Friday, November 22, 2013

Literary pilgrimages

If you've read Laura Ingalls Wilder's On the Banks of Plum Creek, you probably remember the scenes that took place in the creek itself. Plum Creek was a water source and a place where the children played. It also had a darker side: You probably remember the leeches, and the time that Laura nearly drowned in the springtime, when its waters ran fast and high.

In her book about visiting the places that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about (The Wilder Life), Wendy McClure describes her own visit to Plum Creek:

"I was going to wade in the creek. Others were doing it ...  A little cloud of silt rose up with each step, just like On the Banks of Plum Creek had described. ... that smokelike swirl that wavered in the water was how I knew the book was true.

"... A little girl about seven years old was standing on the bank. She'd stopped short when she saw me, and I could tell she was trying to reconcile her sense of Laura World with the strangely crowded reality: here was Plum Creek, but here was this lady, too. Over the course of the trip there'd be other little encounters like this ... where everyone's reveries bumped up against one another. ...

"As we walked back to the car, I could see other people trying to have their private creek moments, children and adults alike, everyone standing in their little rings in the water."

This scene made me think about the power of books. While the popularity of the Little House books (and thus the Little House pilgrimage spots, like Plum Creek) has no doubt been helped by the long-running TV series based on them, what people try to reach when they stand in their little rings in Plum Creek is almost certainly drawn from the books. The books made us feel what it was like to wade in Plum Creek in a very immediate, direct way that couldn't be duplicated on TV.

"Where they waded in the shallow water a footprint would not stay. First a swirl like smoke came up from it and wavered away in the clear water. Then the footprint slowly melted. The toes smoothed out and the heel was only a small hollow."--Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

I picture all these readers converging on Plum Creek year after year. What people try to capture when they stand in Plum Creek is an experience they first imagined when reading a book. Each standing in his private ring in his own reverie, communing with an author who now lives on through her books. Taking an experience off the page, and back into the real world it was drawn from.

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