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June 4, 2015

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

The reason why Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius was one of my favourite books as a child was because of its expansiveness. In terms of geography—we see images from her travels all around the globe, and on a micro level as she winds her way along paths and roads in her New England town so that we see the school, the church, the houses of her neighbours. Images on the horizon and ships on the sea (and the highways that stretch off the page in two directions) suggest interconnectivity, the wider world, a sense of wholeness. And so too does Cooney portray a single life with such largesse, beginning with young Alice as a child painting in the skies in her father’s pictures, and finishing with Alice as an old old lady (as narrated by her grand-neice), as well as everything in between.

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As an adult reader, I still admire the hugeness of Cooney’s canvas, but I am most fond of the book for its feminist overtones. Because here we have young Alice who knows exactly what she’s going to do with her life—she’s going to travel to far away places, and then come home to live beside the sea. (There is a third thing she must do, according to her grandfather—she must make the world a more beautiful place.) Here then is the story of a woman’s life that neither begins nor ends with a wedding—in fact, there isn’t a wedding at all. I suppose we’d call her a spinster, but she’s a woman who’s always been called by her own name: Miss Rumphius, The Lupine Lady, Great Aunt Alice. (Admittedly, she is also referred to as That Crazy Old Lady, but she doesn’t appear particularly bothered.)

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Here is the story of a woman who goes through the world sowing her seeds, leaving her mark, living precisely as she said she would. She doesn’t stop travelling the world and courting adventure until she hurts her back getting off a camel, and only then does she come home to her place beside the sea. She doesn’t conform to society’s expectations of femininity, but lives by her own rules. (A similar plot is more explicit in Cooney’s picture book, Hattie and the Waves. Cooney has described both books, as well as Island Boy, as as close as she’d ever come to writing an autobiography. Surprisingly though, Cooney was married—twice!)

As a feminist, it’s possible that this was my foundational text.

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There are a few troubling points about the book involving cultural stereotypes. See Debbie Reese’s post about what’s wrong with the reference to the cigar store Indian, and I’m also uncomfortable with the colonial feel of Miss Rumphius’s travels throughout the world. Both issues can be the start of worthwhile discussions with young readers though, two of many spurned on by the richness of Cooney’s words and images. These points should not be ignored, but are no good reason to throw the book out altogether.

Miss Rumphius in bed

I love so many things about this book. That it’s an entire lifetime distilled into a few words and pictures, that she works as a librarian, the greenhouse, the cat, that she gets sick and then gets better again, that the story affords that life itself brings bumps along the way. It’s the kind of books whose illustrations I’d get lost in, tracing my fingers down the roads, examining the details of the paintings on the wall. And the light of the sunset on the very last page, the children gathering lupines that Miss Rumphius planted. I love the cyclical nature of the story, it’s open end, which is a challenge to the reader herself.

Throughout summer, I will be devoting Picture Book Fridays to classic picture books I love. 

One thought on “Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney”

  1. patricia says:

    I love, love, love this book! For many of the reasons you mentioned, but also for the beautiful colours. I am going to go read it again right now.

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