Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage to one of your favorite authors' homes? I've made many, but none have been as memorably as those I've made in England. I followed in the footsteps of Lord Byron in Hampstead Heath to the notorious Spaniard's Inn; cried over a lock of Fanny Brawne's hair in John Keat's cottage and took a train, a bus, and walked two miles in the rain to tour Vita Sackville's Sissinghurst Castle Gardens. I'm a sucker for a good book on travelling to one's literary mecca.
How The Heather Looks by Joan Bodger delivers us from our daily routine to the magical world of English children's literature. She embarks on a grand adventure with her family in search of all their most treasured spots from Jemima Puddle Duck's garden to Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood. As with all travel journals, the journey is the destination and for Bodger, she prevails upon her family to humor her every step of the way as she searches for hidden clues in libraries and charming village squares. She enlists the help of the kind townspeople, librarians, gypsies and pub, shop and bar keeps she befriends there. Her children point out King Arthur's Tintagel Castle in the distance while her husband, a gifted researcher and trusted navigator, tries to sort out their destination through the mists of Avalon. She's truly an indomitable force and never more so as when she beautifully describes their triumphant discoveries.
Bodger even went so far as to hunt down Arthur Ransome at his home to speak with him about Swallow and Amazons. Prior to their trip, she searched end papers and maps in Ransome's novels and T.H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose, and even Winnie the Pooh, on how to find the places described in the books. When a helpful friend presented Bodger with a twenty-year back file of Horn Book, she became convinced that they could find them and all they needed was a little faith. She was reminded of Emily Dickinson's poem:
I never saw a moor
I never saw the sea,
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart was given.
Following Dickinson's lines with single-minded pursuit, Bodger and her family don't always find what they are looking for, but they make many serendipitous discoveries. From an article in Horn Book, "Illustrating 'The Wind in the Willows'" by Ernest Shepard, Bodger learned that Shepard had visited Kenneth Grahame in his home four months before his death. Grahame told him where he could find Rat's house and Toad Hall, the pools where Otter hid, and "the Wild Wood Way up on the hill above the river, a fearsome place but for the sanctuary of Badger's home and Toad Hall." Equipped with a map of the Thames, they attempted to follow Grahame's instructions. With the help of a kind librarian named Ms. Parrott ('tis true), she found that Kenneth Grahame and his wife lived in Pangbourne and that Mole's House was located in Blewbury. Renting a boat from a fisherman who knew Mr. Grahame very well, they uncovered Mole's House hiding in a riverbank, much to their utter delight.
The secret beauty of this memoir is the pleasure of finding the unexpected (gypsies, librarians, new friends) when searching for something familiar from youth. In Bodger's attempts to recreate the childhood stories of her English girlhood for her son and daughter, she gave them something much richer: a taste for adventure and a fine example of how great determination can help you to pull the sword from the stone, revealing an inner strength and resourcefulness. I highly recommend How the Heather Looks to anyone searching for these qualities, but also a jolly family romp in one of the most beautiful places in the world.