Turnips and trauma—american girl dolls and 2020

Any of you ladies between the ages of 25 and 40 remember the American Girls? The dolls with their adorable front teeth and expensive outfits and flowing, silky hair? The books where the girls surmounted all the odds of living in historic times? The catalogue? The recipe books? There were just 5 dolls when I was a kid…now there are like 40, and a new one every year.

Then they built the stores—a Neiman Marcus of expensive dolls and more expensive outfits—some for the dolls and some for you! Seriously, if your folks were willing to shell out the insane amounts of cash, you could wear a Victorian nightgown that matched Samantha’s, or a sweater and cute little cap like Molly.

There was Felicity, the horse girl from Colonial times who had a friend who was a loyalist…they had a tea party where Felicity lost her first tooth. I wasn’t an animal person, so I didn’t get it.

There was Addy, who escaped from a plantation in North Carolina with her mom, then struggled against poverty and racism in Philadelphia. Addy was so great—her life was really rough, but she always listened to her mom. It’s hard to live up to Addy; she nearly died a bunch of times.

Then there was Samantha, who was just kind of annoying. She was a “bright Victorian beauty”, and honestly her life was just…mostly petticoats and tennis and ice cream with suffragettes. She had a friend who was broke and lived with abusive relatives and had to work in a thread factory at age 7…why didn’t the friend get a book? 

And of course, my favorite was Molly. She lived in Anytown, USA during 1944-45. Her dad was, of course, away fighting, and Molly was collecting tin foil and knitting socks and eating rationed food. She lived the closest to the 90s…maybe that’s why I identified with her. 

One of my kids was reading a Molly book today—the series opens with Molly sitting at the table with her arms crossed as it gets later and later. The reason? They’re having turnips from the victory garden for dinner, and Molly hates them. She intends to die on this hill.

She’s sitting there reminiscing about how, before the war, they had good stuff for dinner—pot roast and mashed potatoes and gravy. And Dad was at the table and Mom didn’t have to work.

There are lots of moments like this in Molly’s life—moments of childhood that, in their smallness and mundaneness become stories of the struggles of kids who just have to sit and wait for the war to be over. There’s the vegetables, of course—and the birthday party without a big, sugary cake…the birthday party she shares with the traumatized English girl living at their house. There’s the ballet recital (it’s very elaborate…the girls are in red and blue with star-shaped fascinators on their heads. The girl with the dance solo is called Miss Victory) where she gets her sister to give her a perm so she can have curls…but she wants curls because her father hasn’t seen her in years and she wants him to remark on how pretty and grown-up she is. She grows up a little, but not too much…she absorbs enough to know that things are hard for everyone, and she accepts that it could be worse.

And her mom is always there for her—her teachers are good at their job—her teenage sister is nicer than she has to be. She has all the support to deal with the trauma of…sitting and waiting and wondering.

My kids at school and my son Drew are living through historic times. Every now and then I catch myself saying something like, “remember in the spring when we all went home?” Or I’ll tell Drew, “wait a second while Mom puts her mask on.” I sat in the outdoor church service yesterday and shivered—it was colder than I’d thought—and wondered if my son would remember ‘outside church’ when he was grown.

I saw my student reading a Molly book, and I remembered once when my grandfather told me about hearing about Pearl Harbor—sitting behind his Dad’s chair and hearing it on the radio. 

I imagine some old man or some gray-haired lady, telling their grandchildren, “oh yeah…I remember 2020. My third grade teacher was named Mrs. Hunter…I remember how we had to…” or maybe they won’t remember. Maybe it won’t matter anymore. Maybe they’ll find an old poster that says “wash your hands for 20 seconds” and put it up for decoration like those “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters. I don’t know, maybe not.

I love Molly, an American Girl. Because I love the idea that kids can pull through tough times like these, full of inconveniences and scared adults and lost joys, and have good lives and good memories. 

Seriously, I want to be an American Girl. Tell the company you have an idea for a new doll set in the mid-nineties. “Lindsay, an American Girl. She has parents and siblings and plays Oregon Trail on a huge computer and watches cartoons while eating Lucky Charms. Then…the millennium happens…” 

Stay brave, team.

2 Comments

  1. Greg Dennison

    Thank you for this perspective. Seriously. As soon as you said the part about reminiscing about pot roast, I realized where you were going with this… I’m kind of falling apart, and I don’t know what to do or who I am anymore :\

    Like

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