July
7th 2008
Monday morning history roundup: sister can you spare a dime edition

Posted under: American history, childhood, Dolls, women's history

Well, it’s been a heckofa holiday weekend, U.S. American-style:  rodeo Thursday, marching in the Stampede Parade with the Weld County Democrats Friday morning, swimming in the smokin’ heat Friday afternoon (thank goodness for friends with access to pools!), a neighborhood cookout Friday night along with a viewing of the legal fireworks display at the rodeo grounds, errands and a movie Saturday (Kit Kittredge–see the review below), and a visit from friends on Sunday.  Land sakes, a cowgirl needs a vacation from all of this time off!

There was lots of history in the news this weekend, of personal and professional interest.  So, herewith, is my latest roundup:

  • The Black American West Museum has come into the possession of most of the land that once was home to the Dearfield Colony in Weld County, Colorado, an African American agricultural community from 1910-1948.  They’re working with a Weld County Commissioner and hoping to attract volunteers and donors to turn it into a historic site for its 100th anniversary in 2010.  See the Rocky Mountain News story on it, which also includes an interview with two men who lived there, and an audio slide show of Dearfield.  The history of African Americans in the west is overshadowed by a mythology that overwhelmingly privileges the perspectives of white settlers.  The preservation of the Dearfield Colony would be a tremendous contribution to the history of black Coloradoans in the early twentieth century.
  • University of Pennsylvania historian and McNeil Center Director Daniel Richter was featured in a Weekend Edition Sunday look at colonial and early national Philadelphia.  He waxes eloquent on the crowding and mucking up of William Penn’s “greene countrie towne.”  Next week, they’re doing an in-depth investigation of Charles Wilson Peale and his museum as a hook for moving into an exploration of the nineteenth century city.
  • Historiann took advantage of the air conditioning in a local movie theatre Saturday afternoon to see Kit Kittredge:  An American GirlYes, it was inspired by a book that’s part of the insidious “American Girl Doll” borg, but it was more than halfway decent.  Set in the midst of the Great Depression in Cincinnati, it renders a kid’s-eye view of living with the tumult of hard times when Kit’s father moves to Chicago to find work, while she and her mother turn the family home into a boarding house, plant a garden, and even sell eggs to make ends meet.  It was entertaining for adults without resorting to double-entendres and trashy jokes in the fashion of so many movies putatively for children.  And, one bonus of films set in a reasonably distant historical period:  absolutely no product placements or advertising, despite the movie’s connection to the American Girl marketing juggernaut.  (It would have been in very bad taste to advertise anything in a movie about the depression, in any case.)

More on KK:  Well-known character actors from the American film repertoire like Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusak, Glenne Headly, Jane Krakowski, and Stanley Tucci, did their jobs quite well in their roles as the eccentric adults that come into Kit’s life as she lives in the boarding house and struggles to get her articles published in the local newspaper.  (Perhaps unsurprisingly, these adult actors overshadow the lead character, played by Abigail Breslin.)  The movie turns into a caper when a rash of local burglaries cast suspicion on the inhabitants of the local hobo jungle, and on the young day laborers who work for Mrs. Kittredge.  It’s also an extended exercise in nostalgia for twentieth-century childhood, with a tree house, a secret club, strap-on roller skates, children who are permitted to take streetcars downtown without chaperons, bullies in school who get their comeuppance, and a heroine who’s writing it all down with her typewriter, complete with stuck keys when she types too fast.  All in all, wholesome fare that was well-received by the under-12 set in the theatre–and when you consider the absolute absence of decent movies that feature a girl heroine and leader of her kid gang, well–it’s more than worth a look if you’ve got 4-11 year old girls or boys in the house on a too-hot or too-rainy summer afternoon.

Historiann’s only complaint about Kit Kittredge is that Julia Ormond and Chris O’Donnell are too glamourous and good-looking to be cast as Kit’s parents.  You just can’t believe anything could really be all that bad with those two as the resident loving authority figures.  (Am I crazy, or does O’Donnell look better than ever with some grey hair and a bit of a middle-aged paunch?  A few imperfections make him look almost like a real man instead of a cookie-cutter himbo.)  Willow Smith is adorable as hobo sidekick Countee–which turned out to be a great “passing” role!

11 Comments »

11 Responses to “Monday morning history roundup: sister can you spare a dime edition”

  1. The History Enthusiast on 07 Jul 2008 at 11:34 am #

    I loved the American Girls books when they very first came out, before they were bought out by Mattel and became what they are today. It makes me sad, since they used to be owned by a little family company instead of a huge corporation.

  2. Rachel on 07 Jul 2008 at 2:29 pm #

    I agree History Enthusiast. I grew up on The American Girls Collection (when it was still Pleasant Company). Those books are mostly the reason why I study women’s history today. I am glad Historiann that the movie was worthwhile, but am really disappointed that the company had to sell out and make some of the girls’ series into movies (Felicity, Samantha, Molly, and now Kit). Instead of encouraging our children to read a book and use their imaginations, they can now just pop it in the vcr (they still sell those anymore?) like almost every other book series. And of course, in translating the book to screen, they really screw up the story. (I still have the dolls, clothes, and accessories Historiann if you’re interested in some more doll blogging).

  3. Historiann on 07 Jul 2008 at 3:49 pm #

    Hi Rachel–maybe we can set up a photo shoot? You and History Enthusiast must be a lot younger than Historiann if you consumed American Girl Doll stories and products in your childhood. I hear what you’re saying Rachel about the books versus movies–but I think the world can use a *lot* more non-exploitative children’s movies that star girls and are about girl characters. All children will watch movies, so it would be nice if there were as many that show girls as main characters who are doing things rather than just reacting to the things that boy characters do.

    When I was a child in the 1970s, I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books–no doubt because the popular TV series inspired a rash of reprints of the books published decades earlier. So it may be the case that “Kit Kittredge” will inspire other girls to read the books about her, and then to read the other American Girl books.

    (And, finally–Historiann still has a VCR, but she also still has a fountain pen, an a.m. radio, and a filofax instead of a blackberry.)

  4. Indyanna on 07 Jul 2008 at 10:53 pm #

    Historiann: On the casting of KK, Bonnie and Clyde couldn’t have been nearly as glam-looking as they were made out to be in the classic ’60s movie, I presume, so I guess it’s just what Hollywood does to dollarize what they think of as their indulgence in realism. “Ma” Barker was just plain ugly and scary, and she ruled–and ruled through–her two even-uglier but very obedient sons. I bet the studios never even considered making a movie about *that* 1930s phenomenon. I fed (partly) on pop-noir FBI docu-pictorial books that came into the family through an uncle who was in that line very briefly–being a G-man, I mean! Wow, I’m totally jetlagged. Nobody should change hemispheres and seasons twice in six days. Glad to see that you saw and blogged the flick, though. A piece in the NY Times today suggested that one of the Udall boys may have been at the Stampede in your town!

  5. Historiann on 08 Jul 2008 at 7:33 am #

    Hi Indyanna–sounds like you’ve been through the wringer! I hope you can rest for a day or two before it’s back to the bituminous mines.

    Yes, Bonnie and Clyde as played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were super-glam, but somehow it fit. Dangerous characters are already sexy and exciting, so it’s not a stretch to prettify them in casting the Hollywood version.

  6. Indyanna on 08 Jul 2008 at 11:08 am #

    (Partial/provisional) retraction on “Ma” Barker: A quick Wiki just after I hit submit suggests that maybe Kate Barker (initially named “Arizona” by her absconding dad?) may not have been quite the machine-gun wielding matriarch of my proto-memory, but rather more of a den mother to her gang of sons and their accomplice, Alvin Karpis. But this version apparently relies on Karpis’s revisionist claims;
    he calls it the “Karpis/Barker” gang, not Barker/Karpis, so who knows? If a crime-busting scholar from Providence reads in on this blog, maybe he could clear it up? There was apparently also a 1960 filmed version of the gang and its lore, but a post-modern take would be most welcome.

  7. cgeye on 08 Jul 2008 at 10:48 pm #

    Since I haven’t been exposed to Kit Kittredge, please unpack Countee as a ‘great passing role’.

    I’m confused because the name Countee chimes back to Countee Cullen, a great AA poet, so it’d be obvious to the black middle class folks whose people most likely named the kid.

    Just trying to keep up….

    oh, yes. Nice blog!

  8. Historiann on 09 Jul 2008 at 7:00 am #

    Hi cgeye–ok, I’ll explain. SPOILER ALERT!

    It’s not a racial passing, but a gender passing. Countee is introduced to the children as a boy by her older hobo sidekick, Will, who serves as a big brother to “him.” After the caper is solved and Will is cleared of suspicion, the white kids in the neighborhood ask, “where’s Countee?” He points to a little girl with her hair in pigtails and says, “there she is,” and explains that hobo life is really hard for girls, so she was safer dressing as a boy.

    I had the same association that you had with the name Countee, because of Countee Cullen, but went along with the idea that it could be a boy’s name, too. (Will explains that her real given name is Constance.) I didn’t know that Willow Smith was in the movie, and missed her name in the opening credits, so I was fooled too! But of course, Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith have incredibly adorable children, as you’d expect…

  9. cgeye on 09 Jul 2008 at 1:33 pm #

    So *that* explains the Will Smith quip at DHD:

    “Daddy loves you sweetie, but I gots to stomp you at the box office.”

    Ohhh. Thanks.

  10. Dearfield Colony restoration update : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 16 Sep 2008 at 8:53 am #

    [...] wrote about the Dearfield Colony last summer, and current efforts by various local organizations and citizens to preserve what’s left of [...]

  11. Hard times on the distaff side in kid lit? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 20 Oct 2008 at 9:18 am #

    [...] notes that the big-screen adaptation of the American Girl franchise’s Depression-era kid, Kit Kittredge, was released this summer, and notes that the other books Perl mentions all feature girls as main [...]

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