Topsy Turvy Tale

Well loved, the book is worn and tattered, and the cover is gone. Somehow it survived a dunking in the toilet, thanks likely to my little brother. Geraldine Belinda, by Marguerite Henry, was published in 1942. She also wrote some 60 other children’s stories, including a number of horse stories. This one is a sweet story intended to be read aloud to younger children. The soft sepia-toned illustrations present a cute little girl with pigtails who has been given 25 pennies to spend. It’s a fun story.

Geraldine Belinda tries to decide how she will spend her pennies and finally settles on furnishings for her dollhouse. She walks to the “notions store” (yes, alone!) with her pennies clutched tightly in her muff. After picking out a stove and a sink for the kitchen and a drum for the music room, Miss Belinda tells Mr. Tweedle that she really needs a “Topsy doll” for the kitchen, but she’s not sure she has enough pennies. He adds it up, and sure enough, “That will buy you a little colored doll and a stick of candy, too.”

The story is a moral tale. Geraldine Belinda tries to ditch her friends so she doesn’t have to share anything she buys, like candy. On her way home, while running to avoid her friends,, all her purchases fall out of the bag, one by one, along the way. She’s in tears when she discovers they’re all lost, but her friends appear at the door, having rescued all her treasures.

But somehow the biggest moral of this story was missed. A “Topsy doll?” Heard of it? Topsy is a character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a little black girl who is spirited and fun, and just a little scatter-brained. We also get our expression “topsy turvy” from her. Today these dolls are antiques, often handmade and double-ended, a white doll on one end and a black doll on the other end, joined by a flouncy, layered skirt in the middle. The idea, seemingly, was that if a black child was playing with the black doll, it could instantly be turned over to show white, should any white supervisors come close.

Miss Belinda’s doll is just a single Topsy doll, black, and all ready to move into the dollhouse where she belongs, along with the sink and the stove. The kitchen would now be complete.

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, I like to think that I was never exposed to any racism. Well, perhaps the warnings to stay away from the groups of the very black Bahaman men, singing as they returned on a Saturday night from our small town, back to the corn factory at the end of the street, not unlike Topsy’s trip back to the kitchen. I never saw those men in any other place in our town.

However, Miss Belinda’s Topsy is another matter. This is education for young children. The book was written in the mid-1900’s, well past the time of slavery. What message would a little black girl reading this book take from it? Knowing my mother, she likely skipped over or changed a few words. She probably even made Topsy a resident chld or visitor in the dollhouse. I doubt many parents would have done that.

As a child, I knew books were magical. I believed them! This book was obviously loved to have survived almost 80 years and a toilet dunking. This was racism in one of its finest forms for young children to absorb. Remember the song from South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven or eight, to hate all the…….”

You never know what’s in a dollhouse until you stop, get down on your hands and knees and peer inside. What’s in your dollhouse?