Fan Girl

Fan Girl

Over the years, quite a few trips have featured a visit to a literary landmark. For some, like Prince Edward Island or Mankato, MN, the destination was determined by the book. For others, like Orchard House and Hannibal, it was a pleasant (and necessary!) detour. Last week, an article called The Fantasy, and Folly, of the Home of a Dead Famous Writer with the teaser of “Inside our endless obsession. . .” made the rounds. Of course, I read it. After all, this article might be talking about me! And while I don’t completely disagree with author Sadie Graham’s points, I do think she’s missing something rather important.

To sum it up, she believes the primary reason we visit a writer’s home is to try to capture some of the “genius” in that space in the hopes that it might rub off. She writes: “Moreover, what sparks the imagination is not merely that something of the person and their work lingers, but that we can access it, commune with it, take some of it into ourselves and take it away with us when we leave.” Now, I will certainly admit to certain thrills as I gazed out the window at Edith Wharton’s house, knowing that was the view she had when she wrote. Or seeing Louisa May Alcott’s super tiny desk and wondering how she wrote so many words in such a small space. But that’s not really why I visit literary historic sites.

Reading is a solitary, intimate act. Sometimes, it feels like you’re having a conversation just between yourself and the author. Some books worm their way into your soul. So, visiting the home of a dead author is another way to try to learn more about this person that wrote the things that became a part of your life. It’s a way of connecting more deeply. Just like the excitement of going to a friend’s house for the first time, you’ll often discover another layer of a writer’s personality by touring their personal spaces. And in some cases, you’ll also discover new depths to the books you love. I visit literary historic sites because I want to better understand the author and their work.

But it’s probably even simpler than that. We’re fans. And if fans have an opportunity to visit a favorite author’s home, we’re going to take it. Because we are fans and have already read the books or seen the movie or bought the t-shirt.

Me in front of Laura’s house, 11 years ago.

As a child, most of my favorite writers had been dead for decades. It never crossed my mind to write fan mail to living authors. In this age of twitter, blogs, and massive book festivals, today’s young readers have a chance to meet a beloved author. For years, I’ve been involved in the North Texas Teen Book Festival–and the energy in that convention center is unreal. These kids get to “meet” their favorites, and sometimes, I am just a wee bit jealous.

Next week, I’ll be revisiting the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Mansfield, MO. My last visit was 11 years ago, and I’ll be interested to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. In the last decade, some key scholarship about Wilder has come out–the publishing of the unedited first draft of Pioneer Girl. The remarkable biography Prairie Fires. A great American Masters documentary. My understanding of Wilder has deepened. Has the interpretation at her home changed any? Is this more complex narrative reflected?

But I’m not detouring off my road trip in the hopes of snatching a bit of Wilder’s leftover genius. I’m going because I love that writer and appreciate her complicated legacy. Visiting her home is a way of honoring her life, and all that she’s given us over the years. I’m going because I’m a fan.

Place Matters

If I had unlimited vacation time and funds, I could have quite the kidlit history summer.  The bi-annual L. M. Montgomery conference just wrapped up on Prince Edward Island.  Way back in 2002, my dear friend Amber and I made it to the conference, and it was a trip of a life time.  In a few weeks, Laurapalooza starts in Mankato.  I’ve never been to a Laura gathering, but it’s on the list.  And then, there’s the Betsy-Tacy Convention.  It was a random thought during that convention in 2009 that led to the creation of this blog.  I was all set to do the Betsy thing again this year and then reason prevailed.  Silly budgets.

But that doesn’t mean that this year is bereft of literary adventures.  John Steinbeck isn’t exactly kidlit history, but  most folks are introduced to him in high school.  So, that works, right?  Besides, it’s my blog anyway.

As part of the peer review program for the American Association of Museums, I journeyed to the Salinas Valley of California.  Since someone else was paying for my plane ticket, I added a few days to explore on my own.  As I was getting ready for my trip, I realized that the only Steinbeck I could remember reading was Of Mice and Men, back in high school. In the last year or two, I’ve watched the movie versions of East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath.  But as a good former English major, I knew that didn’t quite count.  So, before I left, I read Cannery Row.

Salinas Valley and Steinbeck are intertwined.  In my conversations with museum staff and volunteers, Steinbeck came up, even though the tiny town I was in was only a peripheral part of Steinbeck’s work.  On  Thursday night, I headed down  to Cannery Row.  I know it’s nothing like what Steinbeck knew (and perhaps he would be horrified at the various sorts of tourist traps), but I was fascinated by how Steinbeck was everywhere.  There were these banners on the light poles:

And they didn’t just highlight Steinbeck–it seems there were even some for Doc Ricketts.  And of course, there were the historic cannery buildings.

Granted, there was plenty of cheese–like this rather scary wax museum (if this is what’s outside, what’s inside?)

But honestly, I’m just happy that so much of the historic fabric is still in place in Monterey, even if there are a few things that don’t quite suit Steinbeck’s work.

I also spent some time in Salinas at the National Steinbeck Center.  It’s a well done museum that spends more time on the work than the author, which I actually rather liked.  They had some really neat comparisons between the novels, the movies and the plays.  My favorite artifact was the camper Steinbeck drove in Travels with Charley.  Alas, my picture didn’t turn out.  I picked up a copy of East of Eden in the museum store.

But the highlight of the Steinbeck portion of my trip was lunch.  A few blocks down from the museum is Steinbeck’s birthplace, which was turned into a restaurant years ago.  It’s almost completely run by volunteers.

Years ago (before my time), my museum had a restaurant staffed by volunteers.  They had these calico aprons that still occasionally pop up.  So, when I sat down and my waitress was wearing a very similar calico apron, I felt like I was in some sort of time warp.  There aren’t many places like this left in the country.  But that whole famous author thing really helps keep them in business!  It was also fun to chat with the volunteers at length–they have such hometown pride for Steinbeck.  He’s “their” guy.

It may have been the height of nerdiness, but I totally cracked open East of Eden while I was eating lunch.  Have you ever read an author’s work while sitting in their birthplace?  Me neither.  Now that I’m in the middle of East of Eden, I’m so glad that I chose to wait to read this one until after my visit.  The landscape is so important to this novel, and though his descriptions are wonderful, there’s something to be said for experiencing the place itself.

Museum folks spend a lot of time talking about the value of the “real” artifact.  Will people still want to see the “real thing” when everything can be digitized?  In what’s probably no big surprise, I tend to lean towards the idea that “real” will always be important.  With books, I’ve traveled all over the world.  Armchair traveling is wonderful and important (and generally much cheaper!).  And yet, I wouldn’t trade my visits to Prince Edward Island, Mansfield, MO, Oxford, MS, Mankato and Walnut Grove, MN, and now Salinas, CA, for anything.  Those books, so intricately entwined with those places, have a whole new layer of enjoyment to them.  Place matters, even in fiction.