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Travel Books - How the Heather Looks

Literary pilgrimages are not that unusual. A whole tourist industry has arisen around visiting the homes and haunts of famous writers: Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford, for example, for those seeking to be closer to the Bard of Avon, or the Bronte Parsonage in the North York Moors, or Dove Cottage in the Lake District. What makes Joan Bodger’s literary pilgrimage different is that she sets out to discover the actual settings of the children’s books she admires. In 1958, Bodger and her family—husband John, son Ian (age eight), and daughter Lucy (age two)—come into a modest windfall and decide to take a summer holiday in Britain and track down the settings of their favourite British children’s stories. Children, Bodger tells us, are quite literal. When they read a story, they assume that the places described in it are real. This is the spirit in which How the Heather Looks is written. Together, the family seeks out the country of King Arthur and Robin Hood; they walk into the illustrations of Randolph Caldecott, L. Leslie Brooke, and Beatrix Potter; they go “messing about in boats” on the Thames in search of the world of The Wind in the Willows. They have tea with Daphne Milne in the house where Christopher Robin lived, and play “Pooh Sticks” on the very bridge where Winnie the Pooh invented the game. (Incidentally, “Pooh Sticks” is a litmus test for the potential reader: if you don’t know what this game is, you will not enjoy this book; if you do know, you will love it.) They seek out the “secret garden” of Frances Hodgson Burnett and the “child’s garden” of Robert Louis Stevenson. The high point for me is Bodger’s interview with the reclusive and grumpy Arthur Ransome, author of the “Swallows and Amazons” series of books. The weakness of Bodger’s narrative is the weakness of any journey taken with young children. At a number of points in the book, Bodger apologizes for missing something because the children were getting impatient or needed a nap. Any parent will sympathize, but any reader may not.

How the Heather Looks has a small, but devoted following among the fans of British children’s books. It is, we are told in the afterword, the book most often stolen by retiring children’s librarians. The book was reissued in 1999 to coincide with the publication of Bodger’s autobiography, The Crack in the Teacup, where we learn that shortly after the family complete their “joyous journey,” things fall apart. Her husband and son are diagnosed with schizophrenia, and her daughter dies of a brain tumour. She is divorced. Nonetheless, the journey remains ever bright, firmly fixed in a time before tragedy, when you could step into the pages of a storybook and be translated into the land of childhood.


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