Old Favorites: Daddy-Long-Legs

Snow, snow, snow. It’s everywhere!

I thought about doing another snow story for this week’s Old Favorite, but I just couldn’t face more ice, frigid temperatures, or falling white stuff.  Blizzards, abominable snowmen or avalanches were completely out of the question.

So instead, here’s a book to snuggle up with after you’ve finished shoveling.  All you need is a couch, a little relaxation time, a warm blanket, and a cup of cocoa.

What makes a good snuggling book?  Cozy settings, warm characters, old-fashioned storytelling, and maybe a hint of romance. You have to finish reading and close the book with a satisfied sigh.  So what is today’s old favorite?

Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster.

* * *

Jerusha Abbott is the oldest orphan at the John Grier Home; as the oldest, she’s expected to care for the younger orphans and help with the daily chores.  Luckily, Jerusha has lots of imagination, and she makes the drudgery more interesting for both her charges and herself with the stories that she tells. When she’s  seventeen, that will all end. The Home doesn’t keep orphans older than that. Jerusha is not sure what she will do on that day–the one good thing is that she won’t have to endure any more Blue Wednesdays, the day the Trustees of the Home come to have tea and look down on the poor children in their care.

But one Blue Wednesday, Jerusha receives the most exciting news.  One of the Trustees–who prefers to remain anonymous–wants to pay for her to go to college!  The Matron, Mrs. Lippett, tells her that it’s a first in the history of the John Grier Home: two boys before her were sent on to college, but never a girl!  In the early 1900s, it’s almost unheard of.

There’s only one catch: for the duration of her time in college, Jerusha must send a monthly letter to her mysterious benefactor, telling him of her achievements.

Once at college, Jerusha changes her name to Judy, and sends the letters faithfully. She addresses them to “Daddy-Long-Legs”; the only clue she had to the identity of the generous trustee was seeing a quick glimpse of his shadow on the wall, impossibly tall, with legs that seem to go on forever. The letters are long and chatty, telling Daddy-Long-Legs of the new things she’s learning, both at school and about herself. Some of Judy’s stories relate what she’s doing back to stories of the Home and the children she left behind. Some look forward to the future, and what life might send her way.

Daddy-Long-Legs proves to be a very capable guardian, sending Judy  gifts based on the stories in her letters, care packages for trips, and items she’ll need to keep up with her new classmates. As she delights in the world around her, her gift for storytelling helps her describe what she sees.  Drawings of stick figures enhance the stories and illustrate her points, both to Daddy and the reader.

Will Judy ever meet Daddy-Long-Legs? The young woman who finishes college is very different from the girl who started.  What will she say when she finds out who Daddy-Long-Legs really is?

* * *

Daddy-Long-Legs was written almost one hundred years ago (in 1912) but it’s still very readable for today’s audiences. Part of that is the charm of Judy’s narration; although her experiences and background are very, very different from today’s readers, her enthusiasm and gift of description bridge that gap very handily.  Judy’s descriptions of Latin lessons, learning to get along with her roommates, and falling in love are just as accessible to readers in 2012. The break-ups, homework and chatty stories of daily adventures could be written (or more likely, blogged about) today.

Daddy-Long-Legs was so well-loved at the beginning of the century, it was made into two plays and four movies. (Although, to be honest, until I started writing this entry I didn’t know that Curly Top, starring Shirley Temple, was one of those movies.)  This was definitely Jean Webster’s most well-known work, although she wrote several other books, including sequels about Judy’s children. Storytelling must run in families: one interesting fact about Jean Webster was that she was Mark Twain’s grand-niece.

There was one  sequel that I absolutely adored: Dear Enemy, where Sally McBride, Judy’s college roommate, takes over The John Greer Home. As she modernizes the facility and takes care of all the children, she writes to Judy and shares her thoughts, dreams and hopes for the future.  Critics don’t find it as strong a book, but I loved the relationship between Sally and the kids and the very dour doctor with whom she is constantly at battle.

Readers who loved Anne of Green Gables or Little Women (or Pollyanna, The Secret Garden or Ballet Shoes)  should enjoy this book as well.  If you want a cozy read to curl up with on a snow day, try Daddy-Long-Legs. And remember the hot cocoa. 🙂


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