Dust on the Bookshelf

[New] American Girl in New Orleans

It was out of curiosity and nostalgia that I read the latest book series by the American Girl company. The new books are a paired series of two friends, Marie-Grace and Cécile, who live in 1853 New Orleans, LA. The six paperbacks give you alternating and overlapping views of how a nine-year old girl might have experienced the antebellum Crescent City as it suffered through one of its worst yellow fever epidemics.

Cécile Rey is a french-speaking free person of color, gens de couleur libres, who dreams of public speaking. She cheers up the children at both the white and “colored” orphanages with her stories. Her father is a stonemason who creates the beautiful marble tombstones of New Orleans’ iconic above-ground cemeteries. Her brother, Armand, returns from studying in Paris and is a talented artist but almost dies from the fever.

Marie-Grace Gardener was born in New Orleans but left as a young child with her father after her mother and baby brother died of yellow fever. The Gardeners return after living in the Northeast, and Marie-Grace must adjust to a new, if familiar, culture and language. She helps her father, a doctor, and sings very well. Her mother’s family lives on a bayou in Belle Chênière, Louisiana, where Marie-Grace heads to spend the Christmas holidays.

Marie-Grace and Cécile bond while working in the city’s quickly-filling orphanages, and the series culminates with a benefit held for the many newly orphaned children. Cécile and Marie-Grace both perform their gifts at the benefit, sealing a lifelong friendship that overcomes their linguistic and racial differences.

Naturally, I was intrigued by this series: Nineteenth-century New Orleans featuring a free person of color who speaks French, and the tensions of a growing anglophone American population! American Girl is expanding its definition of “American.”
I am happy to see this trend of representing non-anglophone Americans being taken up by such a popular and well-established series.

Growing up, the books were read to me until I could read them myself. I remember well the 1997 introduction of, Josephina Montoya, “a Hispanic girl whose heart and hopes are as big as the New Mexico sky.” The sixth girl in the series, Josephina reflected the company’s decision to represent more minority American girls. Addy, “a courageous girl determined to be free in the midst of the civil war,” was the doll I owned and the series I remember reading the most.

If you look at the list of girls (given at the beginning of each book in historical order) it is striking that all the girls of color are nineteenth-century characters:

1764: Kaya, “an adventurous Nez Perce girl whose deep love for horses and respect for nature nourish her spirit”
1774: Felicity, “a spunky, spirited colonial girl, full of energy and independence”
1824: Josephina
1853: Cécile and Marie-Grace, “two girls whose friendship helps them–and New Orleans–survive terrible times”
1854: Kirsten, “a pioneer girl of strength and spirit who settles on the frontier”
1864: Addy
1904: Samantha, “a bright Victorian beauty, an orphan raised by her wealthy grandmother”
1914: Rebecca, “a lively girl with dramatic flair growing up in New York City”
1934: Kit, “a clever, resourceful girl facing the Great Depression with spirit and determination”
1944: Molly, “who schemes and dreams on the home front during World War Two”
1974: Julie, “a fun-loving girl from San Francisco who faces big changes–and creates a few of her own”

I’d argue that this lop-sided representation of minority American girls means two things:
One, American Girl has purposefully chosen to tell these lesser-known earlier histories of American girls. This gives today’s minority girls a chance to read and connect to their early history in this country, one they might not learn in school. Also, depicting an early American diversity pushes against the often simplified early American story: pilgrims, Indians, slaves.

Two, there are more books to be written! If I were to think in the way it seems the creative directors of this company do, in search of stories in which girls overcome a historical obstacle–oppression, conflict, disaster–while celebrating the talents and big hearts of American girls, I would call for the writing of a Civil Rights Movement story, an Asian-American story (possibly immigration or internment), or a Caribbean-American story (Puerto Rico??).

The 1920s, 50s, 60s and 80s lack an American Girl representative. I hope they are in the making, for in 2012 these decades are certainly the distant past for today’s 9-year old.

To be honest, I was at first turned off by the idea of a, crudely-termed, black/white pairing for this latest American Girl series. I thought, “Will there forever be racialized doubling in Southern American literature!?” But upon reading them, I found the books to be truly touching. And, realistic or not, this example of interracial friendship and understanding can only be a positive model for young girls in today’s ever-tense, ever-mixing America.

The authors’ perspectives: Cécile and Marie-Grace video

5 Comments so far
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Interesting observations. It was actually surprising to me to learn that American Girl dolls did produce as many dolls/girls of color as it does – not to suggest that there’s some kind of socially progressive diversity quota corporations should shoot for. I had thought of American Girl as a fairly conservative and normative brand, based on what little I know about it.
Although I was not surprised to read that their representation of people of color is restricted to the distantly historical. (Forgive me, Sarah, for calling the 19th Century “distant.”) It reminded me of a dynamic I hear often in “sanitized” conversations about race in America, particularly conversations involving white people, people who don’t want to risk offending, or institutions, like corporations, who see it in their interests to be as a-political as possible. Framing race as historical is a sort of rhetorical sleight of hand, and I hear it in conversations about race all the time. It allows us to ignore the present injustices perpetrated along racial lines and instead focus on the most egregious sins of our collective past in a way that renders everyone blameless and suddenly in agreement. Slavery – bad. Friendship – good. American Girl dolls of color from the last 30 years may be “too close” to our present cultural fault lines, especially if the shtick is to have these dolls represent or at least interact with some of the most salient social threads running through our history.  
It speaks to a bigger concern I have about how we as Americans talk about some of the not-so-appetizing realities of our society, race included. To talk frankly about modern day discrimination (along the lines of race, class, gender, and/or sexuality) is to risk being branded a “radical.” It’s not polite, and so it goes unaddressed.  
I’ve gotten myself FAR from your American Girl dolls. They are just dolls after all. But your post struck a chord with me today for whatever reason. Thanks for your thoughts, Sarah! 

Comment by Brandon

Whoa! I remember when we read the Addy series together when you were a kindergartner and how sad you were to read about the cruelty of slavery. I wasn’t prepared to have such a difficult conversation with you at 6.
Remember that horrific scene in the tobacco field where the cruel overseer punished the slave that wouldn’t give details about Addy’s runaway brother’s escape? (He made the slave eat the worms on the plants as the worker de-wormed the crop.)
I was so sad that I had not read ahead, and I was unprepared and touched by your reaction. You hugged me tighter than you ever had and asked, “Why were people so mean” in those days? I don’t remember specifics of what I said as I feebly tried to make you feel better, but you somehow were soothed.
Your 6-year-old self was such an early student of history, by third grade you had read the complete series of seven young heroines, 40 or so chapter books in all.  I suppose the AG exposure gets a little credit for your open thinking on culture and differences.
It sure gets my vote of gratitude for helping me through a difficult teachable moment.
(Still wish the scene in the Addy book had come with a parental warning/disclaimer. Would have liked to have been better prepared.) 

Comment by Jean Nash Johnson

Interesting post.  Somehow I had never given the American Girl product near enough credit for what seems to be culture with some weight.   Had no girls, so I really had not investigated this set of stories.

Comment by J. Nobie

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