No talent is wholly wasted unless its owner chooses to hide it in a napkin.
In 1868, Louisa May Alcott published her most famous novel, Little Women, featuring four sisters and their varied experiences of growing into womanhood. The next year she published another beautiful story of the same ilk. An Old Fashioned Girl seemed to me to be one of the first great American coming-of-age stories for wholesome girls. Very different from Little Women, it was, in my opinion, almost more interesting.
In 1903, Kate Douglas Wiggin published a story that would build on that kind of old-fashioned girl power and contribute to a great standard for stories of its kind. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a lively, moral, creative, and enchanting story about a little girl whose irrepressible good nature gets her into scrapes that are both funny and relatable. Rebecca Rowena Randall is larger than life and absolutely darling.
At this moment the thought gradually permeated Mr. Jeremiah Cobb’s slow-moving mind that the bird perched by his side was a bird of very different feather from those to which he was accustomed in his daily drives.
While reading Rebecca for the first time last year I was struck by how much Wiggin’s style reminded me of Alcott, but her characters reminded me of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s. Rebecca opens with a journey that features a tenderhearted but practically mute old soul and a gregarious little lady who speaks in dreams and poetry. Sound familiar? It was not the first time that I was instantly reminded of the Anne of Green Gables.
Throughout this story, I had to remind myself that this was set in the American Northeast and not on Prince Edward Island. I also had to convince myself that precocious and cheerful Rebecca was not Anne Shirley (1908), Jerusha (Judy) Abbot (1912), nor Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna (1913). Rebecca predates them all and I cannot escape the suspicion that she may have had a hand in inspiring those other iconic young heroines.
If you happen to be feeling that your faults are too numerous to overcome, rejoice that you have a few warm little faults and be glad you aren’t burdened with an over abundance of chilly virtues.
Like those other worthy stories for girls (and their brothers), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is not only a joy to read, but is also filled with nourishing goodness for readers young and old. Like any great heroine, Rebecca has the right kind of heart but makes a lot of mistakes in learning to use it properly. Like Anne Shirley and Judy Abbot, Rebecca is an aspiring writer who is dependent on the sponsorship of outside benefactors. Like Pollyanna, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm tackles Victorian ideas about the role of children in society, and their ability to bring meaningful, positive change into the lives of their neighbors.
The brimming glass that overflows its own rim moistens the earth about it.
I would recommend Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to older elementary school-aged listeners and late middle school independent readers. It is utterly wholesome, but probably won’t be terribly interesting to the youngest listeners. The audiobook with Barbara Caruso is wonderful to listen to. Sadly, the Shirley Temple movie is radically different and really ought not to bear the same name.
I would consider this book a “must have” for any good family library. It can be shelved right between Alcott and Montgomery. Because the story covers several years worth of Rebecca’s life, it really is a coming-of-age story. As Rebecca matures, the situations around her also mature. As in Little Women and the early Anne books, readers will walk with Rebecca through loss, some small suffering, and some challenging decisions. As in Pollyanna, Rebecca’s resilient optimism is central to her winning the respect of those who need her love just as much as she needs theirs. Similarly to Daddy Long Legs, Rebecca’s path is made easier because of a mysterious benefactor who ultimately becomes more than just a donor.
Fancy the job of finding a real mind; of dropping seed in a soil so warm, so fertile, that one knows there are sure to be foliage, blossoms, and fruit all in good time.
This is my favorite copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm – it is out of print but the color plates make it worth the effort to find. This is my daughter’s favorite copy of Rebecca.