Surprise Doll–delight for me, likely illegal today

So many books that captured kids’ hearts in the past wouldn’t make it to today’s bookshelves.

Take a 1949 Wonder Book called The Surprise Doll. About 20 pages, with full colour pictures, it cost 59 cents when published. Sunday morning our daughter-in-law brought our grand-daughter for a visit, and I got out the book. She read the story to our wee two year old. It’s the story of Mary, a little girl whose father is a sea captain, away from home a lot. Over time he gives his daughter six dolls from six different countries.

I remember absolutely aching with delight when my mom read this book to me. I remember the braided rug on the floor of Mary’s bedroom, her six dolls all lined up on a shelf. I remember my genuine affection for each of those dolls. Each doll was described by her country of origin. Katrinka from Holland, wooden shoes and hair braids the colour of butter. Lang Po from China, pink kimono and eyebrows that went up–like that! Susan’s (England) cheeks were pink from the wind. Marie (France) had a delicate smile. Sonya (Russia) wears a headscarf and red boots and had a nose that goes up–like this. And Teresa! Teresa with her big brown eyes, kerchief, apron and her basket of tomatoes…from Italy.

I loved this book. And I loved Mary, the little girl who owned all the dolls. The story goes that Mary wanted a seventh doll, a Sunday doll. She took all her dolls to the dollmaker and he incorporated special features of each of her six dolls and made the doll look just like Mary!

Well, as the book is being read by now a third generation mom, my First Husband admonished: “that’s racial profiling!”

I looked up at him. That’s what? Is racial profiling a description that helps one child identify cultural special-ness among dolls? I found myself thinking back to my childhood and my absolute open-ness to other kids who moved to our community and were eager to make friends. Maybe the book helped make that happen.

To me the story was inclusive. It opened doors on other worlds in those simple days after World War Two. But he’s right, likely. This book with the splendid picture of Mary bundling all her dolls with their unique features together in her arms, would it be published today? It made a subtle political statement in 1950.

Our grand-daughter is the same age as I when my mom (her great-grandmother) read the book to me. Here’s the best part of the whole story. The Christmas that I was four, wrapped up for me was a two-foot-high, hand sewn cloth doll… blue eyes, yellow pigtails, red coveralls, green shirt, red hair ribbons… looking just like Mary! And with her were big girl’s red coveralls, green shirt, red hair ribbons for me. My doll Mary, cuddled now by my grand-daughter, is made special by a story that’s survived, despite Canadian desire to be ‘correct’.

Thank goodness! Mary, the surprise doll. Thanks, Mom. And thanks, wee grand-daughter and her mommy, for bringing it all to life again.