I've forgotten how much I like reading travel narratives. I have two very full shelves full of them and probably could fill another with more books of travel adventures that I've got spread out in other places. Written in 1987 and one of a series of travel books published by Atlantic Monthly, Christina Hardyment's Heidi's Alp: One Family's Search for Storybook Europe combined a number of really interesting elements. It's not just a straightforward narrative about the family's travel adventures (and sometimes misadventures), but the focus is on literary Europe, in particular children's literature--a few classics as well as folk and fairy tales. There's also a fair bit of history and social history and even pop culture included, as it wasn't meant to be all study and no play.
Inspired by Toad's adventures in The Wind in the Willows, which she had been reading to her younger daughters, Hardyment decided that her own life had become one of routine and monotony and a little family adventure was called for.
"Four daughters aged between five and twelve: eighteen years of lunchboxes and swimming money, lost textbooks and missed music lessons. What had happened to my old dreams, of exploring Trebizond like Rose Macaulay, excavating in Anatolia like Freya Stark, daring the desert in memory of Lady Hester Stanhope? Was a family a ball and chain for life?"
Once arrangements had been made with the childrens' schools, since they would be leaving before the end of the academic year, they found a suitable means of transportation. In this case a motorhome was borrowed from friends, which the family dubbed "Bertha". In the first leg of their journey they were joined by a friend and her baby, and the latter half Hardyment's husband shared driving and navigating responsibilities. I was reminded of Patrick Leigh Fermor's earlier adventures, which he wrote about in A Time of Gifts, as the Hardyments also set off, too, from the Hook of Holland.
"We had one other travelling companion. By April I had done enough research to be reasonably well-informed on the obscurer aspects of the books and authors we were to pursue. One writer above all the rest had emerged as vivid, urgent, and demanding. At first I didn't even particularly like him, but like a doppelgänger he kept turning up at my shoulder in the most unlikely places, always with a question. Ugly, unsettled, an embarrassment to many of his friends and yet the most obsessively read and reread of all European storytellers, Hand Christian Andersen haunted me as effectively as 'The Travelling Companion' of his own macabre story."
Much of their journey loosely follows Andersen's own life, writings and his own travels through Europe. If you've ever wondered what inspires an author to write the stories they do, the Hardyments visit the places and see first hand the cities or villages, the landscapes and even the homes and always with book in hand. Did you know that Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates was actually written by American Mary Mapes Dodge, who hadn't even been to Holland before writing the book? She checked facts with Dutch friends living in New York.
There's lots about Hans Christian Andersen, poor unattractive man that he was, whose mother was barely literate and highly superstitious. She, however, instilled in him the idea that whatever he wanted to be in life was entirely acceptable. This was probably pretty progressive thinking for the early 19th century. The family followed him from Denmark (with sidetrips to Legoland and the Tivoli Gardens) to Germany exploring his many fairy tales along the way.
An entire chapter is devoted to the historical basis of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, which reminded me, too, of Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider. It's best to pay off your debts lest something awful befalls you if you don't. Were those children really spirited away and just what was the real reason why? The Hardyments follow the Fairy Tale Road in Germany (and even in the 80s much of it, including a sidetrip to Neuschwanstein Castle, was something of a tourist trap), learn about Pinocchio in Italy, Heidi's Alp in Switzerland and Babar in France.
This is such a charming read and Hardyment manages to thread everything together seamlessly. It's obvious that she did her homework either along the way or after as she writes not just about what she sees but what the literature and tales mean. It's those bits that I really appreciated as they reinforced or shed light on my own fairy tale reading last fall. Hardyment shared a wonderful quote from Italo Calvino, which makes me want to find and read his Italian Folktales.
"These folk tales are a catalogue of the potential destinies of men and women, especially for the stage in life when destiny is formed, that is, yought, beginning with birth, which itself often foreshadows the future; then the departure from home, and finally, through the trials of growing up, the attainment of maturity and the proof of one's humanity."
I don't know when I'll get back to reading fairy tales, but I know how important they are in the scheme of things since so much hinges on those stories. It's quite nice to think how it's all interconnected and this was such a pleasurable way to think about it. I'd be curious to know where the family is now, since their travels are a quarter century past. Their journey even took them behind the Iron Curtain and into East Germany. So much has changed but the stories remain a part of our culture.
This is the second book from my list of books to read this year (the other being Alice McDermott's At Weddings and Wakes). I had to mention that as I'm so pleased with myself for staying on track for once. I have tentatively picked Chaim Potok's Davita's Harp for my next read, but I've not yet started it and have to decide if that's really what I'm in the mood for at the moment.