Ah, yes, that charming children’s classic that begins with the author eavesdropping on some aliens. At least, that’s what I always thought when I read What Katy Did growing up. As a child who had never lived in Australia, South Africa, Canada or the United States, I had never heard of a ‘katydid‘. I didn’t find out until years later that they’re a kind of insect. And even looking back on the description now that I’m more informed, Susan M Coolidge still makes them sound a little more like Hannah-Barbera’s Zorak.
I got up from my seat to see if I could find the speakers; and sure enough, there on one of the cat-tail bulrushes, I spied two tiny pale-green creatures. Their eyes seemed to be weak, for they both wore black goggles. They had six legs apiece,—two short ones, two not so short, and two very long. These last legs had joints like the springs to buggy-tops; and as I watched, they began walking up the rush, and then I saw that they moved exactly like an old-fashioned gig.What Katy Did, Susan M Coolidge
At least I’m not alone. Rebecca also thought they were aliens. We’ve had many conversations about the awfulness of Cousin Helen and her ‘school of pain’. And in a way, they are awful. Saccharine sweet, all about self-denial and how an ill person needs to comb their hair not to become an eyesore to those around them. What Katy Did is definitely dated. People say that there’s too much sermonising in Little Women, and while I see what they mean, I actually see it more in What Katy Did.
The reading part began with a dull little piece of the kind which grown people call an editorial, about “Neatness”, or “Obedience”, or “Punctuality.” The children always fidgeted when listening to this, partly, I think, because it aggravated them to have Katy recommending on paper, as very easy, the virtues which she, herself found it so hard to practice in real life.What Katy Did, Susan M Coolidge
Despite all that, What Katy Did still gets me, every time! The sermons work – they make me want to be a better person. They make me want to be more patient through my struggles, and to find ways that I can make other people happy even when I’m having a bad day. Not to mention, I love seeing the way Katy develops through her hardships. It’s definitely a problematic depiction of injury and suffering, but it’s so satisfying to see Katy transform!
I wanted to be Katy, more than I think I ever wanted to be Jo March. I wanted to be good at telling stories and inventing games. I definitely once tried to talk my two friends into playing Kikeri.
As I read What Katy Did this time, it struck me how very realistic a character she is. Her character development isn’t to conquer one fault once and then be done with it, but to struggle with multiple faults, over and over again. Katy keeps resolving to be better, but even at the end of the novel, she doesn’t believe she deserves praise because there are still days that she fails! As someone who also resolves to be better, fails, and then resolves again, it made me love Katy even more.
Miss Carr was very faithful to her duties: she seldom left the children, even for an evening, so whenever she did, they felt a certain sense of novelty and freedom, which was dangerous as well as pleasant.What Katy Did, Susan M Coolidge
I also felt a lot more sympathy for Aunt Izzy this time around! This poor woman, who has no husband or kids of her own, possibly who never even wanted children that weren’t in a Sunday School sermon, uproots her entire life to look after her nieces and nephews. And they drive her crazy, because they’re so unlike what she was like, but she gives looking after them her absolute all anyway. I want a book about Aunt Izzy, what her childhood was like, what her life was like before she moved in with her brother and his six kids!
It’s hard to know how to rate What Katy Did. It’s definitely flawed. Not just the ‘school of pain’ stuff, which is definitely distasteful to anyone with a modern view of chronic pain and other such conditions. There’s also the fact that I can barely tell any of Katy’s siblings apart, except for Elsie.
But I still love it. It makes me tear up and want to be a better person. And I still kind of want to be a Katy, even if I can how the self-denial that Cousin Helen preaches could play into issues of already low self-esteem.
Next in the series: What Katy Did at School.