In Marm Lisa Kate Wiggin (1856-1923) focuses primarily on the value of kindergarten for poor and unattended children. But she's not beyond skewering indiscriminate zealots of social reform. What attracted cutting-edge reformers a hundred years ago? Wiggin gives us this list: Temperance, Single Tax, Cremation, Abolition of War, Vegetarianism, Hypnotism, Dress Reform, Social Purity, Theosophy, and Emancipation of Woman. Some, you'll notice, are still around. An electronic version of the book is available for download from Project Gutenberg.
Marm Lisa by Kate Douglas Wiggin. Houghton, Mifflin Co. (1896), 199 pp.
Mistress Mary runs an independent kindergarten in a San Francisco slum. Her belief in the potential of early childhood education is tested when she meets Marm Lisa, a girl of ten or twelve who tends two unruly younger children. Lisa does this task for Cora Grubb, the children's aunt and dedicated advocate of many kinds of social reform. Neighbors think that Lisa, who cannot read or write and barely talks, is developmentally disabled. But Mary sees the girl as a product of neglect who can with love and attention be taught to appreciate life and function in society.
Kate Wiggin was an important educational reformer and popular author of children's stories, of which Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) is the most famous. Wiggin organized California's first free kindergarten in 1878. This book draws on her experiences. It is notable for its sensitive depiction of poorly socialized children and its quiet advocacy of attentive education to bring out hidden talents. It's also a feminist book. Mary, in her late twenties, is fully capable of carrying out her work without male support. Her assistants, all younger women, are training for a similar career. In addition, Wiggin makes a point about social reform generally, contrasting the dedicated in-the-trenches kindergarten workers to the oblivious and ineffectual Mrs. Grubb, whose enthusiasm for various causes leads nowhere. The book may not have the dramatic tension of great fiction, but it retains much historical interest.