Oh, this is the neatest book. What an antidote to today's jaded and passive entertainment of videos, computers and cable television. Being a kid is supposed to be about being creative and inventive and running outside, getting muddy, and having adventures. While it's true that modern children live in a much different world than the time this book was originally written, there's still tons of useful and entertaining projects to tackle. Although the writing is archiac and rather quaint, I think it's a pleasure to lose yourself in lofty Victorian prose.
Even though this book was written in 1887, authors Lina and Adelia Bearda pair of spirited sisters prove the Victorian stereotype wrong. The girls in this book aren't pale and anemic, trapped indoors with their sewing. The American Girls Handy Book is all about freedom. The girls in this book love nature; they are not shut up in a room by any means. They go for 10-mile tramps in the woods, exercise, and even do indoor calisthenics when the weather is bad. The second chapter is called The Walking Club, which describes a bucolic hike and the correct rules to follow while taking this kind of exercise, like breathing through the nose, walking erect with good posture, and wearing loose, comfortable clothing which allows freedom of movement. They recommend a three mile hike to begin with, and eventually a ten mile walk is possible without feeling fatigue.
As much time as possible is spent outside. The authors describe nature as a bucolic paradise, a place where young folks frolic and fill their lungs with wholesome air. A chapter called Picnics, Burgoos and Corn Roasts describes how to cook over an open fire either at the beach or in the countryside. What is a burgoo? It's a stew comprised of just about anything: clams, oysters, wild game, vegetables and herbs. A crowd of folks go camping, and each bring something to contribute to the burgoo pot. When it's done cooking, everyone feasts, using empty mussel shells as spoons. But other than that, there isn't much cooking in this book, aside from a few taffy and peanut brittle recipes.
Of course, theres plenty of indoor activities for rainy days. Many of the activities and crafts are easy and quite specific in their instructions. Readers can learn to make walnut turtles, run a puppet show, or refurbish old furniture. There's lots of marvelous crafty ideas in this book. There's even a chapter called A Heap of Rubbish and What to Do With It. This book is naturally thrifty. Make eggshell dolls, fashion a lantern out of a tin can, preserve wildflowers, make a hammock, and decorate a sea cottage with detritus culled from the beach.
A closer reading of this book shows that it was written for middle or upper-middle class girls — it's certainly not for young women of the working class. After working in a sweatshop for 16 hours a day, a factory girl wouldn't have the luxury of learning how to draw, make corn-husk dolls or May Day baskets. But then, this book isn't meant to address class issues anyway. Authors Lina and Adelia Beard aimed to tackle feminist issues. Their older brother Dan Beard wrote The American Boys Handy Book in 1910, which obviously spurred them to write their own version for girls. Who says that girls can't have as much fun as boys? While you won't find any explosives or rocketry projects in here, there's plenty of activities that cultivate a young girl's creativity, spirit and independence; perfect reading for when your child has plowed through the latest Harry Potter book and is skulking around the house, bored and dull with nothing to do.