90s Book Club: An American Girl
It never fails. Summer rolls around and suddenly we’re craving watermelon, saltwater, baseball, and afternoons outside. We stay out later like the sun, and we revert back to the sweet days when school was out and unimaginable things like paying bills were worlds away from our reality. Of course, there was required summer reading: the mandatory stuff that we put off until the last bit of August (or later). But my mother always enrolled my sisters and I in the summer reading program at the library, the one where if you read 30 minutes a day and track it then you get a free ticket to Six Flags at the end of the summer.
I was all about that summer reading for prizes and it’s something that, 15 years later, I still associate with the hotter months. Minus the prizes. Just last weekend I picked up a Los Angeles Public Library card and spent over an hour searching for new favorites. It got me thinking about the books that defined my summers growing up in the 90s and the feeling that totally encapsulated me as the characters become friends, a part of me. I wondered what it would be like to re-read some of those books and maybe meet my younger self in their pages.
Which is what brings me here, dear friends. A fun new mini-series on All the Delights for all the cool 90s chicks who know exactly what I’m talking about. I’m diving into the books that first captured our imaginations, reviewing them through the lens of that girl all grown up who, yes, now spends her Saturday mornings paying bills, but who has also known adventure, fallen in love, and could probably write a few stories herself.
We’re starting with a classic 90s character who was actually born before the turn of the century and written in the 80s. Nevertheless, I met her in the 90’ms. You may have heard of her:
I vividly remember my mother asking the librarian to help find a book that I would like. The woman's eyes lit up as she told me that she had something perfect for me and walked me to the row that would become my go-to library nook that summer. An entire row of white-spined books about girls growing up in America. I’m absolutely sure that I chose Samantha because I thought she looked most like me and because I liked her plaid dress.
Last weekend I slipped into the children’s section at my local library (breaking the rules by passing through a sign that said, “Children and their providers ONLY,” how things have changed) to search for Samantha again. I picked up book 6 in her series and felt a rush of nostalgia come over me. It took me less than an hour to read 60 pages of large type and illustrations.
Remember this? The coolest thing about American Girl books was the opening page where you get to meet the family and friends through their stylish portraits. We’re told that 10-year-old Samantha is a “wealthy orphan who moves to New York City to live with her aunt and uncle.” Did you know that orphans can be wealthy? I didn’t. That’s cool. We’re also rather bluntly told that Nellie is “Samantha’s poor friend, who’s become an orphan.”
Aaand already I’m feeling like maybe I never quite understood the true nature of these books as a kid.
My suspicions are confirmed when horror strikes early (page 8!) as Nellie writes to tell Samantha that she had a hard winter. She wastes no time in saything that her parents died from the flu and she’s moving with her sisters to Manhattan with her Uncle Mike. Nellie is supposed to visit Samantha but never shows, so Samantha searches for her in a seedy part of Manhattan where she finds out that Uncle Mike is a very bad man who has stolen the girls’ money and fled. The girls find themselves in an orphanage called Coldrock House for Homeless Girls (SERIOUSLY) with a very bad mistress, called Miss Frouchy (SERIOUSLY).
Unsurprisingly, Miss Frouchy is the worst and the girls are malnourished and over-worked. We find out that Nellie is to be sent away on what is referred to as the “orphan train” and sold as a servant out West.
I’m wondering how I read this stuff as a kid and didn’t totally freak out or have nightmares about being sent away on a doomed train. And maybe it's because Samantha is a badass and she’s determined to save the day. She hatches a plan to break the girls out and house them in the attic above her room. She sneaks them food while Ellie searches for work during the day, all the while the Nosey Old House Maid (Gertrude, of course) suspects foul play. They live in the attic for 4 days before Gertrude finds them and proudly presents the children to Aunt Cornelia and Uncle Gard.
At this point, there are only two pages left in the book and I’m wondering how you can wrap up a story about death, kidnapping, poverty, and theft with allusions to abuse in two pages. Just, ya know, my favorite topics as a child.
Adoption, of course!! With paragraphs to spare, Uncle Gard sweeps in to announce that the house needs more girls and invites them to stay, officially solidifying Samantha’s place as a daughter and sister, and while still wealthy, no longer an orphan.
The next 12 pages are called, “Looking Back: Changes for America in 1904,” which I’m sure I never cared to read. It’s much more interesting to me now, highlighting new means of transportation, immigrants coming to America, women’s roles, changes in fashion, and modern inventions of the time.
There’s also a sneak peak at the next book, Nellie’s Promise, in which bad Uncle Mike comes back around and claims that the girls belong to him. Ugh, this is horrifying!
All is redeemed by my favorite part of the whole book experience is the author’s biography: “Valerie Tripp says that she became a writer because of the kind of person she is.” You do you, Valerie.
Anyway, Samantha is a true American Girl and here are 5 things we can still learn from Samantha, even now:
1. HOW TO BE A TRUE FRIEND
2. HOW TO STICK IT TO MEAN ADULTS
3. EVERYONE DESERVES A CHANCE
4. HOW TO MAKE A PROPER VALENTINE
5. PLAID WILL NEVER GO OUT OF STYLE
So concludes the first installment of ATD’s 90’s Book Club! I’ve got a pretty sweet line up, but if you’re a girl of the 90’s, let me know some of your favorites and/or if American Girl books ever gave you nightmares about orphan trains. No shame, people.