My first glimpse of Margaret Wise Brown’s house on Vinalhaven Island, Maine, was from a boat. It topped a granite slope, clapboard siding painted the same gray-blue as the sparkling Hurricane Sound. I was so excited I nearly fell overboard. We’d just passed the Little Island that Margaret had made famous in her Caldecott-winning book and I’d spotted a seal dozing on the rocks.
Margaret’s Only House was not the only house on that end of the island, but it was to me. I’d been working on a biography of Brown and was looking for the real Margaret. My pilgrimage to Only House was professional, primary research. I came to Margaret’s work as an adult and placed her in her house, not myself as a child in the fictional site of one of her books.
I was not a Potter fan clamoring to find Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross station, or someone with fond memories of Eloise scoping out the lobby of the Plaza. As a kid, I longed to see Sleepyside-on-the-Hudson, the fictional setting of my beloved Trixie Belden mysteries, because I believed it was real. Recently I learned the village was real, based on Ossining, New York, where the author had lived.
Each year, thousands tour literary houses such as the Bronte Parsonage in Yorkshire or Hemingway’s home in Key West. When I went to Concord, Massachusetts, I waded in Walden Pond in honor of Thoreau, an author I admire as an adult. I think it requires a different mind-set to visit the fictional sites of favorite children’s books and come away satisfied.
If you loved the Anne of Green Gables books, a trip to Prince Edward Island may disappoint with its busloads of tourists and modern interpretive exhibits. However, children still reading those books might eagerly embrace fiction and reality in that liminal space, thrilled to see Anne’s tiny bedroom with her stockings draped over the bedstead. Scholars maintain that when children visit literary sites, the experience enhances re-readings of those books.
But how do adults fare on these journeys? I loved Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. The Little House books McClure devoured as a child carried her to new places, new sights, new adventures. She found in those landscapes “enchanted points of entry into a fantasy world,” as Nicola Watson writes in The Literary Tourist.
McClure craved to churn butter and play with a corncob doll. She imagined helping Laura — magically transported to the 1970s — on the escalators of North Riverside Mall. Then, like so many of us, she grew up and left her childhood book friend behind. After the death of her mother, McClure re-read the books and decided to trace Laura’s path, homestead by homestead.
The Wilder Life concludes with McClure remembering the different houses her mother, who grew up in a move-every-few-years-military family, tracked down on summer vacations. “I … thought of Laura, too, of one little house after another forming the story of a life.” At last she declared to her patient husband that they were done Laura-jaunting. Home was with him, she realized. Time to re-enter the story of their life together.
Sarah Maslin Nir recounts a different experience in her New York Times article, “All the Pretty Ponies.” Growing up “mostly horseless” in New York City, she traveled to Chincoteague Island, Virginia, on the trail of Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague. Misty had “stoked [her] equestrian fantasies as a girl. Maslin Nir arrived during Pony-Penning Days, when the wild horses swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague to be auctioned, a tradition dating from 1925 to thin the herd and raise funds for the fire department.
She sat on her hands during the auction to keep from bidding on adorable, shaggy ponies. Then she visited the Museum of Chincoteague Island and saw taxidermied Misty on display. The experience was “crushing.” When she learned that Misty had never been a wild pony, she knew “the creature Henry had conjured on the page had never really lived.” She bought a copy of Misty of Chincoteague as a souvenir of her trip, preferring her childhood version to reality.
When we as adults try to repossess a fictional landscape that meant everything to us as children, we risk trampling the enchanted point of entry. On my trip to Concord, I was sorely tempted. Not only is Concord the home of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts, it was also the setting of my favorite childhood book, The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton. The neo-Gothic house depicted on the cover was on 148 Walden Street. I could go there. I could take a picture!
The lure was powerful. But I know that wonderful old houses were often parceled into apartments, added on to, changed. I didn’t couldn’t bear to see Eric Blegvad’s 1961 illustration marred by the 21st century.
In his 1935 travel memoir, In Search of England, H.V. Morton climbed the rock steps to Tintagel, the rumored birthplace of King Arthur, even though he felt the castle “was one of those places which no man should see.” Tintagel wasn’t the gaunt rocky ruins, but “a country of dreams more real than reality.” Exactly so.
Not everything has to be seen, not every speck of curiosity must be satisfied, especially in a world where Google provides the answer to anything. I remembered my first reading of Diamond, that singular moment when my imagination sprouted wings and I soared into the clouds. I didn’t go to 148 Walden Street. I would not ruin the memory.