When I was ten, I saved up $250 over the course of a year to buy myself the “Samantha” American Girl Starter Set – complete with the first three books, first three outfits, accessories (including lunchbox with food and kerchief), a cast-iron and wooden desk, a doll haircare brush, and a gorgeous plaid-lined wicker basket to carry it all in. Then I got it for Hanukah, and promptly spent my savings on more outfits and accessories for my new best friend. The books were fascinating – Samantha, a young Victorian girl who was raised by her wealthy grandmother after being orphaned, secretly befriends people of color and lower classes, and begins, at 9, to question the nature of the class structure in which she and her family have dominated. I loved Samantha, and her adventures in industrial America led me to more steeply critical literature about the period, like Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” However, due to her position of privilege and the “white savior” elements of the story, Samantha has come to be one of the most hated American Girls – a group which now includes escaped slaves, native Americans, Depression-era journalists, and WWII-era activists. Challenging my relationship with Samantha by re-reading her first book – “Meet Samantha; An American Girl” was a risky, but in my opinion, necessary reflection on my own experience of class growing up.
The first scene in the story is one which I always found inspiring and endearing. While trying to climb a tree in her Victorian finery, Samantha falls and scrapes her knee under fire from taunts from the neighbor boy – Eddie. Samantha deftly threatens him with blackmail and scampers inside to have her seamstress, a black woman named Jesse, fix her stockings before her grandmother – Grandmary, saw the condition she was in. From an adult standpoint, this isn’t Samantha’s finest moment. She seems conniving and presumptuous. However she shows genuine, if childlike, interest in Jessie’s life and husband in New Orleans while Jessie mends her tights and presses her dress. Reading this, it’s difficult to bear in mind that the author intends for Samantha to be nine years old. The illustrations scattered throughout the story show her age correctly, but the introspection and characterization is that of a slightly older girl, which I suspect was done so that they could work more historical context into the story (way to go, Scholastic!).
The very next scene is strange and disturbing to me, like something out of the Twilight Zone. Samantha is sitting stitching “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” into a sampler when she begins to question her grandmother about a doll they both saw in a store window, which cost six dollars. Grandmary says that it’s too expensive for a little girl, and Samantha offers to earn the money. Right there, the story should continue along the inspiring route of a young girl earning the money for her doll. But instead, Grandmary says that young women don’t earn money, to keep notions like that to herself, and that if she was very well behaved and didn’t play outside, she might earn the doll that way. I don’t know how ten year old Gabbie kept reading, but apparently, I did. At that point, Samantha’s Uncle Gard and Aunt Cornelia show up in one of the nation’s first commercial automobiles and offer her a ride. As she climbs into the machine, neighbor-boy Eddie shouts that a nine-year old girl is coming to live with them, which is for some reason, him taunting Samantha.
I understand that they likely didn’t want to go too mean with the lines for poor Eddie, but he seems to just repeatedly call Samantha dumb, and then provide her with necessary information for the story. This writing is bad – no excuses. But that aside, Samantha and her uncle drive off into the end of the chapter knowing a girl named Nellie is coming to stay next-door.
When Samantha next creeps into her yard to play, cookie in hand, she sees Nellie through the hedge hanging laundry, and offers to help. The two quickly finish the chore so that they can share Samantha’s cookie, but Nellie keeps casting terrified looks at Eddie’s house, and calling Samantha “miss.” Honestly, reading this made me uncomfortable. Nellie describes her home life. Her mom works washing clothes while her father is away in a factory, but there wasn’t enough food for all three children, or enough coal to keep them all warm. So she was sent away to work, which she says is better because she is at least fed and warm, and not in the dusty factory that she used to work in. Samantha’s first question is about school – which Nellie has never attended. Just as Samantha is offering a makeshift school in the hedges, Eddie shows up to taunt them, and threatens to tattle. Samantha, master of blackmail, stops Eddie in his plot, but the girls disperse, planning to speak through a tin-can phone strung through the bushes later on.
My first reactions here were the same as they were when I was young – this is sweet. She understands Nellie has never gotten to go to school, so she wants to give her school. But honestly, the danger she’s putting Nellie in after having JUST heard about the conditions Nellie barely escaped seems to not be worth the risk. Nellie said no when Samantha offered help – and Samantha did it anyway, not understanding the dangers of another person’s station. I’m kind of disappointed, but possibly reading too much into this.
Some time goes by and Jessie, the seamstress, makes the mistake of quitting her job with Grandmary in front of the inquisitive and overdramatic Samantha. Samantha questions all of the household staff and is scolded for asking questions, but apparently not enough to get her into trouble with her grandma, because that night, she’s given the doll she wanted in exchange for her good behavior. She names it Lydia, after her late mother, and the next day takes it over to play with Nellie in the hedge while she updates her on the Jessie situation. Nellie is silent for a long time, but then eventually explains in what I’d call an Aristotelian way that Jessie had possibly had, or was possibly having, a baby, and that the adults didn’t want to explain to Samantha what that all meant yet. Samantha, disbelieving, plans a nighttime excursion with Nellie to the segregated neighborhood where Jessie lives to find out.
On their way, Samantha learns for the first time about how the black people she loves are forced to live in a scary, dangerous area of their town so that “the other grownups,” as Nellie puts it, don’t have to see them. Honestly, at this point in the story I’m questioning why Nellie isn’t the protagonist. I’d have much more enjoyed the story of a nine year old factory worker, escaped but sentenced to indentured servitude in an upper-middle class household, being manipulated into going on inter-class dangerous adventures with the rich chick next door. But instead, the naïve Samantha leads us up to Jessie’s window and has Nellie climb on her back to peer in. Their tumbles to the ground send Jessie outside to investigate, and as Nellie predicted, there is a new born baby named Nathaniel inside. Jessie explains that her husband works too much to watch their baby, so she has to take some time off to raise him, but assures her boss’s granddaughter and friend that she will visit them when she can. Then she wakes her hardworking husband and has him take the girls back to their neighborhood.
I am overall horrified by this entire chapter. Without Nellie to reveal the world’s horrors, Samantha would have no idea the impositions she and her whims put on people, but honestly, she doesn’t even seem to mind them, even WITH a moral guide along. She never takes no for an answer and it puts a gigantic burden on those who she enlists to help her.
Chapter Six is titled “A Fine Young Lady”. Honestly – I hope they’re referring to Nellie because Samantha is a classist classic. When Eddie taunts Samantha that Nellie is being sent away because of her factory-cough, and being replaced with “an immigrant woman who will last longer” (LORDY I wish I was kidding) Samantha puts chewing gum in his hair and gives Nellie her Lydia doll, and a large basket of food from the kitchen. She hugs her friend goodbye and goes home to mope.
Samantha eventually comes out to her grandmother that she and Nellie had gone on a nighttime adventure to meet Jessie’s baby, and that she’d given her doll to Nellie as a gift before she went away, and honestly without the input and perspective of Samantha’s aunt and uncle, Grandmary was getting ready to scold the pantaloons off of her for it. However with Gard and Cornelia’s prodding, Samantha begs to help Nellie’s family, and Grandmary says, “Yes! I guess if you care enough to give up your finest treasure, then we can find a way to help Nellie’s family.” Then she laughs, and rocks back and forth in her finery and furniture in the manse she lives in because this is the worst book I’ve ever read.
Honestly I am so uncomfortable seeing my own Samantha Doll experience reflected in Samantha’s obtaining of Lydia because I want nothing to do with this nine year old bourgeoisie nightmare. This whole book screams of upper-middle-class white feminism in a way that makes me reflective and uncomfortable and ashamed. In less than 50 pages meant to introduce me to Samantha, an American Girl, I have been so thoroughly disillusioned about the nature of the word “protagonist” that it makes me not want to keep reading through the Samantha books. I cannot imagine being a poorer child than I was and reading this book enjoyably. Heck – I worked as a kid, and if some rich girl had walked up to me and tried to distract me for her own entertainment purposes, I’d have gone nuts! The need to belong pitted against the need to survive. It just isn’t fair to Nellie.
On a very, very low, very white, very upper-middle-class level, this book makes attempts at introducing children to the evils of class inequality. I do know that, further on in the series, Samantha makes some impressive strides in terms of empathy and class awareness. However her toolkit is privilege, always, and it’s not the powerful story of intercultural, interclass communication that I remembered reading growing up.