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Archive for March, 2010

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the unique magic of literary places.  Not that this is something I never think of (see previous posts here and here), but it’s really come to the forefront based on a few very different things.

First, a unique opportunity has arisen for the Betsy-Tacy Society.  Tib’s House is for sale!  But it’s a scary time for any non-profit to think about expanding.  There has been much conversation amongst the BT-list serv about which place in the Betsy-Tacy canon are most important.  If we have Betsy’s house, do we really need Tacy’s house?  And if we had to pick between Tacy and Tib, which one would we choose?

Because I am of the “proceed with extreme caution” school of thought (especially when it comes to historic sites), my gut says we should really hope that a loving family buys Tib’s house, takes care of it, and occasionally lets us crazy Betsy-Tacy fans inside to take a look.

But all of this flurry got me thinking again about Mark Twain’s home in Hartford.  Back in 2003, they expanded dramatically–opening a beautiful visitor’s center, featuring programming space, exhibit space and a spacious store.  The project went over-budget, and the attendance projections did not come true.  They were drowning in debt.  A few years ago, there was a lot in the news (well, museum news. . .) about how close they were to bankruptcy.  Somehow, they’ve survived, though in a quick search, I’m not seeing any updates about their current financial state. 

And finally, I just finished reading Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, an odd little book set in Concord–home to Alcott, Emerson and Thoreau.  I have long been fascinated with this town–ever since my survey of American Lit class in college in which I realized there had to have been something in the water.  So the book intrigued me–and Langton certainly used the location to her advantage.  Lots of references to transcendentalists and all the famous authors.  They visit Walden Pond (and it’s set before the reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin was added), and the little girl manages to find Joanna, Jo’s poor doll that Beth saves (seriously?).  It’s a story that couldn’t really have worked anywhere else. 

I’ve visited Concord twice now–I had to see Orchard House both times, but have also made it to Walden Pond, Emerson’s House and Hawthornes/Margaret Sidney’s House.  Wayside (Hawthorne’s home) is a National Park Service site, and Walden Pond is a state park.  Orchard House is a private, non-profit that I know has suffered in recent years–though they were also a beneficiary of a large Save America’s Treasures grant (a program that is currently under huge threat in the current budget )  I know less about Emerson’s house, but based on my visit, they need some help.  Some very different sites, with very different institutional models, and yet they’re all in the same community–a community that banks on heritage tourism.

So where does all of this get us to?  I’m not really sure, except this: what would we, the readers, be missing if these places didn’t exist?  If Mark Twain’s home closed tomorrow and became a private residence (this historic preservationist will not consider that it would be torn down!), what is lost?  If the Betsy-Tacy Society folded, would future readers of the series miss out on something?  How does the place add to our reading experience?  And how does it add to our historic experience?

I have a feeling that most of my blog readers agree with me on this.  A lot would be lost–for us dedicated readers, but something would also be lost in our historic fabric.  With the current economic crisis, there are many, many historic sites that are on the brink (if they haven’t already gone over the edge).  And our historic fabric is being torn.

But what about all the non-readers?  The Betsy-Tacy books struggle with a limited audience; consequently, the Society also struggles.  After all, the pool of support is only so deep.  Thus, when I look at the struggles of a place like Mark Twain’s home or Edith Wharton’s home (in Massachusetts), I really wonder how sustainable some of these smaller literary historic sites are.  As I said to the Betsy-Tacy list, “If Mark Twain’s house can’t make it, we’re doomed.”  After all, a heck of a lot more people have heard of Mark Twain than Maud Hart Lovelace!  As our cultural literacy continues to change, will these sites still matter to the next generation?  Will my future children’s friends care about any of this?  (My kids will, of course.  Because they will be my children.)

These literary sites are special–they are places that live in our imaginations, but that we can also physically visit.  I can never visit Hogwarts (thought I know the folks in Orlando think differently about this), but I can see so many sites from my favorite books.  Soon, I’ll be planning my next literary pilgrimage–to Mansfield, Missouri and the home in which Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her famous books.  I sincerely hope these places will survive their current challenges and serve generations to come.  I hope that the historic sites and organizations that are on the brink are able to reform themselves into something sustainable.  But still, I worry.

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At my museum, we get a lot of school tours.  Sometimes, we even get survey responses or comments or samples of the lesson plans teachers use to prep for the field trip.  Generally speaking, this makes me very, very happy.  And generally speaking, I’m amazed to see how creative teachers are in connecting their textbooks (usually somewhat boring and dry) with our village (hopefully, less boring.  Definitely louder).  Except for one thing.

Over and over again, teachers say “This museum is exactly like Little House on the Prairie.”  Or “This perfectly complements our unit on Little House on the Prairie.”  Now, don’t get me wrong–I love Little House.  Heck, these were the books my tiny young history loving brain was weaned on.  However, we have over 30 buildings at my museum.  Only a few of them can be connected to that pioneer time period.  So, does this mean that the kids aren’t connecting at all to the majority of our buildings?  Can they only think about history in the frontier/pioneer context?

Of course, I understand that many of the readers of this blog (whoever they may be) do not live in North Texas, will probably never visit my museum, and are wondering why I’m jumping on this particular soap box today.  But my frustration really speaks to a much larger issue in kidlit history–there seem to be a plethora of pioneer/frontier books out there, whether you’re looking at non-fiction, historical fiction or kidlit history (for visitors of the blog, here as part of the “Share a Story, Shape a Future” blog tour, check out my definition of kidlit history here).  This is not a bad thing–after all, it’s an important part of our American story, of how we became the great and crazy nation that we are today.  But some kids perhaps wonder: what happens after the frontier is settled?  How does a frontier town (like Dallas was) become a city?  What happens next?

And perhaps teachers wonder too.  But Little House really seems to have a lock on the historical fiction based on a “true story” category for kid readers or as a potential choice for classroom units.  But today, I’d like to suggest three other series that share some of those wonderful qualities that Little House has for so many readers: the details, the great characters, and the fact that all of this “really happened.”

Recommendation #1:  The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. 

I admit it, I talk about these books a lot on this blog.  Heck, these books are part of the reason I began writing this blog.  But I will continue to beat this drum until Laura Ingalls Wilder and Maud Hart Lovelace are in the same sentence on a regular basis.  These books also chronicle a girl growing up, from the time Betsy turns five and finds a best friend to graduating in 1910 to marrying in 1914 to sending her husband off to World War I.  Betsy is such a real character–I didn’t discover her until I was in my 20s, but when I did I had flashbacks to when I was 10 and 14 and. . . Well, you get the idea.  But from a history perspective, there are still all the great period details–playing with paper dolls, going to the Carnegie Library for the first time, the first car in Deep Valley, political talk (Teddy Roosevelt!), women’s suffrage, World War I.  The high school and beyond books, recently reissued, even include some great background material including tons of photos.  And the younger books have all sorts of ideas for fun classroom projects, as well as that taste of what life was like over 100 years ago.  Plus, these books are just plain fun.  Betsy is just a generation younger than Laura, but her life is so different.  Her family is settled, physically and financially more comfortable, and Betsy really doesn’t do a lot of chores.  Yet, Betsy lives in one of the same states that Laura spent part of her childhood–Minnesota.  What a great way to compare and contrast what a difference a few things (like the railroad) can make to a person’s every day life.

Recommendation #2: The Great Brain Series by John D. Fitzgerald

I have a sneaking suspicion that these are even less well known than the Betsy-Tacy books.  Which is even more of a crying shame since they feature boys–a gender that is definitely lacking thus far on my kidlit history timeline.  Set in late 1890s Utah, these books are funny.  J.D.’s older brother, The Great Brain, is constantly swindling every kid in town.  And yet, they still fall for all his tricks.  Again, there are still period details–an indoor bathroom!  the spiffy toys! the wonders of the Z.C.M.I. store!  Every now and then, The Great Brain’s antics will make you twitch, but you gotta love his parents.  They seem to do a lot of sighing.  These boys are just a few years older than Betsy, so there’s a lot of fun similarities.  Though I can’t quite imagine Betsy pulling off a monster hoax. . .

Recommendation #3:  All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

There are scenes from this book that you’ll never forget: dusting for buttons!  eating crackers in bed!  the books in the storeroom!  I don’t know how many times I read this book as a kid, but whenever I reread it, I feel like I’m cuddling up in a cozy blanket.  Plus, in addition to all the great period details of life in New York just after the turn of the century, you’ll also learn about Judaism.  The only book that makes me hungrier than All-of-a-Kind Family is Farmer Boy.  There are still a tons of things to talk about history wise, but it’s such a different life than what Laura had.  Much of this is due to the sheer size of New York–which could lead to a great conversation about urban versus rural.  Opportunities and/or technology had a lot to do with where you lived, not when you lived.  For instance, electricity and running water were not uncommon at the turn of the century, but if you lived in a rural area, you might not get electricity until the 1930s.  Or, to use the Great Brain books as an example, public school only went through the sixth grade in his town–high school meant boarding school.  And yet, they’re practically the same age as Betsy, who went to a high school just down the street.

Though these books take place years after the Little House books, time-line wise, the difference is just the blink of an eye.  A generation, really.  And think how different these growing up stories are.  These are all stories of our American past.  There’s so much beyond the frontier.  Honestly, I’ve always been more interested in the stories of that middle, building period.  It takes a lot of courage to head out into uncharted territory, but it takes a lot of courage to stay and build too.  These are just a few of my favorites–I know there are many more to explore, and I’m looking forward to continuing the journey.

This post is part of a larger blog tour: Share a Story, Shape a Future, specifically Day 3: Just the Facts: The Non-fiction Book Hook.  To continue your tour, click here.

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