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"What Katy Did" by Susan Coolidge

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What Katy DidQuestion: What do cell phones, x-rays, vaccinations, automobiles and air conditioning have in common?

Answer: You will appreciate them a little more after reading What Katy Did.

Published around 1870, What Katy Did tells the story of a rambunctious, headstrong twelve-year old girl who is infinitely likeable in spite of (or perhaps because of) these unfeminine traits. Katy has a zillion plans for the future, and any efforts at gentility go out the window as she rushes headlong into her destiny.

Unfortunately, her destiny is not exactly what she had foreseen. The eldest of five motherless children, Katy knows in her heart that she should be more respecting and more affectionate toward her Aunt Izzie, who came to care for the children and keep the household when Katy's mother died. But Aunt Izzie is too cautious and persnickety for Katy's tastes, so Katy listens to her aunt's counsel with only half an ear.

A few days into summer vacation, Katy finds cause to regret her lack of attention. Aunt Izzie warned her not to use the new swing in the woodshed, but Katy was having a bad day. And after all, Aunt Izzie didn't give a reason why. Katy finds out the hard way, and nearly pays with her life. Swinging almost high enough to touch the rafters, Katy suddenly finds herself in free fall, as one of the bolts holding the swing turns loose.

With a badly injured back and no prognosis as whether she will ever walk again, Katy is confined to her upstairs room, which will be her only outlook on the world for many months to come. One reviewer of this book looked askance on this confinement, congratulating our modern outlook for abandoning this practice. Actually, it is not our outlook as much as our technology that allowed this practice to fall by the wayside. Katy was in constant pain, and any effort to move her proved excruciating. Since such conveniences as wheelchairs and elevators were rare or unavailable in that era, Katy was confined because no other choice existed.

Katy's loving a resourceful family found ways to make her confinement work. Cousin Helen, a paraplegic for many years, helped Katy to view her situation in a more optimistic light, and to create more pleasant surroundings. Katy's brothers and sisters considered it an honor to be invited into Katy's room. Once Katy overcame her initial despair and began to live her life as well as she could, her room became the hub of the household.

What Katy Did is a very mature children's book, presenting themes such as handicaps, disease, accidents and death. Surprisingly, it is presented in a light-hearted albeit reverent manner. The part of the story before Katy's accident is fast-paced and joyful. The part after her accident is slower and more thoughtful, although just as engaging.

What Katy Did makes me think that Katy is very much like Elizabeth Von Arnim described herself as a 12-year old in Elizabeth and Her German Garden. The writing is also the same light, amusing, irreverent style that is carefully constructed but looks effortless.

I won't go further into the technology issue. It might spoil the story. However, keep my question in mind as you read What Katy Did and see if the reading does not enhance your appreciation of such.


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