Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (Wiggin)

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
Kate Douglas Wiggin, 1903
~240 pp. (Varies by publisher.)

In this 1903 children's classic, 10-year-old Rebecca, energetic, high-spirited, and full of mischief, goes to live with her spinster aunts, one harsh and demanding, the other soft and sentimental, and spends seven difficult but rewarding years growing up in their company.

The two aunts who are raising her on a Maine farm try to turn her into a proper young lady—which eventually happens. Adults enjoy the book as well, especially the vivid glimpses of turn-of-the-century New England and its virtues. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—September 28, 1856
 Where—Philadelphia, Pennnsylvania, USA
Death—August 24, 1923
Where—Harrow, Middlesex, England, UK
Education—Gorham Female Seminary; Morrison Academy   
  (Baltimore, Maryland)

Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin, born in 1856 in Philadelphia, was of Welsh descent. A 1873 graduate of Abbot Academy (New England's first girls' school founded in 1929), she started the first free kindergarten in San Francisco in 1878 (the Silver Street Free Kindergarten). With her sister in the 1880s she also established a training school for kindergarten teachers.

Kate Wiggin devoted her entire adult life to the welfare of children in an era when children were commonly thought of as cheap labour. Kate herself experienced a happy childhood, even though it was colored by the American Civil War and her father's death. Kate and her sister Nora were still quite young when their widowed moved her little family from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Portland, Maine. Then three years later, upon her mother's remarriage, to the little village of Hollis. There Kate grew up in rural surroundings, with her sister and her new baby brother, Philip.

Her education was spotty, consisting of a short stint at a "dame's school," some home schooling under the "capable, slightly impatient, somewhat sporadic" instruction of Albion Brabury (her step father), a brief spell at the district school, a year as a boarder at the Gorham Female Seminary, a winter term at Morison Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, and a few months' stay at Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Although rather by-the-way, this was more education than most women received at the time.

In 1873, hoping to ease Albion Bradbury's lung disease, Kate's family moved to Santa Barbara, California, where Kate's stepfather died three years later. The circumstance of this move put Kate at the forefront of the kindergarten movement in America. A kindergarten training class was opening in Los Angeles, and Kate enrolled. After graduation, in 1878, she headed the first free kindergarten in California, on Silver Street, in the slums of San Francisco. The children were "street Arabs of the wildest type," but they were no match for Kate's warm personality and dramatic flair.

By 1880 she was forming a teacher-training school in conjunction with the Silver Street kindergarten. However, according to the customs of the time, when Kate married Bradley Wiggin in 1881, she was required to give up her teaching job.

Still devoted to her school, she began to raise money for it through writing, first The Story of Patsy (1883), then The Birds's Christmas Carol (1887). Both privately printed books were issued commercially by Houghtom Mifflin in 1889, with enormous success.

Ironically, considering her intense love of children, Kate Wiggin had none. Her husband died suddenly in 1889, and Kate took her grief home to Maine. For the rest of her life she struggled with depression, and in order to combat it she travelled as frequently as she could, dividing her time between writing, trips to Europe, and giving public reading for the benefit of various children's charities. Her literary output included popular books for adults, scholarly work on the educational principles of Friedrich Froebel, and of course the classic children's novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903).

In 1895 Kate Wiggin married a New York City business-man, George Christopher Riggs, who became her staunch supporter as her success grew. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm became an immediate bestseller; both it and Mother Carey's Chickens (1911) were adapted to the stage. Houghton Mifflin collected her writings in ten volumes in 1917.

For a time, she lived at Quillcote, her summer home in Hollis, Maine. Quillcote is now the town's library. Wiggin founded the Dorcas Society of Hollis & Buxton, Maine in 1897. The Tory Hill Meeting House in the adjacent town of Buxton inspired her book (and later play), The Old Peabody Pew (1907).

In 1921, Wiggin and her sister Nora Archibald Smith edited an edition of Jane Porter's 1809 novel of William Wallace, The Scottish Chiefs, for the Scribner's Illustrated Classics series, which was illustrated by N. C. Wyeth (father of Andrew)..

In the spring of 1923 Kate Wiggin travelled to England as a New York delegate to the Dickens Fellowship. There she became ill and died, at age 66, of bronchial pneumonia. At her request, her ashes were brought home to Maine and scattered over to the Saco River. Her autobiography, My Garden of Memory, was published after her death.

Kate was also a composer of music, including "Nine Love Songs and a Carol" (1896) for voice and piano. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Beautiful, warm and satisfying.
Mark Twain

May I thank you for Rebecca?... I would have quested the wide world over to make her mine, only I was born too long ago and she was born but yesterday.... Why could she not have been my daughter? Why couldn't it have been I who bought the three hundred cakes of soap? Why, O, why?
Jack London (letter to Wiggin, 1904)

Another title celebrating a century marker, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin...reveals a lively, generous spirit in the heroine who leaves her home to live with her two elderly aunts.
Publishers Weekly

Rebecca is an unforgettable character. Rebecca is someone you want to get to know, and hate to leave at the end of the book. Young girls will enjoy reading about her adventures as well as her humorous and extroverted personality. This story is 100 years old, but readers can still connect to it today. Her story is set in the late 1800's. Rebecca leaves her home at Sunnybrook farm to live with her two older aunts. Although it is difficult at times, Rebecca tries desperately to fit in at the brick house. This story tells of her efforts.
Louise Parsons - Children's Literature

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm:

1. Why is it necessary for Rebecca to leave her family and live with her aunts in Riverboro? Why had the aunts hoped that Hannah, Rebecca's older sister, would be sent instead of her—but why wasn't Hannah sent?

2. Difficult as it would have been, splitting up families was not uncommon, at any time or place in history. What would it feel like as a child to be torn from your roots and the closeness of family love? How did Rebecca accept her lot?

3. Talk about the aunts, Jane and Miranda Sawyer. They are sisters, but as seemingly different as night and day. How does each treat Rebecca? What are their expectations and hopes for her? Are Miranda's expectations fair? Miranda considers Rebecca "All Randall and no Sawyer"—what she mean? What is Rebecca's relationship to each aunt and does her relationship change?

4. Much of Rebecca's charm as a heroine comes from the fact that she isn't perfect. What are some of the mistakes she makes? How does Rebecca respond to Aunt Miranda's scoldings? Does she give reasons or excuses? Does any of it sound familiar to you—if you are a young person who has been scolded by your parents...or a parent holding your children responsible for their actions.

4. What does the soap-selling episode say about Rebecca and Emma Jane Perkins and the kind of girls they are? Are the two girls different from young people today? Consider, too, Rebecca's anger when Minnie Smellie taunts the Simpson children?

5. What are the character traits that enable Rebecca to win the respect of her teachers and schoolmates. In what way does Rebecca become a leader?

6. How does Rebecca change over the course of the novel? Living with her aunts was to be "the making of her." What does this mean, and does she achieve the goal?

7. How important is education in this book and why? Compare it to the emphasis on learning today? Do we take school as seriously—we all say we do, but do we ? What things detract from—or enhance—today's education?

8. Are you satisfied with how Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm ends? What do you like—or dislike—about the ending?

(Questions by LitLovers, Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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