Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book Review: The Little Princess

Remember the classic by Francis Hodgsen Burnett? A spoiled rich motherless English girl moves from India to a boarding school in London, where she is treated royally, due to her father's wealth and extravagant spending. But she is a serious, polite girl with a wild imagination and the gift of a storyteller, characteristics which draw half the school to adore her and leads the other half of the school to resent her. One day the school's headmistress receives word that her father has died of fever and grief after learning that he lost his fortune. So the girl, who fancies herself a princess in order to remind herself to be kind and generous, is reduced to poverty and is terribly abused by the headmistress and the many others who resented her during her glory days. She is practically starved and her clothes quickly become rags. But she doesn't lose her imagination and she keeps reminding herself to act like a princess.

When a wealthy sickly gentleman who lived in India for many years moves in next door, small but magical things start happening that help to ease the pain of her misfortunes. This culminates in the discovery that the rich neighbour was a good friend of her father's and in fact has in his possession the fortune that her father thought he'd lost, but as it turned out the investment had returned tenfold. So she is once again rich, and now she is even more princess-like for having experienced suffering and learned empathy. She proved herself a true princess.

I just reread this story on my flight back to Asia after a fantastic week in England. It impacted me deeply in many ways. Among them:

- When the little princess's fortunes turned, she is moved up to the cold, dank attic room. There, the sound of rats scrambling around in her walls and rafters is inescapable. At first it scares her, but then she remembers that rats are just trying to survive, just like her. So she befriends a rat. Since I co-exist with rats these days, as well, I am humbled by this 11-year old girl's maturity in relation to the little creatures.

- There is a touching scene in which the princess has been sent around town on errands all day in rain and cold and mud. Her shoes have holes and are soaking wet. She hasn't eaten all day. To distract herself from her misery, she imagines the possibility of finding a coin in front of a bakery, but then it really happens! Eagerly, she goes to buy herself some bread but on the way in to the bakery she passes a younger girl whose face is more sunken and whose clothes are more wet and dirty. She buys the bread and gives almost all of it to the other girl, then she goes home just about as hungry as ever. Would I do the same in such a situation?

- In the bakery story, as well as many of the other incidents narrated, the princess's kindness and dignity have an enormous filter down effect. When the bakery owner sees the princess's compassion, she starts giving out bread to hungry children. The princess's willingness to mother a younger student, who is given to tantrums and blame them on her dead mother, sparks the whole group of younger students to behave better. When she sneaks food to the scullery maid, a girl who is worse off than her, that girl performs better at her job and spreads cheer. The princess shared out of her wealth. Then, when she lost her wealth, she still shared what little she had, and in turn others shared with her. The sharing spread. The filter-down effect goes both ways - her headmistress and her enemies among the other students manage to spread misery like a poison. I was inspired to try to follow the princess's example because such acts go a long, long way. I was humbled, really, because I'm not doing this as I should.

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