An Old-Fashioned Girl is kind of like no pulp orange juice; it’s a feel-good read that flows nicely and brings back memories of sunny days. Reminiscent of the old tale of the town mouse and the country mouse, this coming-of-age classic features an endearing, “old-fashioned” protagonist; entertaining adventures; lessons about life, family, and friendship; and peanuts (satisfying my peanut
In a time of European immigration and industrialization in the United States, fourteen-year-old country girl Polly Milton makes her first trip into the city of Boston to visit her cousin Fanny Shaw and her family. She finds life in the city to be extremely different from life in the countryside, and has a hard time adjusting to the habits and lifestyles of her fashionable cousin. But old-fashioned Polly, with her sense of practicality and childlike happiness, slowly melts the Shaw family’s hearts and helps them remember the joys of family and friendship during her stay. Six years later, Polly moves into the city to make a living as a music teacher, and faces new challenges in her job and her personal life as she continues to struggle with being the old-fashioned girl.
Alcott mainly focuses on Polly’s perspective, but jumps to other characters at times to highlight their thoughts, a style that makes the characters feel real and easy to relate to. And Polly is one of my favorite female protagonists of all time – she’s a kind-hearted, caring heroine who is sweet and likable. She does get mean, greedy, or jealous at times, but she fully admits her flaws and attempts to compensate for them by doing good deeds… a sort-of Mother Teresa figure, if you will. Her preference for simplicity, her strong family values, and her dislike for the gossip and fashion style of city girls is a blatant contrast to the ideals of her city friends, who are sometimes embarrassed at her “naiveté.”
“Am I odd?” asked Polly, struck by the word and hoping it didn’t mean anything very bad.
“You are a dear, and ever so much prettier than you were last summer, only you’ve been brought up differently from us; so your ways ain’t like ours, you see,” began Fanny, finding it rather hard to explain.
“How different?” asked Polly again, for she liked to understand things.
“Well, you dress like a little girl, for one thing.”
“I am a little girl; so why shouldn’t I?” and Polly looked at her simple blue merino frock, stout boots, and short hair, with a puzzled air.
As Polly develops throughout the story, she retains her beliefs and her positive attitude while unconsciously changing the people around her. The Shaw family, while financially wealthy, lacks strong emotional relationships. For example, the mischievous Tom and fashionable Fanny hate each other more than a brother and sister should; young Maud (who is only six!) is spoiled, throws tantrums, and acts like a little lady with her own beaus, French maid, and fancy wardrobe; and Mr. Shaw is always busy with work and doesn’t have time for his children. Polly, in her own way, changes this family as the Shaws change her during her time with them.
The characters’ growth is an aspect that I loved about the story. Halfway through the book, Alcott skillfully transitions from the adventures of childhood to the experiences of adulthood with a chapter entitled “Six Years Afterward.” (It felt like a buy-one-story-get-one-free deal!) The grown-up versions of the characters are just as endearing as their younger selves, and their adventures just as exciting, their troubles just as troubling. Alcott’s simple and straightforward style of writing also makes the story easy to read and draws more attention to the action and the dialogues. And my edition of the book also had wonderful illustrations by Elenore Abbott throughout the book, which was a pleasant surprise.
For me, An Old-Fashioned Girl stands out as the happiest book on my shelves. It’s a comfort read that I revisit every winter, when I want more sunshine, laughter, happy feelings, and warm thoughts. If you like coming-of-age stories, strong female protagonists, feel-good reads, or orange juice, you should give An Old-Fashioned Girl a try!