There are lots of great historical fiction reads out there – The Witch of Blackbird Pond and anything by Ann Rinaldi come immediately to mind. But I don’t think anything else has quite achieved the broad readership and general cultural zeitgeist as the American Girl series.
Today, American Girl consists of giant stores full of overpriced dolls and maybe a few throwaway books about young girls overcoming such adversities as failing a math test, running the best bake sale, and learning to French braid.
But back in my day, they were available exclusively via catalogue, which you could only sign up for if you begged a friend to give you the little mail-in card from her catalogue. Every month I would scour that thing, looking for any new additions (why didn’t I ever realize that there were never any new additions? From 1992-95, they were sending me the exact same catalogue, verbatim, every time).
For those of us whose parents refused to buy the dolls (ahem), it was all about the books. The available characters were Felicity, Kirsten, Samantha and Molly. Here’s a quick background on each of them:
Lives in: Williamsburg, 1774.
Likes: Horses, sneaking out at night, patriotism.
Defining Moment: Saving (so, stealing) a spirited and abused horse named Penny from the town crazy, Jiggy Nye.
Lives in: Minnesota Territory, 1854.
Likes: Braids, learning English, amazing nightgowns.
Defining Moment: Saving the family from a fire when the St. Lucia candles almost burn down their cabin.
Lives in: Mount Bedford, New York, 1904
Likes: Boating, befriending servant girls, killer up-dos.
Defining Moment: I can’t remember one, which tells you everything you need to know about Samantha.
Lives in: Jefferson, Illinois, 1944
Likes: Victory gardens, elbow-moisturizing lessons from her older sister, claiming God Save the Queen as an American song.
Defining Moment: (see below)
** Note: Addy, while not an original American Girl, was added early enough to be considered legit in my book. However, by that point I had aged out and have therefore never read her series. I do remember taking part in what must have been an alarmingly offensive and culturally insensitive performance of her play at a sleepover circa 1996. We meant well.
Each girl gets the same set of books: Meet (Girl), (Girl) Learns a Lesson, (Girl)’s Surprise, Happy Birthday, (Girl)!, (Girl) Saves the Day, and Changes for (Girl).
Molly Saves the Day is centered around a Color War. My maternal grandparents owned a summer camp on Long Island in the 1960’s, so this topic is particularly close to my heart. As the “Peek Into the Past” pages at the back of the book explain, most families weren’t exactly vacationing in 1944. Many fathers, like Molly’s, were serving overseas, and domestic travel was frowned upon as an unpatriotic use of gasoline or train space. Therefore, lots of kids spent their summers at camp, learning how to do outdoorsy things with no practical application whatsoever to their everyday lives.
Molly and her two best friends, Linda and Susan, spend two glorious weeks at such a camp. They love it, except that Molly can’t swim underwater, Susan can’t canoe, and Linda hates bugs. They’re all doing a pretty good job of avoiding these things until the Color War, when Linda is tapped for the Reds, while Molly and Susan are Blues.
Leaving aside the fact that playing war games while the father of every single camper is actually fighting in a war is borderline at best, the whole camp is VERY into this idea. The Reds paddle off to an island in the lake, where they stick their flag at the top of a hill. The Blues, led by 13-year-old Dorinda whose intensity makes General Patton look like Patton Oswalt, decide the best plan is to land on the open beach, storm up the hill and take the flag by force. Every single one of them is immediately captured, except for Molly and Susan, who are delayed by Susan’s terrible, terrible canoeing.
When the girls finally make it close to shore, Linda – that bitch – spots them and starts blowing her whistle like a maniac. Susan and Molly retreat and devise a plan to defeat Linda by dumping a can of worms on her worthless, traitor’s head. They free all of the Blues except Dorinda and make a new plan.
D-Day has happened exactly two weeks earlier, but Molly is up on her newsreels and knows how it all went down. She suggests tying all of the canoes together on the back side of the island as a floating dock and climbing across them, Allies-style. Naturally it works, Molly herself grabs the flag, Dorinda gets poison ivy, Linda brings her friends conciliatory ice cream cones, and everyone goes home happy.
By the way, don’t worry – In Changes For Molly, her dad comes home safe and sound. Ms. Tripp is an author, not a monster.