[(essay date January/February 2010) In the following essay, Lesley explores aspects of Wiggin's authorial intent in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, arguing that she was primarily concerned with childrearing reform--as reflected in Rebecca's influence on the adults around her, rather than vice-versa.]
In many ways, Kate Douglas Wiggin's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm appears to offer clear messages about ways to raise an imaginative child and about ways to be an imaginative child. Rebecca's pretend-games in the woods and pastures of Riverboro, her untrammeled reading of romances and fairy-tales at Sunnybrook Farm, and her dreamy reveries of composition seem to represent the ideal means to good development, while the attempts of Aunt Miranda and Miss Dearborn to channel, control, and shape her impulses seem to be misguided relics of childrearing practices from the bad old days of the pre-Progressive era. It would be easy to read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm as a straightforward celebration of the Progressive and Romantic teaching philosophies that Wiggin herself espoused and taught, first as a kindergarten teacher, and later, as a trainer of other teachers. However, in "Pleasure and Genre," Perry Nodelman suggests that many works of children's literature which appear to send clear didactic messages are actually ambivalent, undermining their own didacticism. Kate Douglas Wiggin's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is an example of one such book which undermines its own messages. The messages to readers about how to raise an ideal child conflict with those sections that encourage readers to be an ideal child. The teaching and childrearing philosophies embedded in the novel are also inherently contradictory, revealing some of the cracks and conflicts between different teaching reform movements. Like Rebecca's future, these conflicts are never resolved. Rebecca's eventual success (at least until the age of eighteen) can allow readers to celebrate the beneficial effects of nostalgic country settings, Romantic childhood freedom and imagination, or Progressive-era school reform, according to their desires; the differences between goals and methods can be glossed over and obscured, as long as Rebecca becomes the child readers wish her to be. However, Rebecca can never become the adult that readers wish her to be, without resolving the conflicts between the underlying values of nostalgia and reform.
The reader is led to expect, in the beginning, that the book is to be a Bildungsroman about "the making of Rebecca," a seemingly straightforward subject. She is a child, and she will be made into a productive adult. The reason for this goal appears similarly straightforward; Rebecca's education will relieve her overfull house of one child and will give her access to the economic opportunity necessary to save her family farm from foreclosure. However, these two expectations are unsettled from the beginning, opening up two questions: 1) What, if anything, is to be the making of Rebecca; and 2) For what purpose is she being made? Wiggin never resolves either question conclusively; rather, she provides multiple competing and opposing answers.
Many critics have tried to resolve these oppositions, either by examining Rebecca as...