30 Days to Judy Blume's arrival at The Mark Twain House & Museum. I continue to be thrilled. Let the Blume-a-thon continue!
Iggie's House, published in 1970, is Blume's first real chapter book. Told from the perspective of a young white girl in the New Jersey suburbs, the story describes the series of events in a neighborhood when the first black family moves to town.
Winifred is a precocious, curious tomboy, desperate for companionship after her best friend (Iggie) moves across the world to Japan. Think Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. But, while there are many Scouts in the world-- children who haven't completely codified the ideals and ideas of previous generations-- there are far fewer Atticus Finches. Winnie's parents vascillate between acceptance and rejection of the new family.
"Listen to me, Winifred," Mrs. Barringer argued. "These people must have known they'd have problems to face when they moved here."
"Well, why don't you help them solve their problems?" Winnie screamed. "I don't see how you and Daddy can just sit there day after day doing nothing. Are you against the Garbers?"
Mrs. Barringer did not reply.
"Well, are you?" Winnie asked again.
"No, Winnie," her mother answered in a calm voice. "We are definitely not against the Garbers."
"Then why don't you do something?" Winnie repeated.
"Because it really isn't any of our business, Winnie. Your father and I don't believe in getting mixed up in other people's lives. These things will work themselves out. Daddy and I are not crusaders."
"What do you mean crusaders?" Winnie asked, baffled.
"That's what you are Winnie. You're a crusader. Always finding a new cause and them jumping right in to fight for it. You're like Mrs. Landon in a way."
Of all of Blume's books, this early work has the closest relationship to Twain. Winnie is Huck Finn less than a hundred years in the future: a white kid grappling with race in her community, and in her own head. Winnie (very realistically) is not color-blind-- instead, she considers the Garbers an exciting addition to her community, as well as an opportunity for her to prove how open-minded she herself is.
The best aspect of the book is the variety of reactions of the Garber children to Winnie and their other neighbors. One of them reacts exactly the way the reader might.
"Thank you Lord for sending the Garber family this Great Do-Gooder, Winifred. Now that she's discovered us, she's going to save us, Lord. All by herself! After after we're gone, Lord... then she'll be able to tell everyone how she's had black friends. Now isn't that wonderful! I ask you Lord... isn't that just too..."
But Blume doesn't use one particular character as a proxy for entire subset of the population. Another of the Garber children acts as a mediator between the frustrated, sarcastic Herbie and Winnie herself.
"Look, all Herbie means is he doesn't think you'd be so interested in us if we weren't black. He doesn't want to be used by somebody who thinks it's groovy to have black friends."
These passages, and many more, rang true to me as an adult. Without much literary hand-holding, Blume sketches out a whole community of people dealing with issues of race. For each new character, large and small, there is a slight difference in perspective. Mr. Garber wants to move away and live in a less hostile environment; Mrs. Garber wants the family to stand their ground. Winnie's parents change their minds over and over. There are no clear conclusions in the book, and no clear winners, either.
It is extraordinary to think that books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are about children grappling with race in circumstances that most of their real-world peers will never come close to. Faking your own death and floating down a river? Witnessing a rape trial? I love these books, but they are almost like fairy tales brought to us to show us something larger. But Iggie's House is a series of ordinary moments in the late 1960's, starring a truly ordinary girl. She must navigate these waters without a raft; she must put her neighbors and family on trial without a lawyer. These are the real thoughts we have had to face as a nation, and these are the conversations that we are still reluctant to have.
Judy Blume will speak at the University of Hartford as a fundraiser for the Mark Twain House on June 21st, 2012. Tickets at www.hartford.edu/hart.