Friday, February 20, 2015

Nancy McCabe's "From Little Houses to Little Women"

Nancy McCabe is the author of four memoirs about a range of topics: adoption and heritage; violence against women, memory, and creativity; travel, childhood, reading, and children’s literature.

McCabe applied the “Page 99 Test” to her recent book, From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, and reported the following:
On page 99 of From Little Houses to Little Women I am in Mankato, Minnesota, wandering around the Maud Hart Lovelace wing of the Minnesota Valley Regional Library. What I really want to be doing is touring the houses up the hill where Lovelace and her best friend grew up, the houses that served as models for those occupied by fictional best friends Betsy and Tacy. I found them earlier, these two unassuming houses across the street from each other at the top of a hill alongside a road grinding with machinery. “It ran straight up into a green hill and stopped,” Lovelace writes in each of the first three books of the series. She’s describing Hill Street, modeled after Center Street. Lewis, the side street that intersects Center, has no name in the books; it is only known as “The Road Up the Big Hill.”

Today, I found The Road Up the Big Hill buzzing with yellow road graders that push their blades uphill and down, dust rising around them. The houses were shut up tight, since they’re only open for tours on Saturdays. I called the number on the door of the “Tacy” house and left a message in the hopes that I could get a tour. And now I’m killing time by studying a wall-sized mural of Lovelace’s characters and a reproduction of Lois Lenski’s illustration of “Deep Valley,” Lovelace’s fictionalized Mankato, with its undulating hills and tall trees and cozy little houses. As a child I loved this illustration on the endpapers of my library books, losing myself in the hills and trees and curving roads.

My stop in Mankato is something of an impulse on a drive through the Midwest to Laura Ingalls Wilder sites in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri, which I write about elsewhere in the book. This trip will later inspire one to Prince Edward Island and Anne of Green Gables territory, which I also write about, along with visits to Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson houses in Massachusetts. But on page 99, my journey is really just getting started, and I’m on the brink of some wonderful discoveries and rediscoveries about these books and these authors and how they shaped me.

As a child, I hesitated to admit aloud how much I loved Lovelace’s girls’ series, ten books that follow Betsy from the age of four into her mid-twenties. There were circles in which it was cool to be a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, but no one I knew had ever heard of Lovelace. Her name was embarrassing to say aloud, sounding like the bad pseudonym of a romance writer, like someone trying to be “mod” while at heart she was just a fuzzy, frilly valentine, a chocolate all soft in the center, oozing with goodwill and happy thoughts and upbeat endings.

But Maud Hart Lovelace was her real name, and I loved her stories even as a cynical youth because Betsy is a complex character, good-hearted and smart and funny, sometimes flighty and often prone to error, her mistakes and scrapes and passions making her human and relatable. Best of all, she is an imaginative and ambitious girl who loves words and wants to understand people.

I won’t give away whether or not I got to tour the “Betsy” and “Tacy” houses, but I will reveal that the return to Lovelace’s books was a magical one. Led to reread them by my visit to Mankato, I was able to picture the real landscape of the town on which Deep Valley was based and to revisit the self I was when I first encountered Lovelace’s books.
Visit Nancy McCabe's website.

Writers Read: Nancy McCabe.

--Marshal Zeringue