Place Matters

If I had unlimited vacation time and funds, I could have quite the kidlit history summer.  The bi-annual L. M. Montgomery conference just wrapped up on Prince Edward Island.  Way back in 2002, my dear friend Amber and I made it to the conference, and it was a trip of a life time.  In a few weeks, Laurapalooza starts in Mankato.  I’ve never been to a Laura gathering, but it’s on the list.  And then, there’s the Betsy-Tacy Convention.  It was a random thought during that convention in 2009 that led to the creation of this blog.  I was all set to do the Betsy thing again this year and then reason prevailed.  Silly budgets.

But that doesn’t mean that this year is bereft of literary adventures.  John Steinbeck isn’t exactly kidlit history, but  most folks are introduced to him in high school.  So, that works, right?  Besides, it’s my blog anyway.

As part of the peer review program for the American Association of Museums, I journeyed to the Salinas Valley of California.  Since someone else was paying for my plane ticket, I added a few days to explore on my own.  As I was getting ready for my trip, I realized that the only Steinbeck I could remember reading was Of Mice and Men, back in high school. In the last year or two, I’ve watched the movie versions of East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath.  But as a good former English major, I knew that didn’t quite count.  So, before I left, I read Cannery Row.

Salinas Valley and Steinbeck are intertwined.  In my conversations with museum staff and volunteers, Steinbeck came up, even though the tiny town I was in was only a peripheral part of Steinbeck’s work.  On  Thursday night, I headed down  to Cannery Row.  I know it’s nothing like what Steinbeck knew (and perhaps he would be horrified at the various sorts of tourist traps), but I was fascinated by how Steinbeck was everywhere.  There were these banners on the light poles:

And they didn’t just highlight Steinbeck–it seems there were even some for Doc Ricketts.  And of course, there were the historic cannery buildings.

Granted, there was plenty of cheese–like this rather scary wax museum (if this is what’s outside, what’s inside?)

But honestly, I’m just happy that so much of the historic fabric is still in place in Monterey, even if there are a few things that don’t quite suit Steinbeck’s work.

I also spent some time in Salinas at the National Steinbeck Center.  It’s a well done museum that spends more time on the work than the author, which I actually rather liked.  They had some really neat comparisons between the novels, the movies and the plays.  My favorite artifact was the camper Steinbeck drove in Travels with Charley.  Alas, my picture didn’t turn out.  I picked up a copy of East of Eden in the museum store.

But the highlight of the Steinbeck portion of my trip was lunch.  A few blocks down from the museum is Steinbeck’s birthplace, which was turned into a restaurant years ago.  It’s almost completely run by volunteers.

Years ago (before my time), my museum had a restaurant staffed by volunteers.  They had these calico aprons that still occasionally pop up.  So, when I sat down and my waitress was wearing a very similar calico apron, I felt like I was in some sort of time warp.  There aren’t many places like this left in the country.  But that whole famous author thing really helps keep them in business!  It was also fun to chat with the volunteers at length–they have such hometown pride for Steinbeck.  He’s “their” guy.

It may have been the height of nerdiness, but I totally cracked open East of Eden while I was eating lunch.  Have you ever read an author’s work while sitting in their birthplace?  Me neither.  Now that I’m in the middle of East of Eden, I’m so glad that I chose to wait to read this one until after my visit.  The landscape is so important to this novel, and though his descriptions are wonderful, there’s something to be said for experiencing the place itself.

Museum folks spend a lot of time talking about the value of the “real” artifact.  Will people still want to see the “real thing” when everything can be digitized?  In what’s probably no big surprise, I tend to lean towards the idea that “real” will always be important.  With books, I’ve traveled all over the world.  Armchair traveling is wonderful and important (and generally much cheaper!).  And yet, I wouldn’t trade my visits to Prince Edward Island, Mansfield, MO, Oxford, MS, Mankato and Walnut Grove, MN, and now Salinas, CA, for anything.  Those books, so intricately entwined with those places, have a whole new layer of enjoyment to them.  Place matters, even in fiction.

2 responses to “Place Matters”

  1. For my part, “real” matters immensely. I realized that when I wandered through the ruins of the Forum in Rome. This is the “oldest” place I’d ever visited. Standing on the paving stones, I felt a sudden physical thrill. I was standing where they’d stood, seeing the sky they’d have seen. Pictures, models, reconstructions–no matter how accurate, have a more intellectual appeal.


  2. […] Over the years, I’ve built a few vacations around visiting favorite literary sites.  There was the Prince Edward Island Trip in 2002.  Mankato in 2009 (which led to the genesis of this blog).  Mansfield and Hannibal in 2010.  Monterey in 2012 and 2013. […]


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