It’s that time of year again.
Daffodils are blooming, the days are finally warmer and it’s time to sit my boys down to read my favorite feminist, racially enlightened manifesto. It’s an Easter book: “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes .”
I know, this sounds kooky, but stay with me.
It’s the brilliant story of “a little country girl bunny with a brown skin” who longed to crack the glass warren and have the most coveted job in all of bunnydom: to be one of the five exalted Easter Bunnies.
The white, patrician bunnies laughed at her. And when she had 21 babies (rabbits, you know), the male bunnies mocked her: “What did we tell you! Only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies. Now take care of them and leave Easter eggs to great big male bunnies like us.”
You see where I’m going with this, right?
Here’s my favorite part of the book: It was written in 1939. It is Lean In, prewar style.
So as we continue our endless debate about working mothers — this week, it revolves around a study that ought to make some of us feel less guilty about the time we spend away from our children — it’s kind of fun to be schooled on work/life balance by a guy from Gershwin’s era.
See, the other great part about this little gem is that it was written by a dad, taken from a story his mom told him and that he used to tell his daughter at bedtime. DuBose Heyward was best known as the Charleston gentleman who wrote the book “Porgy,” the basis for Gershwin’s classic American opera “Porgy and Bess.”
“The tale was invented by Heyward’s mother, Jane Screven DuBose, who probably told it to Heyward when he was a child. He then carried on the tradition with his own [only child], Jenifer,” said James Hutchisson, an English professor at the Citadel and Heyward’s biographer.
“It’s a compelling folk tale for the 1920s-1930s era, because, as you have noted, it’s a feminist slant on the old idea of exclusion and discrimination based on appearance and perception, rather than empathy and understanding,” he said.
“To apply this racially is easy to do, since Jane, the grandmother, was herself a woman of strong feminist opinions who also helped open DuBose’s eyes to the inequality among the races in the late 19th-century South.”
So this is a complex story on many levels.
And it reads like one of the feminist fairy tales and modern-life storybooks flooding the market today that better reflect the true colors and geometry of today’s American families.
Funny, because these stories — and tensions — have been with us all along. It’s a little bit of a cult classic, beloved by children of the 1940s and prescient in its bold feminist message delivered 75 years ago.
“I was born in 1940. This book was read to me once in first grade,” one of the book’s fans wrote in a review on Amazon.com. “As I read this to my children, I saw my life had been influenced by this wonderful story. . . . [DuBose Heyward] wrote to tell young females that they can grow up to follow their dreams and have a family. That they can get past social expectations, and past the people who aren’t cheering them on, and that we all have a special destiny if we trust ourselves enough to persist against the odds which then sets the example for our children to do the same.”
The reviews go on and on, women across the continent remembering how a children’s book became their life’s compass, tackling morality lessons on many fronts.
“I first read this as a minority child growing up in a rural community,” another fan wrote. “Now I am a professional in a large city. This book made a difference for me.”
The story doesn’t just go for the usual reach-for-your-dreams theme and the race-and-class threads — this was what Heyward was famous for in “Porgy.”
In the story, mommy Cottontail divides the household tasks among her children so each of them understands responsibility, self-reliance and teamwork.
Get this — a couple of the bunnies are also assigned to dance, play music and paint pictures to keep everyone happy — underscoring the importance of the arts in a community. Love!
Ultimately, as mamma rabbit auditions for the role usually reserved for male bunnies, her multi-tasking, ability to delegate and focused organizational skills (again — 21 babies!) win out over the starchy aristocrats bred for the job.
But she shuns the martyrdom and co-dependence that dogs so many working moms today. And when she snags the job and is out of town on the big night (delivering eggs all over the world), the house doesn’t go to hell. The kids are fine.
The kicker? Not only is she good enough to become one of the elite Easter Bunnies, her kindness and determination — just as dawn is breaking — to get the last egg up an icy mountain to a sick child make her the best one, the one who gets the little gold shoes.
I did not get this book in 1940. C’mon, I’m not that old. But a good friend who is now a hotshot at a big Washington institution gave it to me a few years ago after we both had a wallow session about juggling kids and work. She is fine, her kids are fine. And all of our kids now love this book.
Parents: Read this feminist fairy tale. Guilty, co-dependent, martyring working moms: Read this book and know our struggle is not unique, or even new.
And can we please make it required reading for every boss in corporate America?
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.