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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-airmont-scanAlice H. Hogan, in her insightful introduction to the Airmont Classic Edition of the book, begins with these words:

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.


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.

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Kate Douglas Wiggin's "The Birds' Christmas Carol"


November 26, 2014

Each of you—even those I’ve never had the privilege of hearing from—who honor me by being a member of Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club, will no doubt remember that every Christmas I’ve turned back the pages of time to a Christmas book that has warmed my heart down through the years. For our first Christmas (Nov. 23, 2011), we shared two books: Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel –Dickens with his inimitable male Scrooge and Brown with her equally memorable female Scrooge.

A year later (Nov. 28, 2012), we shared Lloyd C. Douglas’s moving Home for Christmas. Then last year (Dec. 4, 2013), we journeyed through the ancient East with Henry Van Dyke’s unforgettable Artaban (The Other Wise Man).

(1888 First Edition)
(1888 First Edition)


Now, for our fourth Christmas together, I am finally caving in to all the importuning readers over the last 23 years who have repeatedly urged me to include Kate Douglas Wiggin’s beloved little book, The Birds’ Christmas Carol (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1888) in the Christmas in My Heart® series. I never have, because it is too long, but I can make it our 2014 Christmas book of the year.

St. Luke, of course, told us the greatest Christmas story of all. However, it was left to Charles Dickens, in 1843, to gift the world with the first fictional Christmas book: A Christmas Carol.

Twenty-five years later, Louisa May Alcott brought the four Alcott sisters to life at Christmas time, in Little Women (1868-9). Beth has to be one of the most sentimental and most beloved heroines in all family literature. Just as was true in real life, Beth dies way too young. In my American Literature class discussions, even the macho males who initially groused about having to read “a girls’ book”, after reading it admitted to their classmates that they too had wept over Beth.

Twenty years later (1888) Kate Douglas Wiggin built upon Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Alcott’s depiction of Beth to gift her audience with a Beth-like character of her own—Carol Bird.

The author, Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923) was born in Philadelphia, then the family moved to Hollis, MN. She was homeschooled, then studied at various seminaries and academies. When 17, she joined her family in California; after teaching in Santa Barbara, she moved to San Francisco where she established the first free kindergarten on the West Coast. Her first husband, Samuel B. Wiggin, died young; she later married George C. Riggs. She died in England.

(1929 Popular Edition)
(1929 Popular Edition)

Among her books are The Story of Patsy (1883), The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1888), Timothy’s Quest (1890), The Story Hour (with Nora A. Smith, 1890), Polly Oliver’s Problem (1893), A Cathedral Courtship (1893), Penelope’s Progress (1898), The Story of Waitstill Baxter (1913), Ladies in Waiting (1918), her autobiography, My Garden of Memories (1923), and a number of others. But her reputation rests on two books: The Birds’ Christmas Carol and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Both were bestsellers, but Rebecca swept the nation, no small thanks to two movies: the first (1917) was a silent film with an organ score – Francis Marion wrote a splendid screenplay for it, and kept it faithful to the book. The film was directed by Marshal Neilan and starred Mary Pickford, Eugene O’Brien, Josephine Crowell, Helen Jerome Eddy, Charles Ogle, Marjorie Daw, ZaSu Pitts, and Mayme Kelso. According to Derek Elley, “Mary Pickford plays as she never played before, varying lights and shades to elicit the major interest, tearful at one moment and laughing the next. Her support is flawless, embodying many artists of repute.” The second film (1938) all but abandons the original novel in favor of a bouncy musical. It was directed by Allen Dwan, produced by Raymond Griffith, photoplay by Arthur Miller. It had a star-studded cast: Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, Jack Haley, Gloria Stuart, Helen Westly, Bill Robinson, Phyllis Brooks, Slim Summerville, and William Demarest. As would be expected, Shirley Temple steals the show. The plot: a talented stage child who wins a broadcasting moppet contest.

The Birds’ Christmas Carol was never filmed; nevertheless it benefitted mightily from the two Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms films’ publicity and hype.

You may well ask. Why all the sentimentality in The Birds’ Christmas Carol? Why all the fuss about a girl dying young?

Frontispiece - 1888 Edition
Frontispiece – 1888 Edition

Here’s why: Up until the early 20th century, half of all children died during their childhood or teen years. Since medicine was still in its infancy, sanitation wasn’t even thought of, antibiotics didn’t exist, nostrums were taken seriously, doctors were poorly trained, and hospitals were little used—people tended to be born at home, and die at home. As a result, parents were terrified by any childhood ailment, no matter how minor it might seem. Reason being: there were back then no reliable cures for anything. Most any infliction could end your life. And most women died from childbirth complications because neither doctors nor midwives washed their hands between patients.

Case in point: How well I remember my paternal grandfather, Rollo Wheeler, who though he and Grandma Ruby had eleven children, two of them—little Eva and little Arthur—died young and in his arms at home. So just mention either to him, and he’d weep.

Plus, the 1880s was a most sentimental decade. The traditional family was strong, God and country were celebrated, Father earned the living, and Mother was the almost deified madonna of the home. Children were protected from adult realities and taboos (unlike today). So since death was such an unfathomable mystery, the gradual departure of a young life was both celebrated and sentimentalized.

Offsetting the trauma of Carol’s long decline, Wiggin wisely offset it by the rollicking comic relief represented by the large Ruggles family next door.

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition
Frontispiece: 1929 Edition


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So, with all this as a preamble, search out an early text. But try to get the Houghton Mifflin original text with original illustrations by H.R.H. But the so-called “Popular Edition” (1929), with color and b/w illustrations by Helen Mason Grose is equally attractive. If at all possible, don’t settle for anything but top condition in this heirloom book. When you read it, block out 21st century realities from your mind and pretend you are a turn-of-the-century reader.

Will be most interested in your reactions.


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We’ve had a lot of responses to our series of blogs detailing the grim picture for boys and men in America today. Now columnist, educator, and former First Lady of Colorado Dottie Lamm has picked up the torch in “Our Boys Are Falling Behind in Education” (Denver Post, April 18, 2010).

She begins with this preamble:

“What’s the next battle for an aging feminist?


Granted, the battle for women’s rights and equality has not been completely won, but the new reality is that in the future, it will be males who are most endangered.”

She concurs with the findings in one of my earlier blogs: That since by 2017 (only seven years from now) the ratio of female to male graduates will be 1 ½ to 1, we’re already in the midst of a terrible crisis, and notes that though women have lobbied for generations for their rights and talents to be recognized, they most certainly weren’t lobbying for a complete role reversal, where they’re predicted to “reign supreme in all fields but the sciences.”

And women, she feels, have not even begun to internalize the fallout from such a seismic shift. So she poses this rhetorical question: “How many college-educated women today would want to marry a man with such low educational achievement skills or ambition that he would be permanently relegated to the role of full-time ‘homemaker’—not by choice, but by default?”

Then Lamm turns to causes, and refers to issues I’ve spent most of my adult lifetime studying. Both of us are convinced that we’re now paying the price for forcing our kids into reading and verbal exercises at an ever earlier age. We used to wait until they were seven or eight, but for several generations now we’ve been forcing them into early-learning kindergartens before they—especially boys—are ready for it. Lamm points out that, generally speaking, “the verbal parts of boys’ brains do not develop to capacity until fourth or fifth grade.” Furthermore, brain-scans reveal that the language area of 3 ½-year-old girls mirrors that of 5-year-old boys.”

We both agree: What results from immersing boys into verbal instruction at such an early age is that we set them up for almost certain failure. When girls their own age can run circles around them in classwork, the wounds to boys’ sense of self-worth can be so deep and long-lasting that they just plain give up, convicted that they’re just plain dumb; that nothing they can possibly do will be enough to enable them to reach performance parity with girls. Quite simply, it’s the Dunce Syndrome all over again: Tell a child enough times that he’s dumb, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Studies have also shown that small children’s eyes find it difficult to focus on print. On the other hand, boys are wired for action from birth on. That’s why the best thing we can do for them is let them roam the great out-of-doors free of regimentation during the first seven or eight years of their lives. Instead of Gameboys and videos, they ought to be outside climbing trees, wading in creeks, playing in a sandpile. Our own son Greg, just turned seven, was not quite ready for first grade work, so we pulled him out until he was almost eight—by that time he was so ready he raced through two grades in one year.

Studies have shown that children who are force-fed too soon (many are pushed into reading as early as three or four so that they’ll get a head-start over the others) invariably are passed later on by those who were permitted to begin schooling at a later age. Furthermore, those who start too young get burned out earlier than those who wait.

Lamm notes that “boys are far more likely to be held back a grade in fourth grade and then again in ninth grade, an action that promotes a suspension rate for boys that is twice as high as that of girls. This in turn leads to a male dropout rate of 32 percent compared to 25 percent for females.”

And let’s face it, girls remain considerably more mature than boys through college and later. I had 34 years of classroom experience in which to compare the two genders. Believe me, it was no contest: the average coed was about three years ahead maturity-wise, far more ready to tackle serious issues such as marriage and long-term commitment than were the males. But males do eventually catch up—usually by the late twenties or early thirties.

Lamm feels it’s almost criminal that we as a society have failed to do a thing about a problem of this magnitude, pointing out that the U.S. Department of Education “has yet to launch a single probe into the gender gap.”

Lamm concludes with these revealing words: “If a man’s movement develops for boys, I’ll join it. And, as an aging feminist, I’ll still fight to take big chunks out of that glass ceiling for women. But as a grandmother of three young boys, I’m going to do my darndest to keep young boys from sinking into that academic mud floor.”