Power of Place

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.

Falling in love with bricks and mortar

In need of a break from my self-imposed “Non-fiction November,” I grabbed Katie John by Mary Calhoun as my before bed book.  It’s one of those books I’ve heard about for years, but never read.  At a recent gathering of fellow book-lovers, someone just handed me Katie and said “You need to read this.”  So I grabbed it (free book?  Score!) and put it on the shelf. 

For those that are unfamiliar with the book, it’s about a 10 year old girl, Katie John, who is forced to move to a small town in Missouri.  Her great-aunt has died, and the parents have to fix up and sell the house.  Katie is stubborn and head strong, and prone to getting in trouble.  As I read, I didn’t really fall in love with Katie.  She was just too much–somehow she didn’t seem as real as some of those other children we know and love in kidlit.  But I kept reading because I had fallen head over heels in love with the house–a big, rambling 1870s (or late 1860s, it wasn’t clear) house on a bluff.  Full of things that 20th (or 21st) century children just don’t understand. 

Katie doesn’t love the house at first.  In the first paragraph, she asks herself:  Does it really look as horrible as it had when they arrived last night?  Oh, worse, Katie John groaned.  But then, she meets a neighbor girl and discovers there is a good chance the house is haunted.  What kid doesn’t love a good ghost?  As they investigate the “haunted” room, Katie John discovers a small hole in the wall, through which she can hear her parents’ voices.  Being Katie John, she sticks her finger in the hole–and gets stuck.  Her dad teases her: ‘Stop wiggling,’ he told her mildly.  ‘The old house likes you.  It was trying to get a good hold on you.’  Katie laughed as her sore finger slipped out of the hole, but she set her chin.  ‘Well, it hasn’t got me yet.’

As the summer continues, Katie continues to explore the town and the house.  She rides in the dumb-waiter (and gets stuck–she gets stuck a lot!).  She finds old trunks in the attic and tries on her Great-Aunt Emily’s wedding dress.  When I was 12, we inherited my great-grandmother’s 1896 wedding dress.  I was so excited about wearing it but discovered that there was no way it would fit–the men’s suit fit me quite nicely though.  So I must admit, I was a bit jealous of Katie John. 

And then the house is threatened.  Someone plans to buy it and chop it into apartments.  But Katie John has just realized that she loves this house.

Lovingly, Katie looked at all the signs of the Clark family, gleaming in soft lamplight or shadowy in corners–the polished dark woods, the vases and china collected over the years, Great-grandfather’s paintings on the walls, Great-Aunt Emily’s crocheted doilies on Katie’s reading chair.  Her fingers smoothed the yellow wood of the door frame.  The good house that Great-grandfather built.  The good home.

Suddenly Katie John knew why Aunt Emily had never left this house, had never gone away for new adventure when it was clear that she wouldn’t marry.

Because this was home.

As simple as that.  Because this was where she belonged.

The next thought came as surely as summer followed spring: This is where I belong, too.

Katie figures out a plan (one her parents had also thought of) to take in boarders.  She even secures the first tenant–her teacher. (Though wouldn’t having your teacher live in the same house be every kid’s worst nightmare?)  But such a plan will only work if Katie helps with the housework–and because Katie loves the house so, she’s willing to change her 10 year old ways and help out.  Up until the last chapter, I wasn’t sure I would read the rest of the books in the series, but the plans for the house make it irresistable.

The dedication of this book, For my mother and father, who still live in the old house made me suspect that this was another case of kidlit history.  However, as I kept reading, I got confused.  Published in 1960, the story seems to take place in the 1950s.  This is very broad dating, based on a few phrases like “built after the Civil War” and “90 years ago”  But there were very few other period details to firmly place it one decade over another.  She does mention reading a “new Moffatt book,” and the first one published was in 1941.  She also mentions earning money to see the movie of Little Women.  There was a 1933 and 1949 version (and the book did indicate this was an old movie, not often in theaters).   But with the timing of the publication, it just couldn’t me as autobiographical as I had hoped.

When I started digging around on the internet, I didn’t find much.  But I did find one brief phrase on the website of the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota that indicates Katie John is indeed based on her childhood in the family home on the banks of the Mississippi River: “developed from happy childhood memories of her great-grandfather’s big brick house on a bluff above the Mississippi River.”  My guess is that Calhoun, who was born in 1926, wanted the book to be as contemporary as possible, even though it was based on her childhood that occurred years earlier.  Therefore, there are fewer period details, making her childhood a bit more timeless.

So does this book qualify as kidlit history?  After all, how much are we learning about history if there aren’t many period details?  Personally, I think the house makes it history.  It’s a wonderful way to introduce children to the magic of old houses and the technology that made them work.  After reading this, what kid isn’t going to go looking for speaking tubes or dumb-waiter?  For the historic preservationists amongst us, it’s also a great example of saving something that seems obsolete and turning it into something special–adaptive reuse at its finest!  So maybe we won’t learn as much about childhood during this hazy era, but it is another way to begin developing a love of history.