Jerusha Abbot has lived her entire life in an orphan asylum. Her prospects for the future do not look particularly cheerful. But then an anonymous benefactor, amused by an essay she wrote about the asylum, offers to send her to college. The only condition is that she write him a letter every month, as letter-writing is conducive to good writing. And so we, the readers, are allowed to read her letters to “Daddy Long-legs”, as she calls her mysterious patron for lack of a better name.
First written in 1912, Daddy Long Legs has become a classic piece of fiction. The elements of a traditional “girl’s story” are all here: the deep friendships, the sudden transitions in fortune, the sweet, mild romance. But this book manages to elevate itself from being just another formula book from a century past. Jerusha – or Judy as she quickly comes to be known – is an orphan in a world where only the wealthy send their daughters to college. Judy doesn’t waste much time wishing for things that she can’t have – this is not a turn-of-the-century Gossip Girls. Rather, it is the more subtle things which constantly throw her off guard. A lifetime of visiting museums and attending the theater have given her classmates an entire vocabulary of culture that Judy yearns to possess. There is a poignant scene in which Judy tracks down a copy of Mother Goose rhymes, trying to make up for her own neglected childhood.
Yet the book is funny. Judy is exuberant and enthusiastic about every aspect of her new life. Her cheerful nature was partly what brought her to the attention of her benefactor, and that sense of humor is constantly evident. Many more modern books rely heavily on snarky humor, so it is refreshing, if a bit old-fashioned, to see such an innocent delight in silly things such as making fudge or winning the school field day competition.