Amid COVID journey restrictions, books can transport us
While this winter of our dissatisfaction continues, most of our travel dreams remain on the tarmac. COVID-19 vaccines promise relief soon. But until the pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted, we will rant against a lesser evil: cabin fever.
It is undoubtedly a troubling disease, but with an appealing antidote. From John Steinbeck (Salinas Valley in California) to Jack London (Alaska and Yukon) to Willa Cather (Great Plains), our favorite authors can take us to places that will be remembered or just presented on the horizon.
As we know, literature thrives on characters and conflict. But it also requires a sense of place. Acclaimed Mediterranean writer Eudora Welty bluntly admitted that “fiction is a lie,” argued that the place cemented credibility and breathed life into the characters in a fictional work.
In the introduction to his delightful collection on literary goals (“Booked: A travel guide for literary places around the world”), the author Richard Kreitner described himself as “incredibly happy” during a trip in his youth. The occasion? Transportation of a William Wordsworth book to a rocky peak overlooking the English village of Grasmere, where the poet lived and is buried for 15 years.
Kreitner’s book traces goals such as Atticus Finch’s Alabama hometown in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the two-story Lorain, Ohio house that inspired Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and James Joyce’s Dublin in “Ulysses.”
“Why are we looking for places from literature?” Asks Kreitner. “The most obvious thing is to see how our mental picture of (them), shaped by the author’s descriptions, corresponds to reality. … We want to see how the artist transformed banal reality into art. “
We need a departure and soon.
So travel with me on a personal journey picked from the pages of a waist-high pile of books.
A field of celery extends to the foothills in California’s Salinas Valley.
(Pgiam / Getty Images)
John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley
The opening words of Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” are simple and unadorned: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” The following pages contain a clear description of the place where the writer was born and raised.
“I remember the Gabilan Mountains in the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and beauty and a kind of invitation that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills, much like you wanted to climb into a lover’s lap, mom . They waved mountains with a brown love of grass. “
From an accompanying diary that records the progress of the novel in 1951 (“Journal of a Novel: The Letters from the East Eden”), we know that Steinbeck intended the work to be a memory of the place and family for his two young sons should be by first establishing their family tree.
“Next I would like to describe the Salinas Valley in detail, but only sparingly, so that there is a real feel for it,” he wrote to his editor Pascal Covici. “It should be pictures and sounds, smells and colors, but put simply, as if the boys could read it. This is the physical background of the book. “
Even in “Cannery Row” the shabby side of Monterey (long ago tidied up) seems somehow light-hearted and picturesque.
“Cannery Row is the collected and scattered tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, broken pavement and weeded lots and heaps of trash, corrugated iron sardine factories, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses and small overcrowded groceries, laboratories and flea houses. ”
For decades, the farmers of the valley berated Steinbeck for his sympathetic portrayal of farm workers in “The Grapes of Anger”, who described him as communist and worse. Finally, in 1998, 30 years after his death, the National Steinbeck Center opened in Salinas.
The pandemic has closed the center since March. The highlight for me when I visited a few years ago was Rocinante, the truck-camper combo that Steinbeck and his standard poodle carried around the country to write “Travels With Charley”.
Jack London’s Alaska and the Canadian Yukon
The lure of gold drew London to Alaska and the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. His experiences there drove his writing. Ultimately, he made his fortune with words taken from the rugged landscape of the north, like this passage from “The Call of the Wild”:
“With the aurora borealis blazing cold above them, or the stars jumping in the frosty dance, and the land numb and frozen under its blanket of snow, this husky song could have been the defiance of life.”
Or his opening description from “White Fang”:
“Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway. The trees had recently been freed from their white frost cover by a wind, and they seemed to lean black and menacing in the fading light. There was great silence over the land. “
Perhaps more than any other, the London Passage, which has stayed with me over the years, describes the relentless coldness of the Yukon from his short story “To Build a Fire”: To Build a Fire:
“When he turned to continue, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again the saliva crackled in the air before it could fall into the snow. He knew that saliva crackled in the snow at fifty below, but that saliva had crackled in the air. No doubt it was colder than fifty below – how much colder he didn’t know. “
These and many other stories, including local legends, can be found in The Last New Land: Tales of the Past and Present of Alaska, an anthology edited by Wayne Mergler.
Covered wagon in front of a butt at Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska.
(dszc / Getty Images)
Willa Cather’s Great Plains
Cather spent most of her childhood in Nebraska, and these memories, captured in her crisp, poignant style, made her one of the most popular writers of the early 20th century. Much of the work, including 1918’s My Ántonia, takes place in the Great Plains:
“The road from the post office passed our door, crossed the courtyard, and wound around this little pond, behind which it climbed the gentle waves of the unbroken prairie to the west. There, along the western line of the sky, there was a large field of grain, much larger than any field I had ever seen. That grain field and the sorghum field behind the barn were the only broken land in sight. Everywhere, as far as the eye can see, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, mostly as big as me. “
Or this excerpt from the Pulitzer Prize-winning “One of Ours”.
“He’d come to this part of Nebraska when the Indians and the buffalo were still out, remembering the grasshopper year and the great hurricane, and watching the farms emerge one by one from the great rolling side where once only the wind was wrote his story. ”
Other notable literary goals
Southern California: It’s hard to beat Joan Didion’s searing prose about the Winds of Santa Ana (“Los Angeles Notebook” from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”). But for a gritty piece of LA Pulp Fiction, I’ll curl up with Raymond Chandler anytime (suggested reading: “The Annotated Big Sleep,” which tells the story behind the masterpiece).
New York City: This metropolis seems to express the melancholy and cynicism of its authors (“Washington Square” by Henry James; “The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger; a multitude of desperate characters in O. Henry’s short stories). For a helping of youthful optimism, try Herman Wouk’s “City Boy”, Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” or EL Konigsburg’s classic children’s novel “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”.
London: I’m part of Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle for an atmospheric solution. JK Rowling’s legion of readers largely escapes a world of their imagination, but life occasionally adapts to art, like a character describing the invisible platform 9¾, now at King’s Cross Station (as well as – surprise! – in the Harry Potter Shop) approved.
If only a wand and an incantation could fix us like we’re under a bogie curse. At least we know, thanks to Henry’s The Handbook of Hymen (found in Heart of the West), that books offer a foolproof cure for cabin fever.