A very sweet friend gave me a copy of From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood by Nancy McCabe (University of Missouri Press, 2014) for Christmas. It was high on my wish list, so I’m pleased as punch at receiving it. It is a more serious, thought-provoking look back to childhood favorites, and I would certainly recommend it.
McCabe explains in the Prologue that, as happens with so many of us, during her teenage years, she no longer experienced books the same way she had as a child. She lost the magic (my word, not hers) - that feeling of complete immersion and being the heroine, and the impression of possibilities that go along with such heroic identification (i.e., “I can do anything! I can be anything! I can be strong/smart/pretty! Etc.).
Then one day in adulthood, events conspired to make McCabe realize that her decision to adopt her daughter could be traced back to a book she had read as a girl. Intrigued by this, she wondered how all the books she read back then led her to be the person she is with the life she has now. From Little Houses to Little Women is her account of her journey to find out.
Most, if not all, of the books McCabe discusses will be familiar to former child readers (and if you weren’t a reader with favorite books as a child, you probably wouldn’t pick up this book in the first place), but she brings out details we might not recall if we haven’t re-read them as adults ourselves. Don’t expect a joyful romp through the land of used-to-be, however. McCabe’s perspective was colored by the long illness and painful death of a close aunt - an aunt who was influential in her reading and her life - so a cloud of confusion, pain, and sadness hovers over many of her reminisces This makes the book less comforting than one might expect revisiting favorite characters would be, but more interesting with a unique perspective.
The journey is external as well as internal: in addition to rereading the books to see what she brought forward with her, McCabe traveled to several of the authors’ homes, seeking to find how their lives informed their work - and ultimately her life.
McCabe seems to have been disappointed in many of her home site visits. This is partly due to either the commercialization some sites have embraced in their bid for tourist dollars or the converse problem of not having enough money to keep the site up properly, but more greatly due to the afore-mentioned aunt, who took McCabe on a similar trip shortly before her death. This previous trip’s influence caused McCabe to have an outlook much different than most people do on such expeditions (based on many conversations I’ve had with numerous other literary travelers). If her viewpoint is uncommon, it is all the more compelling.
Even though this is a memoir, it does not have an intimate feel. It’s much more analytical - which was the author’s purpose, after all. McCabe lets us figure it out with her along the journey, instead of filling us in after she does so herself, so readers become privy to her thoughts in what seems like real time.
In the end, McCabe draws some interesting conclusions regarding how childhood books shape a person’s character - or, at least, how her favorite books as a girl impacted her own choices and values through life. The most interesting part to me was what she thought, as a young reader, the various authors were saying, versus what she now believes they were saying - and, related to that, the nuances she missed completely back then that now stand out. Some of these are similar to what I have experienced in re-reading childhood favorites, but many others are completely different. So, while McCabe reaches personal closure on her own quest, her book also raises some unwritten questions:
Do young readers pick up adult authors’ agendas, or does each child only see what they need or want at the time? Given such differences in viewpoint, how can we determine which books will have a more positive effect on a young person, or should we even try to do that? How does this affect the way authors of books for young readers approach their work (i.e., how can they make the point they want to make without “preaching”)?
What do you think?