Monday, October 29, 2018

What Katy Did, by Susan Coolidge (The Katy Chronicles)

Have you all heard of #Bookstagram? It's Instagram, sure, but all about books, so it's awesome. A friend of mine introduced me to the Bookstagram community earlier this year and it has been a joy and a delight. (If you want to find me on Instagram, look for me at @1000lives_and_severalcupsoftea.) Bookstagram has opened up a whole new world of reading possibilities to me, mostly through beautiful pictures of beautiful books!

A few months ago several Bookstagramers posted their pictures of the The Katy Carr trilogy of books by Susan Coolidge. Specifically, they featured the editions published by Virago Modern Classics. I had never read the Katy books before but these editions looked so attractive to me that I felt compelled to read them. I picked up my own copies on Amazon and dove into them recently.

The first book in the series, What Katy Did, was first published in 1872 by Sarah Chauncey Woolsey who wrote under her pen name, Susan Coolidge. The character of Katy and her siblings are all based on Woolsey's family growing up. The story is set in Ohio in the mid 1860's and is a charming tale of small town America. Katy's father is a busy doctor and her mother passed away so the family is cared for by her father's sister, Izzy. When the book opens we find a mischievous young Katy who is full of life and vivacity. Aunt Izzy has her hands full trying to keep up with all of the shenanigans of her young nieces and nephews, particularly Katy!

Admittedly, this book got off to a slow start for me. The introduction to the family and characters was not exactly riveting. However, by the middle of the book it was clear that Coolidge was setting the stage for what was to come. Katy, like many young children, believes herself to be far wiser than her elders. In her prideful condition, she ends up disobeying a directive of her aunt which in turn leads to a significant injury to herself. The second half of the book really took flight as Katy learns patience, respect, and love for others while taking lessons in "the School of Pain." The great message of this book is that pain in life is God's tool to mold and make us more like Him. Told in a very gentle manner, Coolidge uses this story to inspire her readers to endure hardship, knowing that each struggle and trial we encounter in life serves a higher purpose. Even if we can't quite see or understand the importance or significance of our trials in the moment, we must trust and believe that God is good and has good things in mind for us. Pain certainly isn't easy and it isn't any fun; gratefully Coolidge doesn't pretend otherwise. Instead she shows how Katy grows and matures through the hard times which is exactly what happens to people when they put their faith in Christ.

Readers of the Katy books will quickly realize that Coolidge enjoys writing poetry. She wrote a piece on pain which is included in the story. I noted these few lines, in particular:

There are two Teachers in the school,
One has a gentle voice and low,
And smiles upon her scholars, as
She softly passes to and fro.
Her name is Love; tis very plain
She shuns the sharper teacher, Pain.
Or so I sometimes think; and then,
At other times, they meet and kiss,
And look so strangely like, that I
Am puzzled to tell how it is,
Or whence the change which makes it vain
To guess if it be Love or Pain.
~ Susan Coolidge

When in the midst of pain it's hard to appreciate it as being a lesson designed to better one's self. It is easy when in pain to feel angry and confused. I loved how Coolidge handled the subject in this "simple" story which kindly encourages the reader to stay grounded in their faith, to be patient, and to trust that there is a good, good plan at work. I think everyone needs this reminder in their lives from time to time. I certainly do. It's tempting to crumple up when one is being wounded in some way but it's a beautiful thing to bear the pain quietly, submitting to it as a great teacher. That's a hard challenge but a brilliant one.

I simply loved What Katy Did so much that I immediately picked up What Katy Did at School because I wanted to find out what happened to Katy next!

Katy has recovered from her injury in this second story and her father has been persuaded that Katy and her younger sister, Clover, would do well to attend a girl's boarding school. Off the two sisters go on a new adventure to a fairly strictly run boarding school on the East Coast. While at school they make many friends and endure new challenges. Much of the book is playful and enjoyable but there is a main point and lesson to be learned in this sequel as well as in the first story of Katy. In the middle of the girls' school year, Katy and her sister are unjustly accused of doing something which they had not done. Their attempts at being believed are snubbed and they are ultimately thought the worse of by those in authority over them. The girls must grapple with how to handle this and they do so in a manner that modern day audiences would do well to learn. They take their unjust punishment quietly and peacefully and submit to it in so much as they can and then they determine to live it down. "Live it down!" becomes something of a battle cry to Katy as she determines to respond and act to these accusations in a right way. She doesn't accept the judgment but she has to live with it. Anyone who has ever been unjustly accused of something can appreciate this read. The way that Coolidge inspires and instructs her readers is, again, something quite brilliant! This book flew by for me and I read it in two sittings.

Yet again, I loved the story so much that I jumped straight into What Katy Did Next. I felt like I was cheating by jumping straight into this one. While What Katy Did was published in 1872, What Katy Did Next wasn't published until 1886. Coolidge mentions in the beginning of the story that this particular book was written in response to the request of Katy's many fans who begged to know what happened to Katy after she finished school. If What Katy Did Next was meant to appease, it certainly did so for me and I loved it every bit as much as I enjoyed the first.

I didn't find that What Katy Did Next had any particular moral standard or lesson to pass along. A friend mentioned to me that she thought this title dragged a bit. For my part, I enjoyed it because Katy spends the book traveling. She kicks off her European tour in England with talks of Scotland and since I've been to both places I was thrilled to visit them again with Katy as my companion. Clearly Coolidge had visited Europe before writing this book and I think she described things accurate and well. By the sounds of things, I'm not so sure she enjoyed England as much as she could have though; I think I enjoyed it more. (Ha!) This last title in the series was definitely written to appease the curiosity of readers of Katy. It scratched an itch and I appreciated it.

I did mark one passage, in particular, as standing out to me:

In my observation, grief can look like different things to different people and it would really behoove the lot of us humans if we'd come to recognize this. For some people, grief is a slow process of coming to grips. For others, they grapple with change more quickly and then pick up and move along. Pain and grief are tricky things and I don't think people use enough caution when encountering either. I'm not saying that there is a perfect way to approach someone who is suffering because there isn't. Sometimes you just have to be willing to try, fail, and/or compromise to stick together in the midst of hardship. That can be a scary thing! The comfort in the trying and the failing and the compromising is in knowing that God is perfect and able to perfectly meet each grief and bear it. We fail where He continually succeeds. There is grace in that belief - grace for each of us as we process life alongside one another in community.

To summarize my thoughts here, I'd say that if you haven't yet read the Katy books, I heartily recommend them. I'm not entirely sure how I missed them growing up, but I'm glad to have rectified the situation. I'll be pleased to introduce Katy to my daughters earlier on in their young lives so that they can enjoy knowing her longer.


Ginger Mae said...

I enjoyed the first one very much (the "school of pain" theme really impacted me as well). I think the others dragged for me because I kept comparing her work to Montgomery (with her exciting plots and characters so real they breathe), unfavorably so. But that was admittedly unfair...few can hold up to Montgomery. I think a little more character development or a better plot in the 3rd book would've held me better. Glad you enjoyed them so much!

Carrie said...

I can totally and completely see this. I think I played The Comparison Game more in the first book than the last two. If there hadn't been for the idea behind the story (i.e., The School of Pain) then I would have walked away from the book feeling like the style was very Montgomery-esque and I wouldn't have liked it as well.

I also agree with you on the 3rd. There isn't as much of a plot going on. If it hadn't have been for my traveling experiences, I probably would have been bored with it. That's what saved it for me but I could and can totally see why you feel the way you do about it.

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