Today, while doing incredibly domestic things like reorganizing my kitchen cabinets, I listed again to this episode of This American Life.
In “The House on Loon Lake,” a couple of kids find an abandoned house in the woods. Inside, it’s filled with stuff–from food still in the cupboard to letters to clothing. Along the way, the kids bring their parents to see. They return again and again. And then the house is gone. But the questions of what happened to this family and this house remain.
As I listened, I couldn’t help but think of Gone-Away Lake. Both stories feature kids finding something abandoned, yet full of stories. It’s a summer adventure, one in which other grown-ups are brought into only relunctantly. But Gone-Away Lake ultimately has a happy ending. And Loon Lake just breaks your heart. But it’s still a story worth checking out.
The other night, I fell in love with two kids named Portia and Julian. They’re cousins and just happen to discover this lake that is no more, the wonderful, old, abandoned houses that surround it, and two quirky siblings that can’t quite let go of the past.
And as I was reading, I kept trying to figure out how I could write about it here. Because it is so different from what I’ve been writing about, and it feels too soon to go off-roading in this blog. And then I thought, well, the book is definitely set in the 1950s and published in 1957, so it fits there. But there really aren’t that many details about life in the 1950s. (Though I did love the little brother that was constantly playing space explorer–very 1950s!) And then I realized: at its heart, Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright is all about appreciating and loving the past. And isn’t that what kidlit history is all about?
For me, this read as one of my ultimate wish fulfillment books. If I had read this as a child (rather than a 30-year-old well in touch with her inner child), I know I would have read it to pieces. Two cousins are out exploring during their summer when they discover a swamp, surrounded by abandoned houses. It was once a lake-side vacation spot for the wealthy, and now are ruins. Even better, they meet two siblings, Minnehaha and Pindar who grew up there and returned as adults. The story is magical and delightful and just funny. The kids seem so real.
But the part that thrills the history nerd in me is their love of the old houses and the stuff inside them. And they love the old-fashioned quirks of Minnehaha and Pindar. These characters could have so easily become carciatures–Min in her ancient clothing and Pin with his Machine. There is no “this old stuff is awful” They don’t make fun of any of it–they embrace it and love it and make it better. And they find such cool things–the antique/junk hunter in me was very jealous. Can you imagine going through a attic filled of stuff that hasn’t been touched in decades?
All of their adventures and their care in restoring a piece of it makes history very cool. It’s all a big adventure! It seems like often history or old stuff is usually looked down on in children’s books (I still get upset that the history teacher at Hogwarts is a ghost. Like wizard history wouldn’t be the coolest thing ever?) And though I don’t think readers will learn much history by reading Gone-Away Lake, I think they will appreciate it much more. And that makes me very, very happy.
Of course, what I really want to do is find my very own Gone-Away Lake. With a Villa Caprice to buy, restore and love. Anyone want to help me search?