I basically enjoyed Patricia Ellis Herr's account of her year spent hiking all forty-eight 4,000+ peaks in the state of New Hampshire with her five-year-old daughter Alex (and sometimes three-year-old Sage as well). Herr and her daughters are clearly plucky, confident and strong young ladies who not only bit off an ambitious project but doggedly chewed it to the finish. The story is easy reading and engaging enough that I cared about Alex and cheered for her when she achieved her goal by summiting 4,802 foot Mount Mousilauke, although I never doubted along the way that she could do it.
That said, there are some elements of Herr's writing style and tone that set me a bit on edge and spoiled the reading experience for me. Primarily my concern is that she focuses too much on finding Messages in each experience and hitting her readers over the head with them rather than just letting the story - and Alex's bold personality - unfold naturally and allowing readers to take their own messages from it. The result is oftentimes clunky, self-conscious, over-thought and occasionally rather defensive.
One of the best illustrations of this is the chapter entitled "To Get Where She Wants to Go, a Girl Must Punch Through Rotting Snow". This hike, Alex's thirtieth peak, takes place in early spring, a time when the snow on the mountains is melting and mushy, making the going quite rough as one frequently plunges thigh-deep into the slushy stuff. Along the way Alex says, "Jacob told me I can't be good at math because I'm a girl." Now, call me simplistic, but this seems like a no-brainer to me for someone whose daughter has hiked twenty-nine mountains: "Yeah, and you're not supposed to be good at climbing mountains either because you're a girl. So what do you think about such silly ideas?" But instead, Herr takes the next thirteen pages to anguish over how to handle this and ruminate on all the injustices of gender discrimination and the progress - and lack thereof - of the feminist movement.
Herr's first mistake is to point out to Alex that she is two grade levels ahead of Jacob in math. That information, even if true, is not only not Alex's business, but, more importantly, irrelevant to the point at hand. Alex's and Jacob's relative performance is immaterial to the issue of whether or not boys are better at math. Even if Alex were behind Jacob in math, it wouldn't' be proof that boys are better, just as Alex being ahead of Jacob doesn't mean that girls are better. Her kid doesn't have to be the best, or even better than another child, to be just as good as a boy.
Herr then speculates on how Jacob got into making such comments, because his own mother, a friend of Herr's, doesn't tolerate "sexist comments", so he must have learned it from some other boy. Herr decides it must be the influence of a new boy who saw Alex and "sniffed, "I don't like girls," turned on his heals, and stalked off." Well, that settles it then, let's blame him. Alex, of course, was hurt by this experience of "gender discrimination." Oh, please, little boys not wanting to play with little girls is not "gender discrimination" any more than the reverse is. It's just fairly typical early childhood behavior to want only same-gender friends. Of course, being excluded hurts under any circumstances and I don't mean to minimize that. But I think Herr could have discussed that without the whole history of the American woman.
My other issue is the fact that Herr seems utterly unaware of just how privileged she is. In the introduction, she encourages all of us to pursue our big, grand and daring dreams and, "don't automatically shrug and assume that you're too young, too old, too weak, too busy, too poor, too frazzled, or too small." Good points certainly, but they sound a little hollow from someone who has had the luxury to chose to be a stay at home mom and the education and resources to do it well enough to provide her daughters (and herself) with deeply enriching experiences. Someone who can afford a vacation home in New Hampshire and a regular home in Massachusetts. Someone who can afford over $8,000 just for winter hiking and camping gear, nevermind all the other gear. Someone who has the time, money and ability to travel not only all over New Hampshire, but over the whole U.S., including Hawaii. While many of us may dream of taking our daughters (and sons) on grand adventures, few of us have the resources Herr has been blessed with, and such obstacles cannot be lightly dismissed with a breezy injunction to, "learn, persevere, sweat!"
Don't get me wrong. I'm very happy for Ms. Herr and her ability to provide such amazing experiences for her daughters. I'm sure that Alex and Sage will grow up to be strong-willed, independent-minded women who will make their marks on the world and probably make it a better place. I wish that every child would have the kind of childhood they are having in which their ideas are taken seriously and even their wildest dreams can come true. I salute Ms. Herr for having the courage to take the road less traveled and daring to be different. But the message that everyone can do it if they just try and work hard enough is a bit too simplistic and, frankly, cheesy. Of course we can all make great strides in life if we set our minds to it, but we all start at different places, so we might not all be able to make the same goals.