz-word of the time) means far less to a child's future than loving, careful rearing in a real home.

It's a shame that the book is so dated, and its purpose not at all relevant, because it relegates to obscurity an author whose prose really is excellent. Jean Webster has a very light touch. She combines humor and horror so well that it leaves the reader energized to tackle some hard thing rather than depressed and grieved about problems too big to solve. When I really think about it, I suspect that is not easy to do, and few authors manage it. The modern tendency is to emphasize just how dreadful something is, without offering the least hopefulness that things might be made better, except perhaps by some huge world-wide governmental solution.

The whole thing reminds me of the analytic way we have been taught to approach the world. We think in terms of "world poverty" instead of the working single mother two doors down who would be grateful for a grocery-store gift card or a homemade stew. Statistics do not awaken in anyone a desire for personal action. None of us can really have an impact on a statistic. We can, however, buy a warm coat for child whose father is in prison or fill up the gas tank for the pastor. Cheers for any book that could stir up your will to do something about the opportunities for service that are on your doorstep.


At 5:39 PM , Blogger The Correspondent said...

I've been a silent fan of Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy for years, mainly because I love well-written stories in letter and journal form. Like you said, Webster's prose really is excellent. I love Judy's way of writing chatty, everyday news in her letters with humor and illustrations.

However, I wince when I come across passages of feminism, humanism, and other -isms. My mom taught me years ago how to "eat the watermelon and spit out the seeds" literarily, but I've often wondered if the seeds outweigh the watermelon in these two books.

I still love these titles. They are some of my favorite rereads.

At 7:24 PM , Blogger Laura said...

I like both of those books by Jean Webster, too. Like Gene Stratton-Porter's books, they do contain some horrifying ideas of those times. Thanks for the review!

At 7:49 PM , Blogger silvitus said...

Back to my childhood: My dear enemy was the first "long" book I read (when I was 7 or 8 years old), I don't know exactly what it meant at that time for me, but I know I always remembered it. I'm doing some research on myself now, I changed the country I lived in, many times the city, but months ago, visiting my hometown (10.000 kms away from where I am now) I found the book (a 1974 edition)and I bring it with me; I'm starting re reading it to find out in which ways affected me, I'm sure something has to do with my way of living. Doing research on the internet I found your blog... hoping this helps me to do deeper findings on my identity, I join the comments with a feeling of important sharing...


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