Joan Bodger's How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books is a charming read! I wrote about it briefly back in March and wanted to make sure I mention it once again before it all fades too much from memory. The copy I read was not mine and has since been sent on its way (though I temporarily have a library copy that also needs to go back), but it's a book I think I might have to add to my own personal collection. Books about books are always a treat, don't you think? And this one reminded me a lot of Christina Hardyment's Heidi's Alp: One Family's Search for Storybook Europe. I read it last year and it would make a great pairing with the Bodger.
Each book covers slightly different terrain, though both concern families of bibliophiles who go out in search of places they encountered in treasured works of literature--in both cases children's literature. Had I planned things properly I would have read along with the Bodger family's adventures--C.S. Lewis in Narnia country and a little King Arthur when they went in search of Camelot, Wind in the Willows when they went looking for the world of Rat and Mole to name just a few possibilties. Each book is as much about the family's experiences traveling and a bit about family dynamics thrown in as about the literary destination. Each, however, has its own unique spin with only a tiny bit of crossover. The Hardyments, a British family, made their literary pilgrimage to storybook Europe in the mid-1980s whereas the Bodgers traveled from the US on the elegant Cunard Line in the 1950s direct to England and their focus was on British children's classics.
It's easy to appreciate these travels (a reverse armchair travel almost . . . read the book first and then if you're lucky go see the real place), though once again this is another eye opener in terms of seeing those gaping holes in my own youthful literary education. The Bodger parents were both half English and had traveled to England as children. As their own children arrived and grew they introduced them to all the British classics they themselves had loved--from Caldecott's picture books to typical and well known nursery rhymes, A.A. Milne's Pooh, Miss Potter's world and on to R.L. Stevenson and beyond. It might have helped that John Bodger was a reference librarian. If only every child could be so lucky as their Ian and Lucy.
"I suppose that an American's approach to English literature must always be oblique. We share a language but not a landscape. In order to understand the English classics as adults, we must build up a sort of visual vocabulary from books we read as children. Children's literature is, in some ways more important to us than it is to the English child. I contend that a child brought up on the nursery rhymes and Jacobs' English Fairy Tales can better understand Shakespeare; that a child who has pored over Beatrix Potter can better respond to Wordsworth. Of course it is best if one can find for himself a bank where the wild thyme grows, or discover daffodils growing wild. Failing that, the American child must feed the 'inward eye' with the images in the books he reads when young so that he can enter a larger realm when he is older. I am sure I enjoyed Bronte novels more for having read The Secret Garden first. As I stood on those Moors, looking out over that wind-swept landscape I realized that it was Mrs. Burnett who taught me what 'wuthering' meant long before I ever got around to reading Wuthering Heights. Epiphany comes at the moment of recognition."
I envy people those childhoods. It sounds so idyllic to me, to be so steeped in 'classic' literature as a child. Some of us didn't have the benefit of guided reading and were simply left to our own devices, though I think I have not turned out so very badly. My reading history will always be spotty, but I know I will likely appreciate those books all the more reading it now than I was likely to as a small child. Having such a different reading background than the Bodgers, however, in no way lessened my pleasure of reading about their literary adventures. Despite not having read many of the works I was still familiar enough for it to not all be completely new to me.
Their journey was a little bit detective work, as much advice as they could glean from good sources (libraries!) and just luck and perseverance. They went in search of the places they had (literally) read about in the stories they loved, which may or may not have ever really existed. In some cases it was mostly in the imagination of the author with perhaps some landscape detail to provide inspiration. On occasion the people who lived so close to these literary locales hadn't much clue to their significance (and isn't that almost always the case when you see something every day of your life). And sometimes it just all came together--the imaginary world of the book and the real world around them.
"We heard someone shouting at us and looked up to see Ian standing knee-deep in heather. The whole mountainside, as far as the eye could see, was steeped in bronze and purple. 'Hey!' he shouted, 'Now I know how the heather looks'!"
It didn't matter that my reading life hasn't been the same as the Bodgers, as I loved the book nonetheless. But I know that moment of epiphany and I know what it is to truly love a well-told story.