Many years ago, I read a classic books called A Little Princess. It’s one of the books that has stayed with me the most. Since I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll be rereading these books when I’m waiting somewhere. While waiting for my daughter’s class to get out. While waiting for my own ballet classes to begin (I can stretch and read). Any other time I can fit in a few minutes of reading, but can’t focus enough to read a new book. I have a long list of indie books to get through, but want to read those when I can focus on a full chapter or two at a time.
The official Common Sense Media review of this book forgets the context of the book. Yes, Becky asks if a neighbor is “chinee” because of his skin tone. It helps to know that she was a poor girl with little exposure to the world outside the neighborhood in which she lived, and her accent was written out. Sara’s ayah in India would have adored her because nannies, regardless of race, should love the kids they raise, and the servants bowed to her not because she was white, but because her father was their employer. Even white servants bowed to the families they served. Sara was fond of those she left behind, and not because she was racially above them, but because she loved them. Even for the time this book was written, it was very racially forward. The most respectable was Ramdas, an insightful Indian man who was the companion of a wealthy man, and he was not there by force. On the other hand, Minchin was awful.
Something never entirely clear is Becky’s race. At one point, she put her “black head” on her arms, but this could refer to either her race, or her being a non-black child with black hair, like a red head (redhead without a space being more common) today. Illustrations tend to show her as white, likely because it’s more difficult to indicate dark skin in ink drawings without appearing to be drawing a caricature.
This book really covers the differences between being a child then and today. Today, an orphaned child goes to foster care and is covered by child labor laws and are guaranteed an education. Back in this book’s era, education was a privilege for those with means, while children who weren’t wealthy often couldn’t even read, and it was painfully common for very, very young children, as young as four or five, to work in dangerous mills for the poor and the children of the poor had no rights and were seen as dispensable. Sara’s downfall from rich child to servant happening so suddenly was entirely possible, and probably happened to at least a few children in boarding schools who were suddenly impoverished.
When I first read this book when I was a child, what upset me the most (the subject matter isn’t all rainbows and unicorns farting glitter) was that Sara’s father did indeed die. Both of the movies end with Sara finding him. But Captain Crewe’s demise was the catalyst to the main events in the book, and having him actually be alive somewhere just wouldn’t have worked well. For the movies, it was necessary. Who can forget 2004-Sara’s heart-wrenching scream in the rain, desperate for her father to remember her? But yes, this was a necessary death for the book.
A lot of the subject matter is difficult. Leaving the only home a child has known, feeling isolated and uncomfortable in a new place, losing a father, being demoted to serve those who once revered her while being denied the friends she had made…but it’s balanced by her optimism and dedication to somehow getting through. Understandably, she has her moments of despair, but it doesn’t last before her fighter-spirit returns. When I was a child, I learned something form her that I still do to this day, and that is, when times are tough, to take a mental break, close your eyes, and envision that things are the way you want them. Indulge fully in the fantasy. Experience the things you might not otherwise experience by using every corner of your imagination, and it may as well be real, even if only for a few minutes. This has, on more than one occasion, saved me from my own despair. This is one of the books I credit with literally saving my life.
I can’t wait until my own daughter is old enough for us to read this absolutely wonderful book together. While I think children eight and above would get the most out of it, it’s still appropriate for children younger than that, provided they’re old enough to enjoy a book without many words.