This afternoon, while attempting to be domestic, I caught up with one of my favorite NPR programs, This American Life. A few weeks ago, they aired a new episode called “The Book That Changed Your Life.” How could I not listen? The entire show was fantastic, but I was particularly intrigued by Act 4: Little Sod Houses for You and Me. A longtime fan of the Little House books travels to De Smet for the first time. She interviews locals, tours the homesites, and attends the annual pagent. It was a vacation that sounds quite a bit like the type of vacation I take on a semi-regular basis.
And then I realized–one of the best parts of being a fan of kidlit history–these books that are based on the author’s life–is that you can see the “real” places. It’s a very special way of connecting with fiction. How much easier is it to picture Laura on the prairie after you yourself have been on the prairie? How do Betsy and Tacy’s dinner on the bench change when you realize they had the best seat in the entire neighborhood? How do Montgomery’s descriptions of the colors of PEI change when you’ve also seen the red roads and blue sea?
When I was a kid, I begged and begged and begged to go to Prince Edward Island. The love Montgomery has for this Island comes through so strongly in the books, I had to see what all the fuss was about. There were multiple conversations about how to make the trip work, but PEI is a very long way from Texas. My college graduation trip was to Boston, and we even tried to make it work from there, but it was still just too far. But this did allow me to have one of my first real literary pilgrimages–we headed to Concord. I dipped my feet in Walden Pond. And Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women at a very tiny desk, was at the very top of my list of must-sees.
Orchard House has a unique challenge when it comes to literary pilgrims–though Alcott set her classic at Orchard House, Beth died before the Alcott family ever moved in. And for those that only know the fiction and not the history, it can come as a bit of a shock. The tour guides do a wonderful job of pointing out the things that are “just like the book” and where history and fiction diverge. I’ve been back one other time to Concord and toured Orchard House yet again. The Alcotts are such an interesting family, and I’m glad that the site hasn’t fallen into the trap of being all Little Women all the time.
The next summer, I found myself on Prince Edward Island with one of my dearest friends. I had submitted a paper to a Montgomery conference, and it was accepted. When we finally crossed the bridge from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island (and I do mean finally–the trip did not have a smooth beginning!), chills ran up and down my spine. We did all the expected Anne things–toured Green Gables (which felt odd–and far too commercial), saw the musical (can’t really recommend it), drank raspberry cordial. But my favorite part of the trip was just driving the tiny country roads, walking along the ocean, and also seeing the Homestead. The house where Montgomery grew up is no longer standing–all that’s left is the foundation. And the views and the paths and the land where Montgomery became a writer. This was my favorite spot on the Anne pilgrimage, and it was the spot where I felt closest to Montgomery’s stories.
Last summer, I headed to Mankato, Minnesota with a few hundred other fans to do all things Betsy-Tacy. There were more than a few folks who got misty-eyed at seeing Betsy and Tacy’s house for the first time. After all, these are places we’ve read about for years and there they are–three-dimensional and real and beautiful. And they may not be quite what we pictured in our heads, but there’s a magic about seeing this place you’ve read about. For the most moving spot was not Betsy’s house, but the Carnegie Library. This was the spot where she really began growing up — she explored the world through the books in that library. And walking up those stairs, just as Maud/Betsy did so many times, was extraordinary.
A few friends and I took a side trip to Walnut Grove. Not much of Laura’s is left, but again, we had the land. I waded in Plum Creek and looked out at the prairie. Suddenly, it made much more sense that baby Grace got lost on the prairie–Texas prairie and Minnesota prairie are very, very different. And I thought about those people, such as the Breswters, who could not be happy in such emptiness.
These literary pilgrimages will always be a part of my travel agendas. In museum classes, we often talk about how important and special the “real thing” is. How unexpectedly moving certain objects can be–such as Lincoln’s hat or George Washington’s desk or a slave’s shackles or Eleanor Roosevelt’s knitting needles (an object that moved me to tears once). This conversation usually occurs while we’re talking about the future of museums–how the internet cannot replace the emotions that come with being in the same place with these truly special artifacts. And I think these literary sites are a lot like that. We’ve read about them and taken these characters into our hearts. So to walk the same halls that these writers and their inspirations walked is a truly unforgettable experiences. And so for those frew friends that thought I was beyond weird to be so excited about visiting Mankato or Concord or Cavendish or Walnut Grove, I say “perhaps it’s time you met my other friends, Betsy, Jo, Anne and Laura.”
What literary pilgrimages have you been on? And where are you wanting to go?
Preserving these literary historic sites is not easy or cheap. The following non-profits are doing all they can so we can continue to visit these magical sites. If you’re a fan of any of these books, please consider supporting them:
Laura Ingalls Wilder Home (the Mansfield site–there are many Little House related sites, so I picked one)
L. M. Montgomery Institute (again, there are many Montgomery related sites on PEI, but the Institute is the center of scholarship)