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What Katy Did

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Wikipedia article

'What Katy Did' is an 1872 children's book written by Susan Coolidge under the pen name Sarah Chauncey Woolsey. It follows the adventures of a twelve-year-old American girl, Katy Carr, and her family who live in the fictional lakeside Ohio town of Burnet in the 1860s. Katy is a tall untidy tomboy, forever getting into scrapes but wishing to be beautiful and beloved. When a terrible accident makes her an invalid, her illness and four-year recovery gradually teach her to be as good and kind as she has always wanted.

Two sequels follow Katy as she grows up - 'What Katy Did at School' and 'What Katy Did Next'. Two further sequels relating the adventures of Katy's younger siblings were also published - 'Clover' and 'In the High Valley'. Although these were long out of print, they have now been reprinted and are available online.

Coolidge modeled Katy on her own childhood self, and the other 'Little Carrs' on her brothers and sisters."Susan Coolidge: Introduction". 'Bibliomania '[http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/16/frameset.html (Full Text)]. Accessed 2/7/07.

Plot summary

Twelve-year-old Katy Carr lives with her widowed father and her five brothers and sisters in a small midwestern town called Burnet. Her father, a doctor, is very busy and works long hours. The children are mostly cared for by their paternal Aunt Izzie, who is very particular, and something of a scold. Under these circumstances Katy, a bright, headstrong, hasty girl, can hardly avoid getting into mischief almost daily; however, she is unfailingly remorseful afterward. She dreams of someday doing something "grand" with her life - painting famous pictures, saving the lives of drowning people or leading a crusade on a white horse. At the same time, she wants to be "beautiful, of course, and good if I can". When her mother died four years earlier, Katy promised to be a little mother to her siblings; however, she leads them into all sorts of exciting adventures and is sometimes impatient and cross with them.

When her Cousin Helen, an invalid, comes to visit, Katy is so enchanted by her beauty and kindness that on the day of Helen's departure she resolves to model herself on Helen ever afterward. The very next day, however, Katy wakes in an ill humour, quarrels with her aunt and pushes her little sister so hard that she falls down half a dozen steps. Afterwards, sulky and miserable, Katy decides to try out the new swing in the woodshed although Aunt Izzie has, for some reason, forbidden it. The swing is unsafe because one of the staples supporting it is cracked. Had Aunt Izzie explained this, "all would have been right," but she believes that children should obey their elders without question. Katy swings as high as she can and, as she tries to graze the roof with her toes, the staple gives way. She falls hard, bruising her spine.

The lively Katy is now bedridden, suffering terrible pain and bitterness. Her room is dark, dreary and cluttered with medicine bottles; when her brothers and sisters try to comfort her, she usually drives them away. However, a visit from Cousin Helen shows her that she must either learn to make the best of her situation or risk losing the love of her family. Helen tells Katy that she is now a student in the "School of Pain" where she will learn lessons in patience, cheerfulness, hopefulness, neatness and making the best of things.

With Cousin Helen's help she makes her room tidy and nice to visit and gradually all the children gravitate to it, always coming in to see Katy whenever they can. She becomes the heart of the home, beloved by her family for her unfailing kindness and good cheer. After two years Aunt Izzie dies and Katy takes over the running of the household. At the end of four years, in a chapter called "At Last", she learns to walk again.

The book includes several poems.


'Katy Carr': the eldest of the Carr children and the novel's protagonist. At the beginning of the book she is a twelve-year-old tomboy who much prefers running around outdoors to quiet 'ladylike' pursuits and so tears her clothes and is always untidy; however, she longs to be good.

'Clover Carr': the second eldest sister, Clover adores Katy and follows her in everything she does. Clover is pretty and clever, with a sunny disposition - she is described as loving everyone and is loved by everyone in return.

'Elsie Carr': the third sister, Elsie is the awkward child at the beginning of the book, too old to play with the 'babies' and too young to be included in Katy and Clover's games. She tries her hardest to join in, but is usually ignored; instead, she whines. After Katy is injured Elsie proves very helpful and considerate, and she and Katy finally grow close.

'Dorry Carr': a stolid boy, and a great eater. He is the fourth child and the eldest son, developing a certain mechanical skill over time.

'Johnnie Carr' (short for Joanna): the fifth child and a tomboy. She and Dorry are great friends.

'Phil Carr': the baby of the family, he is only four years old at the beginning of the book.

'Cecy Hall': a pretty and tidy girl, the daughter of a near-by neighbour.

'Imogen Clark': a classmate of Katy and Clover; a silly, affected girl. Initially she enthralls Katy with her romantic imagination, but she proves dishonest and self-centered. Katy grows disillusioned with her, just as her father predicted.

'Papa (Dr Philip Carr)': the children's father; he is a doctor and frequently busy. Their mother died when Katy was eight years old. He is a firm but understanding parent.

'Aunt Izzie': Papa's sister, an old-fashioned woman who raises the children after their mother dies. She is very particular and scolds a lot because she does not understand the children's ways, although she has a heart of gold. Her death results in Katy taking over the domestic management of the household.

'Cousin Helen': Papa's niece; she cannot walk because of an accident years ago. Despite her suffering she is amusing, cheerful, and kind; just what Katy wants to be. After Katy's accident, Cousin Helen helps her adjust to her illness.


Susan Coolidge shared her publisher, Roberts Brothers, with Louisa May Alcott, and 'What Katy Did' helped satisfy the demand for naturalistic novels about girlhood that followed the 1868 success of 'Little Women'. Like Alcott, Coolidge heightened the realism of her novel by drawing on her own childhood memories.

'What Katy Did' also illustrates social shifts. First, the novel depicts the treatment of paraplegics in the 19th century. After her accident, young Katy is given ample love and care; however, she is perpetually confined to an upstairs room and, although she has a wheelchair, she never goes further than her bedroom window. The possibility that she could leave her room is barely considered and no-one thinks of moving her to the ground floor. She copes by making herself and her room so pleasant that everyone comes to her. Early on, she goes out in a carriage, but finds the experience so painful that she never tries it again. Thereafter, she lives in her bedroom, makes the best of things and waits, hoping to outgrow her injury. There is no physical therapy; instead, Katy is warned to avoid too much movement lest she "set herself back". Cousin Helen manages to travel a little, and even goes for a "Water Cure" at one point; however, it is made clear that she has no hope of ever walking again. Also, although she is beautiful, wise, and kind, she considers herself unmarriageable because of her infirmity.

The book also depicts mid-nineteenth-century America's expectations for genteel women. Coolidge set forth examples of qualities expected of women: gentleness, empathy, self-abnegation, humour, efficient housekeeping and good taste; books for boys from the same era provided corresponding fictional models of frankness, pluck and initiative.Kolba, Ellen D. "Out on a Limb". 'English Journal', November 1984, p. 38 Katy's trials reflect a popular theme in girls' fiction of the era: a headstrong girl suffers a debilitating accident or illness which proves to be a blessing in disguise because it helps her forget her selfish desires and learn to live for others.Keith, Lois. 'Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls.' Routledge: 2001, pp. 69-94.
What has since made the stories controversial is their perceived of conflation the code of womanhood and the code of cheerful invalidism.

It's been argued that Katy's misfortunes may have reflected Coolidge's mixed feelings about puberty.Robins, Jo and Sue Tredrea. "Susan Coolidge, 1845 - 1905". 'Collecting Books and Magazines' ([http://www.collectingbooksandmagazines.com/cool.html full text]) Eventually, Katy becomes the "Heart of the House", assuming a woman's traditional household place. According to at least one critic, however, the undisciplined Katy of the novel's first half is far more engaging than the conscientious person she becomes following her injury. In the first sequel, 'What Katy Did at School', one of Katy's classmates – a vivacious girl nicknamed Rose Red – takes over the role of mischief-maker: Katy herself has become such a model citizen that she starts a club called the "Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct".

Some have argued that in the stories maturity is seen as inevitably entailing the loss of childhood freedom, an acceptance of adult responsibilities and the abandonment of unrealistic dreams. The younger Katy is never exactly sure what she wants to do when she grows up: one minute she wants to be a crusader, the next a sculptor. Whatever her latest ambition, she assumes that to become someone worthwhile one has to do the sort of great deeds that get written up in history books. Her illness and the example of Helen teach her that small kindnesses and conscientiousness about day to day responsibilities are in their own way just as important as grand, heroic acts.



Two TV movies and a brief TV series have been based on ' What Katy Did'. The most recent, film (1999), starred Alison Pill as Katy, with Michael Cera as Dorry and Dean Stockwell as "Tramp". A 1972 UK movie adaptation, 'Katy', starred Clare Walker, and the 1962 eight-part TV series made in the UK, also called 'Katy', featured rising star Susan Hampshire in the title role.


'What Katy Did' was followed by four sequels: 'What Katy Did at School' in which Katy and Clover attend the fictional Hillsover School (set in Hanover, New Hampshire); 'What Katy Did Next', in which a new friend of Katy's takes her on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe; 'Clover', in which Katy is married and Clover accompanies her brother Phil to Colorado after he falls ill; and 'In the High Valley', which shows the lives of a handful of young people living in the High Valley in Colorado, including Clover, Elsie and their husbands.

References in Popular Culture

*"What Katie Did" is the name of a song by The Libertines that may have been inspired by the book. The lyrics refer to the characters, e.g. "Hurry up Mrs. Brown". The group Babyshambles later released a song entitled "What Katy Did Next". Both were written by former Libertines and current Babyshambles front man, Pete Doherty.

*"What Kate Did" is the name of the ninth episode of season 2 of 'Lost'.

*"What Kate Does" is the name of the second episode of season 6 of 'Lost'.

*A character named Katy Carr appears in the first volume of Alan Moore's graphic novel 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'. As Katy beats a student at Ms Coote's school, the headmistress says she believes in the "School of Pain".

*Idahoan songwriter Josh Ritter includes a reference to 'What Katy Did' in his song "Monster Ballads" on his penultimate album 'The Animal Years'.

* In the movie 'Coffee and Cigarettes' by Jim Jarmusch, a Steve Coogan fan says her name is Katy and he answers "What Katy did next".

*The protagonist of Avi's 'The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle' introduces her own story by saying "This is no 'Story of a Bad Boy,' no 'What Katy Did,'" to indicate that she is not remorseful for her unladylike behavior.

See also

*What Katy Did (film)

*Katy (TV series)

*Katy (film)


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