March 8, 2010
How the Heather Looks by Joan Bodger
I was thinking of AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book when I decided I wanted to read Joan Bodger’s How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the Sources of Children’s Books. Byatt’s novel had stirred my interest in the history of English children’s literature, plus I’ve been reading a lot of it myself lately– we’re currently working on Now We Are Six at bedtime. Bodger’s book was first published in 1965, the story of a journey her American family had taken across Britain in the late ’50s in search of storybook places they all knew by heart. She was a writer herself, her husband John was a reference librarian, and they’d managed to instill a passionate love of literature in their two children, which is no wonder considering they were the type of parents who’d embark upon a journey such as this one.
The book is magical, sparkling. I was familiar with probably only about a third of the works referenced, but I’ve come away wanting to read the rest, and Bodger’s prose is so delightful, the trip itself twisty and turny and marvelous to follow along. Her research is stunning. And how wonderful: the very point is to discover whether maps they keep finding in their books’ end-pages could possibly map onto real places? And the story of what they discover is a wonderful ode to an Britain that was (times two), and a testament to the power of children’s literature.
It is pretty typical, from what I know of England, that this American family on a madcap adventure rarely finds an English person who’s read the work they’ve travelled across an ocean in search of. At the beginning of the book, the family arrives in Whitchurch in search of scenes depicted by illustrator Randalph Caldecott, and they stop at a school to ask for directions. Bodger wonders, “what it would be like to talk to children who walked to school each morning over the very fields and country lanes made famous in the Caldecott illustrations… [T]he experience [of introducing Caldecott's work to the children] must be akin to holding a child up to the mirror for the first time and letting him recognize what it is that the rest of the world holds dear.”
The children don’t recognize what the world holds dear, however, and even their teacher hadn’t heard of Caldecott. And the Bodgers encounter this time and time again, as they go in search of Narnia, a lost colony of Lilliputians, the Borrowers’ home, of Robin Hood, Pooh’s enchanted wood, Toad Hall and Rat’s house, Camelot, Avalon, The Secret Garden, and Jemima Puddle-Duck’s garden too. Not to say that English aren’t accommodating, however. They meet with AA Milne’s widow, and Bodger stumbles upon an interview with Arthur Ransome. When Bodger has to make an urgent call to the London Library Association, the person who answered her call “did not seem in the least upset that I had asked him to find out where a fictitious water rat had entertained a talking mole.”
The Bodgers rarely find exactly what they’re looking for, but possessing spirit and imagination enough to embark on such a pilgrimage at all, they have enough too to find the magic they’re seeking. Which is partly due Britain itself, its layers of history, its mythical past (and its tea and scones, from which the family frequently takes its sustenance). Due also to the stories, their universal appeal and how they’ve endured. But also to the Bodgers’ particular appreciation of the stories, and of stories in general (and Joan Bodger would go on to found the Story-Tellers School of Toronto). These are parents who take children’s literature very seriously, which has rubbed off on their son who possesses that knowledge of battles, and history, and storybook scenes that only a small boy can. Particularly a small boy who used to rock in his crib to the beat of “Windy Nights” when his mother read the poem to him at bedtime.
In her afterward to the 1999 edition of this book (and Bodger died in 2002), Bodger warns those who might regard How the Heather Looks as a guide to family life, to creating wondrous childhoods. Indeed, however idyllic the family seems, one cannot avoid mention of what would happen to them: Lucy, just two years old in the book (“the only one among us who did not need a guidebook”, young enough to think of nothing walking into the world of storybooks) would die of a brain tumour at age seven, Bodger and her husband would divorce, her husband and son would both suffer from schizophrenia. Whichs idevastating, and terrifying– I have this naive idea that with books, we can steel ourselves against tragedy, that we have any kind of control over that kind of thing at all.
But this unexpected ending doesn’t make the book any less magical, just as the Bodgers’ locating their favourite stories in the real world doesn’t diminish the literature itself. This is the stuff that the world is made of, is all, and a rare, precious thing are writers like Bodger who can see it that way, and then write it down so beautifully too, drawing such illuminating connections. Which is why I look forward to also reading her autobiography The Crack in the Teacup: The Life of an Old Woman Steeped in Stories very soon.