Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: Dear Enemy

Dear Enemy
Title:  Dear Enemy

Author:  Jean Webster

I read this book via free emails from DailyLit.

See my review of the book's prequel, Daddy-Long-Legs.

Plot Summary:
Sallie McBride leads a happy, carefree existence as a socialite before her good friend from college, Judy, gives her the opportunity to serve as the interim superintendent of an orphan asylum.  Sallie takes on the position and is at first overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done.  The children are ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-behaved.  The trustees think she is shallow and flippant.  Her gentleman friend disapproves of her desire to live with dirty children.  But Sallie is not one to give up on a cause she believes in and she sets into her task with courage and cheer and makes big plans to change the orphanage for the better.  Her letters to Judy, the orphanage's doctor and her gentleman friend all recount her trials and triumphs in her year at the school, and introduce readers to an illuminating (if sometimes truly horrifying) account of early 20th century beliefs and methods in the proper rearing of children.

I can't actually say if I liked this book or not.  Parts of it were wonderful.  Sallie's voice rings so true in her letters- you can tell she is a fun, teasing girl who has a fine sense of the ridiculous in most of the situations that confront her.  She also is full of vim and vigor for her cause; she truly believes her efforts on behalf of the orphans in her home will make them into good people and help improve the world.  She exerts so much energy, so much creativity, into helping the lives of the people around her.  I could see her being a fabulous fighter for women's rights and suffrage, being successful through her charisma and charm and go-getter attitude.  Sallie fights societal norms to be a single woman earning her keep when everyone would prefer her to settle into marriage and child-rearing.  She hires other women to work for her who are much the same.  She refuses to settle for something dull when she could be doing something useful.  She is very much a Rosie's Riveter.

There were, however, other aspects of this book that were not quite so charming.  Ana hit on the horrors of eugenics in her review, and it's hard to read this story without cringing and shuddering over some of the methods used to deal with children.  And the very painfully practical ways that the light-hearted and kind Sallie employed:

Five other children have been sent to their proper institutions. One of them is deaf, one an epileptic, and the other three approaching idiocy. None of them ought ever to have been accepted here. This as an educational institution, and we can't waste our valuable plant in caring for defectives.

YIKES.  That is not the only instance in which Sallie uses the take-no-prisoners approach to "defective" children.  She also once thinks that she should make no efforts on behalf of a 16-year-old who got himself sick after imbibing too much alcohol.  Since his parents were also alcoholics, there is no need, apparently, to waste efforts trying to save him from its affects.

There is also a side story about a woman who, after having a child, fell into some sort of mental illness and was put into an asylum.  This brought back vivid, aching memories of the poor woman suffering from post-partum depression in The Yellow Wallpaper, and nearly made me sick with the way people were treated at the time.

It's strange how sometimes you read many books in a clump that seem to deal with different aspects of the same central theme.  As I said above, The Yellow Wallpaper shows mental illness from a terrifying, sufferer's point of view.  Wish Her Safe at Home, which I read last year, examines mental illness from the sufferer's point of view as well, but in a way in which one might justify the sufferer being happier for it than previously.  Dear Enemy doesn't really examine mental illness so much as make brief, appalling allusions to it.  This story is from the point of view of the person who believes, earnestly, that the modern methods employed at the turn of the century to deal with the illness are the best ways to cure it.  It's fascinating to see from so many different angles, but also very disturbing.

I enjoyed Dear Enemy in spite of my misgivings on many fronts, particularly the romantic one (no more to be shared there to save you all from spoilers!).  It confronts many issues and is, as Ana says, much "meatier" than its cheerful and happy predecessor, Daddy-Long-Legs.  The book dates itself a great deal with its comments on child-rearing, mental health, heredity and other concepts, but it does leave the reader feeling that Sallie is a good person who accomplished a great deal.

I am using this book for the Women Unbound challenge because I think Sallie is a great role model.  She is feisty, fun and willing to think about marriage and whether she wants it or not, against all her family's hopes.  I enjoyed her as a character and while I still have serious misgivings about the book, I recognize that it is a product of its times and am grateful that, however far we may still have to go with regards to prejudice, we have come quite far as well.

17 comments:

  1. Like I told you in my e-mail, I think all your points are definitely valid. There was SO much that was cringe-worthy, and yet so much that was good too. It's a complicated book, that's for sure.

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  2. That is cringe-worthy indeed.
    Good review.

    This is kind of a different point, but I read a book from eh 50s, for my Buddhist-Hinduism class. And I found this clear racism points. Things that would not be put in a scientific book these days

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  3. From all three of you guys that I know who have read this and Daddy Long Legs, it seems this is the more controversial book and maybe not quite as good.

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  4. I have this one in the same book as Daddy Long Legs, but I have never read it. I am surprised by the way children with disabilities are treated in the book and shocked by the tone of their treatment. It shows how dated this book is and I think there is a possibility an uproart would have occurred if it had been printed in this day and age.
    I love Daddy Longs Legs and had hoped that this would be a similar style of book. After reading Ana's review and yours, I seriously doubt it.

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  5. Nymeth- Yes, entirely. And it probably would also be a classic if it hadn't become so dated. I think it's good it HAS become dated, though.

    Blodeuedd- Yes, I think people's conception of evolution and race had appalling consequences all the way through WWII. Hopefully we all know better now.

    Amanda- Yes, I definitely prefer Daddy-Long-Legs, but this one was also more complex and made me think more, which is good.

    Vivienne- No, I don't think it's in a similar style, but I think it's still worth reading. It's just hard to separate the story from the science, for me.

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  6. Interesting review. I am definitely curious to read this book, but wonder how I will respond to all the cringing scenes. It's definitely harsh, but once I am done with Daddy Long-Legs, I look forward to reading this and finding out how I take it in.

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  7. I always find it interesting to read books that are older even when they present views that I find horrifying simply because they make me think. I know that there are people today who hold views that are not the same but are similar and reading these books help me hone my arguments against those views without having to argue with people I know.

    This sounds like an interesting read even if it has horrific points. Thank you for a well thought through review.

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  8. Aths- I'm excited to see what you think of Daddy-Long-Legs!

    Zee- I agree, it's good as a historical document, for sure!

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  9. I haven't heard of either of the books, so I'm intrigued.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  10. After reading your review of Daddy Long-Legs and seeing that this book was out there as well, I ordered copies of them. I think it will be really interesting to see the way illnesses, both mental and physical were handled at that time. It sounds as though it was a good set of books, but that this one in particular had some pretty backward ideas. I also am glad that things are not that way anymore and that popular opinion has changed somewhat. These are great choices for the Women Unbound challenge!

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  11. When I was a kid, I was truly in love with this book because of how Sallie came, and the asylum was all messy, and she made it tidy! She made it tidy and organized and nice! And when I reread it now, and realize she really was serious about all that eugenics business, I'm shocked that it's not as friendly and orderly as I remember it. Sigh. Even my childhood books have feet of clay. :P

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  12. Ooo, eugenics. No thank you, Francis Galton. At least the cover's pretty kitschy and cool ;p

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  13. Anna- Definitely read Daddy-Long-Legs if you have a chance.

    Zibilee- I would LOVE to talk about this with you when you finish it. Just like all the other books we have in common ;-)

    Jenny- I hate when that happens, too! That is sometimes why I am very scared to read childhood favorites. I don't know if they would stand the test of time for me.

    She- Yes, an excellent vintage cover! Love it :-)

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  14. Wow, sounds like the book is definitely a product of its time. On the one hand, Sallie sounds like a protagonist I'd love to get to know, but maybe I should start with daddy long legs before tackling this one. Thanks for the review!

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  15. Aarti,
    Since it was published around then then I do "understand", I mean people were idiots (still are!), and believed things they shouldn't...I really hope the guy wasn't German now, cos I can't remember. He might have been. Good writer, but yes some things he put judgement one, when he should not. Then again our teacher did warn us that there was racism in it. We should just focus in the religious aspects and not his ideas

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  16. It sounds fascinating, and as usual, your viewpoint is 'riveting.' I think if a book can make you think, even te stand it takes is abhorrent, in some ways it's a success simply for causing the eruption?

    All the best,
    ~ Corra

    from the desk of a writer

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  17. sounds like this vintage piece captures an interesting snapshot of child rearing of those times. i'm so glad that there are resources now for kids who need special care.

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