The Long Secret follows Harriet and Beth Ellen during a summer they spend in Water Mill, a resort town on Long Island. Though not close friends in the city, during summers the two girls are thrown together, as both families summer in Water Mill. Beth Ellen is the opposite of Harriet: she is shy and obedient (her nickname is “Mouse”). The story opens in the middle of a mystery: who is leaving Biblical-sounding notes, each with a pointed, personal message for the finder, around Water Mill? Harriet is desperate to find out. Beth Ellen follows her as she questions everyone and spies on the most likely suspects. But in the middle of the summer, Beth Ellen’s world is shattered. Living with her grandparents from a young age, Beth Ellen does not know her mother. When this jet-setting mother arrives, with an equally vapid boyfriend in tow, Beth Ellen hardly knows what she is supposed to feel. Harriet just wants to spy on Beth Ellen’s mother and find out why her own father seems to go funny at the mention of her name. Beth Ellen, meanwhile, has developed a paralyzing crush on the piano player at the local cocktail lounge. The two girls also make friends with a Southern family, which is busy trying to make toe medicine out of watermelons, and an old Black preacher who lives in town. By interacting with these characters, trying to link them to the mysterious notes, the two girls find out about how life can be lived by different kinds of people. As Beth Ellen’s socialite mother tries to mould Beth Ellen into a certain kind of person–more stylish and more outgoing, Harriet urges her to see her love of drawing as her future–she is to be an artist. Pushed and pulled in all directions, Beth Ellen finally erupts into a massive fit, yelling, making a mess, and refusing to turn into a duplicate of her mother. At the same time, Harriet realizes it is Beth Ellen, the quiet observer, leaving the notes around town. The “long secret” has been discovered, which is not the secret of the notes at all, but the secret identity Beth Ellen has been keeping even from herself.
When the book was published some reviewers, such as Carolyn Heilbrun writing in the New York Times, declared it was good, but not as good as Harriet the Spy. Other reviewers were not that kind, such as the reviewer for Book Week who declared, “The Long Secret brings back Harriet the spy, one of the most fatiguingly ill-mannered children imaginable,” and said “one concludes the story feeling rather battered and tossed about.” Despite the mixed reviews, it seems to have sold very decently and, like Harriet the Spy, was marketed in a variety of ways in the following years.
Reviewers also noted, as Nordstrom and the team at Harper and Row were well aware, that the book brings up the sensitive topic of menstruation for the first time in a young adult novel. “[T]he girls’ clinical discussion of the physical changes of maidenhood … will make squeamish parents blanch,” Book Week said. This is an odd description of the passage in question, which is handled at first delicately, and then humourously. Beth Ellen lies around listlessly in the garden for a day, then goes to speak to her grandmother. When Harriet calls later, she tells Harriet (and the reader) that she is menstruating. The next day Janie, Harriet’s scientific friend from the city, comes for the weekend. The three girls sit around discussing menstruation, each in a way that is consistent with their character. Beth Ellen has been taught by her Victorian grandmother that menstruation is caused by rocks inside a woman’s body. Janie derides this and explains the biology, but Harriet finds that almost as bad as the rocks, and urges Janie to “find a cure.” The entire sequence is in keeping with the nature of the story, in which Harriet and Beth Ellen explore what adult life might hold for them. Nordstrom recognized this episode as a breakthrough moment in children’s literature. She wrote to Fitzhugh after reading the manuscript, “I think you have handled this beautifully and we are grateful” (189) and later remembered:
…when I read the ms. and came to the page where the onset of Beth Ellen’s first menstrual period occurred, and it was written so beautifully, to such perfection, I scrawled in the margin, “THANK YOU, LOUISE FITZHUGH!” It is incredible that Louise’s Long Secret contained the first mention in junior books of this tremendous event in a girl’s life. Of course the following scene with Harriet screeching, “Oh, I’m not going to do THAT!” was delicious. (386-7)
As for the charge that the sequel is not as good a book as the first book, the problem seems to centre around the nature of reader expectations. Harriet shares the limelight with Beth Ellen–outwardly a much less engaging character, although she becomes more interesting as the reader begins to perceive her secret inner life. There is almost no content of Harriet’s notebook, and thus her scathing honestly does not permeate the text in the same way as it did in the first book. The book alternates between Harriet and Beth Ellen’s point of view, and this means we see Harriet from the outside. We begin to realize that, as perceptive and remarkable as she is, she is immature and still learning the lessons of compassion and how to be a good friend that she began in the first book. This may be too much of a blow for those who identify strongly with Harriet. But for those whose investment is in reading a good children’s book, The Long Secret has much to recommend it. (footnote)
Heilbrun, Carolyn. Review of The Long Secret. New York Times Nov. 21, 1965: BR56.
Maples, Houston L. “Growing Pains.” Book Week Oct. 31, 1965: 41.
Nordstrom, Ursula. Dear Genius: the Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).