I was at a meeting once where a very important person huffed and said, “Well, I will just make sure WE are not treated like a red-headed step child!” There was a silence around the table. Heads turned my way just slightly and then froze; breath was sucked in.
“What color hair did that step child have?” I asked in, oh, my most cheerful tone. Breaths expelled, and the table erupted into laughter.
I shook my disorderly, disobedient mane of red hair and sighed.
And just the other day, I read that in India, Brahmins are not allowed to marry redheads. Something sinful about redheads, I guess–something downright different, unsettling, and oh, maybe, LUSTY.
And, now that I think about it, wasn’t Adam’s first wife, Lilith, –the one that allowed her babies to be killed rather than buckle to the rules, –wasn’t LILITH a redhead? And Medusa? And Jezebel?
It is clear that from day one, redheads—they of the supposedly uber-quick tempers– have gotten really bad press. And yet I have to tell you: some of my best fictional friends have been redheads.
Long ago, I visited the old Barker Library on a hot summer day with my mother and younger brother, and came out, after carefully selecting the three books we were allowed, into the long cool hallway that led to the front door. Against the wall was a half bookshelf, and on its shelves were books the library was selling–forlornly taken from the stacks, unwanted, lonely, sad books. Usually we walked on by.
This day, though, a book caught my mother’s eye. She bent down and pulled it out. It was a hardcover, in that shiny red special library binding. The title was stamped on the spine in white. Mrs. Mike, it said.
She ran her finger up and down the spine, lost in a memory.
“I think we’ll buy this,” she said. “You’ll like this book.”
She went back down the hallway while I waited with my little brother, and returned quickly, having paid a dime to the library lady. She handed the book to me, and I carried it home, aware of its promise the whole way.
I started to read it that night, before cracking open any of the other three books I’d selected. It seemed important to me, this book that my mother remembered from days before I was born.
It was a book about a redhead, Katherine Mary Flannigan, who lived in Boston, but developed, at about age 15, pleurisy so bad and so painful that she had to be relocated to a broad, clear, cold place. Her reluctant mother sent her to the Northwest Territories to stay with her bachelor uncle.
She was scared, Katherine Mary was, and I felt a real connection to her when she described opening up the tin of cookies her mother had given her to eat on the train. They were jumbly cookies with chunks of chocolate in them (I thought of the chocolate chip cookies my Depression-kid mother made, doubling the batter and halving the chips, cookies that made you crow in happy surprise when you located the chocolate), and while we were in her head learning why she was traveling such a gosh-awful long scary way, she ate all the cookies in the container.
Now this, I thought, is a character I can LIKE. I kept the trap door cover of that book wide open and let myself fall right into Katharine Mary’s world.
It was, I think, the first book I’d ever read where wonderful people die. It was the first book that made me cry real tears–oh, it was sad what happened to Kathy and Mike, to their babies, and it was such a touch and go thing when she went back to Boston. Could she really stay there? After all that??? Don’t let her stay, I begged the author-gods, Benedict and Nancy Freedman, in my mind. And of course my prayers were answered. Kathy, tough, strong redhead that she was, did the right thing…and responded, too, to the call of a real, feisty, true love.
Do you remember the joy of hating when a book ends? That was way back in the 1960’s, the years before sequels and series became de rigeur in young adult literature, but I wished, how I wished, there was a sequel to Mrs. Mike. I had to wait a long time for The Search for Joyful to unexpectedly hit the shelves. That was in 2002. In the years between, I re-read Mrs. Mike, many, many times.
Tough, beautiful, Kathy. Red-haired like me. My first redheaded fictional friend. I was in grade four.
But there were others—a LOT of others. I found that literature was full of ginger haired girls, some more gingery than others. There was, of course, the weird and wonderful Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren’s creation. Pippi lived by herself most of the time, and she played with the neighborhood children, who marveled at her wacky way of doing the most mundane things. Pippi’s father, I believe, was a sort of pirate-sailor-hero, who appeared at unexpected but opportune times. In between, though, Pippi lived by herself, mangled her rebellious red hair into a couple of rigidly curving braids, dressed in uniquely off-beat ways, and generally had adventures. Pippi scared me, to tell you the truth; she was a complete anarchist with no regard for safety or common sense. Can’t stay here long, I thought: she’s trouble.
Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink, was a kind of composite historical figure. According to Wikipedia, Brink took stories her grandmother told her, and she took memories of her siblings, and she melded them into the award winning Caddie Woodlawn. Caddie was a sickly child who almost died, and her father persuaded the mama to let him determine how the fragile girl should grow. He pushed her outside, where she ran with her red-headed brothers–another red-headed league, they were–having wilderness adventures, befriending Native Americans, running, as Caddie’s mother said, pretty darned wild. I liked and admired Caddie, but that was a rough life she lived.
There were Pam and Penny, teenaged, auburn-haired twins who had a series of books. One–Pam, I think,–was studious and thoughtful; Penny was impetuous and a little boy crazy. I loved the descriptions of them raking leaves in crisp Fall apple-weather, cheeks glowing, and their kind and understanding mother, who waited in the warm bright kitchen with mugs of hot cocoa and gems of wisdom for her girls.
I remember another book about a mousy little red head, painfully aware of her freckles–some even called her ‘Freckles,’– and all she wanted was to be beautiful like the grand portrait of her great aunt. I don’t remember the character’s name, or the name of the book, or the name of the author; I do remember this red-headed fictional friend saving her allowance, scrimping and sacrificing, to buy a disappearing cream that she used on her freckles each and every day. By the end of the book, the freckles had faded, but so had her aversion to them; and her father had told her that she resembled the lady in the painting. Oh, la! The great aunt once had freckles, too!
(I pondered redheads and freckles. I decided I was a Scottish redhead, because my freckles were mild. Definitely there when the summer sun called them forth, but not a riotous tumble. I had friends–friends whose names were McNulty and Coughlin–who had, my father said, the map of Ireland stamped on their faces. And that map was made, of course, of exuberant splashy freckles. Mine were wimpy in comparison.)
But of course, the dearest fictional red haired friend was Anne—Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, sad orphan turned beloved adopted daughter of that humble brother and sister pair, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. A reluctant, recalcitrant redhead, Anne was wont to get herself in trouble, accidentally dying her tresses green, letting a mouse fall in the pudding, refusing to admit to a guilt she didn’t own. She got her best friend–her dearest kindred spirit–well and firmly drunk. She was creative and impulsive, loving and passionate, and she earned her way to the warmth of a family and a bright, exciting future by dint of her warm-hearted, redheaded ways.
I wanted a friend like Anne, trouble or not.
Dangerous Scarlet O’Hara.
Daring Nancy Drew.
The love, for heaven’s sake, of Charlie Brown’s life.
Although redheads, statistics told me, comprised a tiny percentage of the population, authors chose often to write about them. The redheaded characters might be mild or wild, tame or flamboyant; they were always original. In a book about a redhead, you were going to get some surprises.
I held my redheaded fictional friends close; they gave me pride in my locks when people made jokes about the redheaded mailman, asked what color hair the milkman had. (My mother, hair shining auburn in the afternoon sun, gave them an over-her-glasses quelling glance.) My temper was not, as redheads ‘ tempers are rumored to be, hair-trigger or legendary; my daring was not nearly as extreme as those of my fictional friends. But I was one of the tribe, nonetheless. I took pride in the literary sorority; I sought them out, red-haired fictional peeps.
And I still think it’s nice, very nice, to be part of a special, fictional redheaded league. Thank goodness for my RFF’s.