What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

Article published on February 1, 2017.

Katy is an imaginative twelve-year-old girl with three younger sisters, two younger brothers and a best friend called Cecy. When Katy was eight, her mother died and she resolved to help to look after her siblings and to be a little mother to them, although her exuberant nature often stops her from being as good as she would like to be … like all excitable people she seldom did mean to do wrong…! However, even though the children frequently quarrel, they love the wonderful, adventurous games that Katy invents for them all to play – even if they don’t always like her bossiness! Her father is a doctor and encourages his children to lead active outdoor lives, much to the dismay of his sister, the children’s rather strict Aunt Izzie, who now lives with them. She wishes that their activities would be rather more studious and genteel – and not involve so many torn and dirty clothes!

Katy imagines becoming a beautiful young woman and achieving all sorts of worthy things. However, she never quite manages to avoid getting into mischief so she often feels quite remorseful when she falls short of her ideal self. A visit from gentle, patient Cousin Helen, who following an accident is unable to walk, is a huge success with all the children and Katy decides to model herself on this kind, beautiful woman and, following Helen’s departure, Katy resolves to do better. Yet, within just twenty four hours, she once again gets into mischief, but this time her actions have devastating consequences, leaving her bed-ridden and in pain. She finds it impossible to be as good-natured as Cousin Helen and, feeling miserable and hard done by, she is in danger of becoming very isolated because her short-tempered behaviour drives her siblings away whenever they try to comfort her. It requires a second visit from Helen to help Katy recognise that she needs to accept her fate and learn to become more accepting, tolerant and loving if she is to retain the love and support of her family and friends. Over a period of time she manages to do just this and so becomes a positive focus for the family.

This is a story that has two distinct parts; the first is full of fun and is fast-moving as Katy and her siblings lurch from one adventure to another. The exploration of family dynamics is very convincing, especially in relation to the ways in which a child’s position in the family can influence personality development. This was particularly striking in relation to Elsie, the middle child who so desperately wanted to be allowed to join her two older sisters’ activities but was always rejected and told to play with the little ones! This led to her feeling rejected and marginalised. I thought that the author captured so many elements of the rough and tumble of family life in a totally credible way, the ambivalent feelings siblings have towards one another, as well as the fierce loyalties shown when family integrity is in any way threatened.

The second part of the story is rather darker and far more reflective as it explores themes surrounding how to deal with the challenges that life throws at people. Katy has to learn that there is little to be gained from being self-pitying, that she needs to become more considerate of other people and to be more patient and tolerant – of herself and of other people. A thread of humour runs through the story-telling and, at times, there are some very amusing passages – I loved Dorry’s attempts to keep a journal (or even, a “jurnal”!) The delightfully evocative illustrations in this Alma Classics edition really do capture the spirit of Katy and the story and added to my pleasure at re-reading this story.

As an eldest child, frequently expected to look after and amuse my younger siblings, when I first read this book I very much identified with Katy and her need to be the leader of childhood activities! As a tomboy I rather envied her the freedom she had to lead her siblings into mischief – I certainly had the inclination but, with an ever-observant mother, rarely had the opportunity, so I enjoyed a vicarious pleasure in Katy’s escapades! Even as a young child, with a very healthy appetite, I was amazed by the sheer volume of food the children took for their picnics and wondered how they could manage to eat it all – and then still wonder if there was more to come!

I was given this book as a Sunday school prize when I was eight years old – given its strong moral message I suppose it was viewed as being a worthy read! I can still (even after several decades!) recall how much I enjoyed and was inspired by it – although, even at that tender age, I did think it was a bit unfair that an invalid was expected to be rather saintly if she wasn’t to become a burden to others! Also, the concept of “God’s School of Pain” as a virtue sat no more easily with me then than it does now!

When I thought about re-reading it I did wonder about the rather archaic writing style and whether this would appeal to modern day children. However, I then reflected on the fact that it was already many decades old when I read it and I still enjoyed it. I do think that the underlying message about endeavouring to strive to improve one’s behaviour, to become a better version of oneself is surely an admirable and timeless goal. Some of the story’s recurring themes – the importance of setting oneself goals, of the need for personal integrity, taking responsibility for one’s own actions, the importance of and the value of friendships – remain as valid today as they were when the book was written. I think, therefore, that it is a story that will continue to have the power to delight new readers for generations to come – the sign of a true classic!  I know I have enjoyed rediscovering its delights and indulging in some childhood nostalgia!

Linda Hepworth 4/4

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
Alma Classics 9781847496072 pbk Sep 2016

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