Monday, May 6, 2013

American Girl Nostalgia

There are some days when the English vocabulary seems endless, as if there couldn't be one more word created. Then on other days, it's like there aren't nearly enough words in the world. For instance, what's the word for when you remember a piece of your past that you completely forgot and then it all comes rushing over you in this crashing wave of nostalgia?

Is there a word for that, because I need it. That particular sensation happens to me often. One week it's triggered by old Disney Channel movies like Johnny Tsunami and Smart House. The next, I'm floating in a pool of feelings over the old Nickelodeon Magazines. (Did anyone else enjoy finding Zelda the dog in each issue, or was that just me?)

Two weeks ago, my trigger was the American Girl dolls. There was a big stink about the company shelving the historical dolls in favor of more modern stories like Lainie the gymnast and Saige the organic gardener. Ick. Turns out the article in question was more than a bit sensationalist, but that didn't save me from my trip down memory lane.

For those of you who did not grow up with the company, American Girl is known for two things, their absurdly priced dolls and the accompanying books that tell those dolls' stories. Back in the day, there were five dolls:
  • Felicity Merriman (1774) - Felicity's adventure is set during the Revolutionary War. She must balance loyalty to her family (Patriots) with her loyalty to her friend Elizabeth, who is a Loyalist. She also learns that sometimes standing up for what's right can be hard, such as when she frees her beloved horse Penny from the abusive Mr. Nye. American Girl characterized her as "independent," "loyal," and "spirited."
  • Kirsten Larson (1854) - A Swedish immigrant to Minnesota, Kirsten teaches that home is not where you live, but where your family is. She also learns how to gain the trust of others, such as when she befriends Singing Bird. American Girl characterized her as "steadfast" and "brave."
  • Aduke "Addy" Walker (1864) - When Addy's father and brother are sold, Addy and her mother run away to New York to live new lives away from the oppression of the plantation. Addy teaches hard work, perseverance, and the importance of equality as she and her mother strive to unite their family in the sometimes bigoted world of the North. American Girl characterized her as "courageous" and "strong."
  • Samantha Parkington (1904) - Samantha is an orphan living with her wealthy grandmother, Grandmary, in Edwardian America. Samantha teaches charity through her steadfast friendship with child laborer Nelly, and also gives a peek at changing times through her interactions with her adventurous Uncle Gardner and Aunt Cornelia. American Girl characterized her as "compassionate" and "kind."
  • Molly McIntire (1944) - Molly is our window into World War II. With a father off to war and an English war refugee living in her room, Molly struggles to make sense of her ever-changing world. She teaches patriotism and vigor by starting a can drive and starring in a war relief tap dance. American Girl describes her as "lively" and "patriotic."
A few years later, other dolls were added while I was still part of the target audience:
  • Kaya'aton'my "Kaya" (1764) - Kaya is the first (and thusfar only) Native American doll in the line. A headstrong Nez Perce girl, Kaya teaches bravery and loyalty as she helps save her blind sister from drowning and later runs for help when both girls are kidnapped by a rival tribe. American Girl characterized her as "adventurous" and "daring."
  • Maria Josefina "Josefina" Montoya (1824) - A Mexican girl living just outside Santa Fe, Josefina is one of the shyer American Girls. She teaches how to be brave in spite of one's fears, such as when she helps save her family's garden from the summer storms, despite being afraid of lightning. American Girl characterized her as "caring" and "hopeful."
  • Kit Kittredge (1934) - Named for one of her father's favorite songs, "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag," Kit must do exactly that when her father loses his job during the Great Depression. Kit teaches resourceful and compassion as she and her friends learn to make do with less and help out a young hobo named Will. American Girl characterized her as "resourceful" and "clever."
I was just edging out of American Girl by the time Kit came along, so I missed later historical girls such as Caroline (1812), Cecile and Marie-Grace (1853), Rebecca (1914), and Julie (1974).

I loved the American Girl books as a kid. We owned all of them, six books for each character. They're still on the shelf in our schoolroom. Though the stories were formulaic (there was a "Meet" book, a school book, a Christmas book, a springtime book, a summer book, and a winter book), I loved them because I learned so much. Of course, each book taught me about that particular period in time, but I learned so many little things, too.

Felicity taught me that witch hazel could be used on injuries (a fact that I later put to great use while playing Oregon Trail). Kirsten taught me the barter system. Josefina taught me Spanish pronunciation! These little bits and pieces weren't major lessons, but they're still things I remember over a decade later.

We didn't just get to know the girls. We learned about their families and friends as well. I usually dive straight into a book without worrying about the nonsense (table of contents, dedication, acknowledgements, introduction, etc.) at the beginning, but I loved studying the wall of portraits at the beginning of each book. Before the story even started, I knew who was going to be in it, what their names were, what they looked like, and how they related to the main character. I remember scowling at Eddie, smiling at Singing Bird, and wondering (even at age eight) if Felicity and Ben were EVER going to get together.

Like any savvy company, American Girl was right there to capitalize on my love of the stories. Who else could charge elementary-schoolers almost a hundred bucks for a doll in the '90s and get away with it? And of course, if you got the dolls, you had to get the accessorize. Those dolls had more clothing options than I did! I remember how exciting it was to receive one of the American Girl catalogues in the mail. I didn't buy much (one doll, one outfit, and a bed), but I loved looking through the pages and spotting little purchasable details from the stories, such as Kirsten's trunk or Addy's doll or Molly's dog.

Really, my American Girl doll was my first big purchase as a kid, coming long before my laptop or iPad. When I was about eight, I saved up all my money and purchased a Samantha doll. Now, you have to understand what this meant to me. When I was eight, I received a weekly allowance of $4. Of that $4, 40 cents went to missions, 40 cents went to tithe, and $1.60 went to savings, leaving me with $1.60 a week that I could spend on whatever I wanted. Woot. Outside of that $1.60 a week and whatever I received for birthdays and Christmas, I had no other income. I wasn't paid for chores. The "tooth fairy" had a going rate of a measly 50 cents per tooth. And nobody in my family was going to generously spring for a $90 doll "just because."

Even though I wasn't a doll person, I wanted my own American Girl doll. They were important to me. More importantly, I wanted a Samantha, because she had light skin like me and brown hair like me and she was smart and adventurous and she didn't have glasses like Molly. (My eyes were blessedly unblighted at that age.) So I saved up my measly $1.60 a week, plus my checks from relatives for birthdays and Christmases and whatever little offerings I received from my mom when I lost teeth and finally - FINALLY- bought myself a Samantha doll. Me. Eight-year-old little me with nothing but allowance and birthday money bought a $90 doll.

I didn't do much with her. She just sat in a corner, and every once in a while I dressed her up in the soccer uniform I bought for her once I got into the sport, but that was all. But it didn't matter. She was something I had worked hard for. She was my doll in a way that not even a doll made to look exactly like me could be. She taught me things.

That's why everyone was so upset to hear that American Girl was changing their focus, or at least that we thought they were. As "timely" as an organic gardener or a gymnast might be, they really can't compete with their historical counterparts. For while young (white, upper-middle-class) girls may be able to more easily relate on a superficial level to Lainie or Saige, they will be more engaged by Addie and her fight for equality or Samantha and her arguments on behalf of child laborers or Felicity and her love for animals.

Or at least that's what I tell myself. Nostalgia can be a pretty heady drug. At least it coordinates well with the Molly red shoulder-bag purse with snap closure and accompanying steel penny replica.