My Life as a Spy by Deb Jennifer

Reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh turned me into a writer. 

Eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch (the M her own invention), as you may or may not recall, wants to be a writer.  So to prepare for being a writer, she decides to become a spy.  She keeps a notebook full of observations of the world around her — brutally honest observations about her friends, people she sees on the street, and those on her spy route.  After school, she changes into her spy clothes (old jeans, hooded sweatshirt, ratty sneakers and a tool belt with a flashlight, canteen, boy scout knife, and pockets for her notebook and pens) and goes to her appointed rounds, spying on (and passing judgment on) a series of unsuspecting people.  Harriet has a wonderful nurse called Ole Golly who advises her and is always quoting great literature (in one scene she’s reading Dostoyevsky) and encouraging Harriet to be a writer.

Harriet is not the most likeable character.  She’s mean and hateful at times.  She says terrible things about the people she’s closest to.  She’s sent to a psychiatrist.  I’d never met a protagonist like her before.  She was the most believable character I’d ever encountered — the one most like me. 

After reading Harriet the Spy, I started eating tomato sandwiches (the only lunch she ever ate) and began my career as a spy.  I made my own tool belt (mine had a flashlight, pocket knife, little bag with things to pick locks, a walkie talkie that I pretended to talk to headquarters on, and, most important of all, a notebook.)  No one was safe.  I spied on the entire neighborhood, taking copious, detailed notes.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith: dinner at 6 – chicken and corn on the cob, watched boring PBS show, went to bed early.  Mrs. Richardson: snuck outside with oxygen tank and had a cigarette at 8 pm.  I went through my grandmother’s desk and took notes on all the bills and letters I found there.  I was sure, for a while that she was engaged in some illegal activity, a pay off of some sort, when she wrote a check to CLP each month.  Who was CLP?  I listened at her door.  Eavesdropped on phone calls.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered CLP was Connecticut Light and Power. 

The project I was most fond of was the boyfriend files: a secret, coded (I was always inventing new codes involving switching one letter of the alphabet for the other) dossier on the men my mother when out with.  I wrote down every detail: name, description, car make, model and license number; when he came, how long they stayed out; if he came again. 

I, like Harriet, used my notebooks and secret files to help make sense of the world.   Being a spy in training to become a writer meant you had to notice everything.

But I think the biggest lesson I learned from Harriet was this: no matter what happens in the world around her – the loss of her nurse, the discovery of her notebook by friends and classmates who then form a Spy Catcher club – Harriet writes.  Her inner life sustains her.  As long as she has her notebook and pen, she can get through anything. 

I never stopped writing after meeting Harriet.   My words carried me through a lot of tomato sandwiches, Mom’s boyfriends, games of checkers with my own psychiatrist, and endless other ups and downs of growing up.  And now, I get to make a living from them.  Harriet, I think, would be proud.

15 thoughts on “My Life as a Spy by Deb Jennifer

  1. Damn, Harriet the Spy must have been written when I was past childhood, because I never got my hands on her (so to speak). I would have loved to read about her hijinks, too. Is it too late I wonder? I used to devour the Nancy Drew mysteries (a child of the sixties), but Harriet sounds like much more fun.

  2. Oh Maia, it’s never too late! I actually just reread Harriet the Spy and it was even better than I remembered (which I fear might not be true of my much loved Encyclopedia Brown books).

    I loved Nancy Drew, too. And I stole all the Hardy Boys books from my brother’s bookshelf as well.

  3. I was always reluctant to read that book, because our copy had belonged to my sister, and it was all beat up with an old-fashioned cover. Eventually I read it, and liked it. The movie was really good, as I recall.

  4. Luuuved Harriet the Spy! But I was too lazy to write everything down (longhand?! Horrors!) and tomatoes grossed me out like you can’t imagine. Um, still do. What is the deal with that jelly-like seed stuff? Eeeeww.

  5. I never read Harriet the Spy, though I sometimes pretended to be one. We did, however, have an actual spy living across from us in Montreal. He was arrested for possessing 500 pounds of secret Canadian documents in his basement. Which begs the question–how desperate can a spy be? Come on, Canada?

  6. Harriet, what a character! Is it my imagination or do we clearly remember these childhood book characters because they dared to be different?

  7. I love detective books, both children’s books and adult books, but I never read Harriet. Which is so odd, but I guess there are only so many books in the world! Personal favorites – Encyclopedia Brown and The Great Brain (not just a kid detective, but the kind of kid who made adults look incompetent). Must reads, if you decide to add to your bookshelf for Zella!

  8. Jennifer, When I was in the military I was trained as a crypoanalyst to break ciphers and codes. Your secret “code” is properly called a cipher where you trade one letter for another. The Caeser Cipher, developed by Julius Caeser, is perhaps the best known one where A=D, B=E, C=F and so forth. A code is trading a group of numbers or letters for other numbers or letters. “ABCDE” might equal, “Your report did not arrive” or “The battleship Yamato will sail on”. It is a fascinating study as many codes, some dating from WW I, still have not been “broken”. Keep in mind that a code is “broken” when you can read only part of the message. Imagine reading a letter that only has 25% of the words being able to be read. How the message can change if only one word is missing is only one problem. For example, “I love XXX daughter.” Does the XXX mean My, Our, Your, No Ones, Their, His, or Her can change the total meaning of a message. This is not meant to be critical of Harriet, or your attempt to imitate her when you were younger. It is a warning that if your “codes” were located today your codes would fall very quickly. So guard them well if you still have them as much as my daughter hid her diary (or thought she had).

  9. Eileen’s Very Proud Dad,

    A cryptoanyalyst! Wow! Now I know who to go to with all my cipher and code questions.

    I love hearing that are codes from WW I that still have not been broken. Fascinating.

    I will keep my old ciphered spy notes under lock and key!

    And another interesting aside, the protagonist of my novel is named Kate Cypher. Hmm….

    And Tish, I am fascinated by the story of the spy across the street. 500 pounds of secret Canadian documents?!?!?!

  10. I so want to meet Eileen’s Very Proud Dad.

    Jennifer – it’s true. They were a scary family, the kids killed squirrels and frogs, and terrorized my sister and brothers and I. The son tried to kill my dog, and tried to pull my sister into a garage full of spears while his parents laughed from the dining room window. And KEPT laughing when my very pregnant mother fell on her stomach trying to get her out. They also had a listening device on their lawn – never found out why. The father eventually went to jail, and my sister and I still Google the son to see if he’s become a serial killer. (Shocking that I developed panic attacks later in life…)

  11. Oh, you so brought back Harriet for me. I’d forgotten all about her! My God, your memory for the details is impressive. Must have been all that extensive note-taking during your formative years!

  12. Anna, I have a terrible Swiss cheese memory (no doubt the result of all those brain cells I killed when I was young and foolish…). I recently reread Harriet. And it was just as good as an adult as it was when I was kid.

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