Publisher: Puffin Classics
Price: 250 INR
I found this thin book by chance at a local library, amidst titles like ‘David Copperfield’ and, funnily enough, ‘Aesop’s Fables’. With a brown hardbound cover, this made for a very different, but not quite an interesting read in the one hour that I had before a university exam.
Cast in the background of pre-World War I days, a bunch of touching letters written by an uplifted orphan to her unknown benefactor. Jerusha Abbot is an active inmate of John Grier’s Home, until she receives unexpected support for her higher education in the form of a windfall. Her surprise knows no bounds when she learns that the generous donor under his assumed name of John Smith wants her to become a writer. Jerusha, now Judy, amply redeems the endowment and is completely taken aback when she eventually discovers the real identity of Smith.
Within the prologue itself, Jerusha realizes she is leaving the hellhole of her home and her joy knows no bound. Once enrolled in college, the myriad of letters began. They are merely one-way, from herself to the supposed Mr. Smith. A few conditions have been imposed and in time, she bends them for her own advantage, as is obvious in a rebellious girl who lived during the latter part of the twentieth century. Take this quote for instance:
‘It isn’t just the big troubles in life that require character. Anybody can rise to a crisis and face a crushing tragedy with courage, but to meet the petty hazards of the day with a laugh- I really think that requires spirit.’
To say this is where Jerusha rises up to the challenge would be fair on her part, but maybe not the author’s – for such trivial things in life don’t matter later on. For some childhoods are difficult, some not – there’s not a lot one can do about it. Also, there are quite a few instances where her letters to ‘Daddy Long Legs’ become more complaining than praising. Instead of informing him about how the studies are going, one can notice a definite need to be cared for and pampered- but that of course is to be expected. She has been after all an orphan all her life.
Webster’s concern for social reforms is unmistakeably evident in her writing. Having grown up as an orphan herself, she can, to some degree, bring out the factor of loneliness often present in orphans stuck up at their homes; thus giving her an edge over what she writes.
At times, especially towards the end, the letters turned dull and reminded me of Anne Frank’s diary entries and how I’d much rather give that a read than this. One would have half-guessed how the book would end and hence, it didn’t offer much of a satisfying conclusion. Be as that may, the urge to find out who Smith actually was became overwhelming however and that made the pages turn faster, but not any better.
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