BLOG #44, SERIES 7
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #58
KATE DOUGLAS WIGGIN’S REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM
November 2, 2016
It was the U. S. Postal Service that first nudged me in this direction. Some of you may remember the quartet of U. S. Postal stamps depicting scenes from four of the most beloved childhood classics ever written by American authors: Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, and Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. That’s pretty rarified company! And yet I’d never read Wiggin’s book.
I must confess it was not at all what I expected. For some reason I expected a book geared to young girls. Instead, here came a book with all the timeless multidimensionality of Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. A book that has been loved by readers young and old ever since it was first published in 1903. Montgomery was so impressed by Rebecca that she has Anne first appearing in a carriage driven by Matthew Cuthbert just as was true with Rebecca in a carriage driven by Jeremiah Cobb. Anne of Green Gables was published only four years after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Rebecca is first revealed to us as a little girl who is insightful, overly sensitive to beauty, empathetic to suffering and maligning. Yet also teachable, yearning to succeed, and a natural born leader in whatever she does.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is the fresh, delightful story of Rebecca Randall, a quaint little ten-year-old girl who, because of her family’s straitened circumstances, is sent to live with her spinster aunts, Miranda and Jane. Although Rebecca at first is a trial, to Aunt Miranda at least, she finds a friend in Emma Jane Perkins and a hero-admirer in Mr. Adam Ladd, whom she calls “Mr. Aladdin.” The book tells of her growing up and ends with her graduation from Wareham Academy in Maine, ready to become a teacher. The lasting popularity of the story is due largely to Rebecca Rowena, with a name straight out of Ivanhoe, and wholesome charm, originality, and optimistic spirit which captivate the reader, just as they captivate all the characters in the book itself.
The descriptions of Rebecca are particularly memorable, from the time we first see her, with her dress on hindside foremost because there were so many brothers and sisters to dress that she always “buttoned in front,” until she stands, starry-eyed, at the threshold of womanhood.
Starry-eyed is the epithet that remains with us. For Rebecca’s eyes were, like faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
“Under her delicately etched brows they glowed like two stars, their dancing lights half hidden in lustrous darkness. Their glance was eager and full of interest, yet never satisfied; their steadfast gaze was brilliant and mysterious, and had the effect of looking directly through the obvious to something beyond, in the object, in the landscape, in you. They had never been accounted for, Rebecca’s eyes. The school teacher and the minister at Temperance had tried and failed; the young artist who came for the summer to sketch the red barn, the ruined mill, and the bridge ended by giving up all these local beauties and devoting himself to the face of a child,—a small, plain face, illuminated by a pair of eyes carrying such messages, such suggestions, such hints of sleeping power and insight, that one never tired of looking into their shining depths, nor of fancying that what one saw there was a reflection of one’s own thought.”
Aunt Jane said it more briefly. “You look for all the world,” she told Rebecca wonderingly, “as if you did have a lamp burning inside you.”
Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856 – 1923) was born in Philadelphia, and grew up, homeschooled, in Hollis, Maine, then attended various seminaries. She was seventeen when her family moved to California. Having been a member of Miss Marwedel’s pioneer training class, she was called from her teaching in Santa Barbara to establish in San Francisco the first free kindergarten on the West Coast, the famed Silver Street Kindergarten. Her dedication to kindergarten education would last for the rest of her life. She actually got into writing in order to raise money for her schools. The Birds’ Christmas Carol was first, others followed. She is best known for the Penelope series (five volumes), The New Chronicles of Rebecca, and The Story of Waitstill Baxter. But it was Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm that made her world famous. It was the #8 bestseller in America in 1904, and has never gone out of print.
SEQUENCE OF HER BOOKS
• The Story of Patsy (1883)
• The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1887)
• Timothy’s Quest (1890)
• The Story Hour (with Nora A. Smith) and 15 others
• Polly Oliver’s Problem (1893)
• A Cathedral Courtship (1893)
• Penelope’s English Experiences (1893)
• The Village Watch-Tower (1895)
• Penelope’s Progress (1898)
• Penelope’s Progress in Scotland (1898)
• Penelope’s Irish Experiences (1901)
• The Diary of a Goose Girl (1902)
• Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903)
• Half-a-Dozen Housekeepers (1903)
• Rose o’ the River (1905)
• New Chronicles of Rebecca (1907)
• Homespun Tales (1907)
• The Old Peabody Pew (1907)
• Susanna and Sue (1909)
• Mother Carey’s Chickens (1911)
• Robinetta (1911)
• A Child’s Journey with Dickens (1912)
• The Story of Waitstill Baxter (1913)
• The Romance of a Christmas Card (1916)
• Ladies in Waiting (1918)
• A Summer in a Canon: A California Story (1893)
• Marm Lisa
• My Garden of Memory [autobiography] (1923)
The first Rebecca play went on tour across the country. In Washington, it was attended by President and Mrs. Taft. It was also performed in Europe.
It was first filmed in 1917. Directed by Marshal Neilan; screenwriter: Frances Marion. It starred Mary Pickford, Eugene O’Brien, Helen Jerome Eddy, Charles Ogle, Marjorie Daw, and Mayne Kelso. It was generally faithful to the original.
It was also filmed in 1938 by FOX. Unfortunately, the movie bears little resemblance to the book. Instead, it ought to have been titled Rebecca of Radio City. It was directed by Allan Dwan; Produced by Raymond Griffith. It starred Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, Jack Haley, Phyllis Brooks, Gloria Stuart, Slim Summerville, Bill Robinson, Helen Westley, and William Demarest. Temple sings some of her greatest hits: “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” “When I’m With You,” “An Old Straw Hat,” etc, and also dances with Bill Westley “Bojangles” Robinson.
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There are so many editions to choose from, just make sure yours is unabridged. It was originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company.