Parting from people is a sadness. A place is only a place. — Frank Herbert, Dune
Now that I think about it, the books that influenced me the most when I was between ten and thirteen or so were books about places. I mean, naturally, most fiction has got a setting, but I look back and note how often the setting was practically a character in my favorite books.
Take Mandy, by Julie Andrews (yes, her) Edwards. I don’t remember much about the plot. I couldn’t have even told you, off the top of my head, that Mandy was an orphan, but I checked on Goodreads and of course she was; that makes sense. What I do remember, vividly, is that she had a little house all to herself. Not legally, of course. She co-opted it (there’s a joke there somewhere if anybody wants to knock it loose). Same as the darling orphan in The Secret Garden co-opts the garden. For these two little girls, householding was about cleaning and restoration and renewal. I re-read that one almost as often as I re-read Mandy.
The places were not always idylls. I read a rather dark YA novel which doesn’t seem to have survived the seventies — a kind of low-rent Go Ask Alice, called The Room, which followed a bunch of teenagers as they cleaned and furnished a spare basement space in their inner-city apartment building, and found love and friendship but also heroin. I never paid attention to the slippery-slope arguments implicit in their descent from apple cider to weed to horse. I just liked the fact that they cleaned up an unused space and painted it and made curtains and hung posters and got throw pillows. And they hung out together.
Something about place. Not precisely what Virginia Woolf was talking about, in A Room of One’s Own. For her, the place was an abstraction; the important part the idea that she could occupy it herself. And even though the little-girl dream houses in Mandy and Secret Garden start out as refuges, they are actually antidotes to loneliness. They create families where none existed before. Although it is a weaker work, I was also moved by Understood Betsy, about a little girl (orphan, naturally) who has to remove to a distant relative’s farm when her nearer relative falls ill with storybook sickness (usually tuberculosis; Little Eva, Little Nell, Beth from Little Women, and [orphaned] Jane Eyre’s [probably little] friend Helen all die of storybook sickness). The distant relatives live on a farm in Vermont, and while the plot may be absolutely predictable and the orphan plucky as is expected, the real appeal of the book is that house and its contents. The cheerful farm kitchen, the big black sheepdog, the multitudinous kittens, the overstuffed pantry and the mysterious dairy cellar. For good measure it also had a bookshelf stocked with Emerson and Sir Walter Scott. That’s the family, then. Simple, literate farm folk; Walden with fresh doughnuts and maple syrup.
Place can be climate, too. I read Mrs. Mike and fell in love with the Northwest Canadian wilderness even though I’d probably have died my first winter in such a place. But if a “delicate” young girl (who happens to have a mother and thus does not qualify for orphan status) from Boston can survive and even thrive there, I could pretend that I could too. And the book contains a strong intimation throughout that the bonds of the people, their depth of caring for one another, would have been greatly diminished had they been ordinary city-dwellers. In this way it reminds me of another of my comfort books from that age — Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic Dune, where the desert planet Arrakis proves the same kind of crucible for loyalty and love. As difficult as life is on this planet, as much as the protagonists are unwilling exiles, again we get that sense that this is the only place where they would or could be the characters we love, with the qualities we cherish. Inevitably, in these “climate” novels, we have a scene where somebody makes it back to “civilization” and discovers how savage, how alien, that really is.
Of course it is homes that get the most literary attention, and at that age my favorite homes included a hobbit-hole, Mole’s “capital” little house and Badger’s sumptuous maisonette in The Wind in the Willows, and all the cozy places where Jane Austen’s characters took up residence when economic woes befell them — little places in Bath or lodge-houses on vast estates. Or, of course, the vicarage. Or the haunted Abbey.
Apparently at twelve I did not read books for plot. I was shopping for real-estate.
By the time I was in my early teens I had graduated to a new house — a brownstone on West Thirty-Fifth Street, complete with orchids, a personal chef, a red leather chair, a huge globe, a picture of a waterfall, and books upon books upon books — and of course Archie Goodwin. The most recent paperback re-releases of Rex Stout’s astonishing Nero Wolfe stories includes forwards written by today’s best mystery writers, and every single one of them knows and loves the house as well as I did. And I’m pretty sure none of them is thirteen still.
Do we never outgrow the desire for a Home? We want nests, burrows, sanctuaries. One thing remains constant with me, though…I wanted those homes to have friends in it. If I could have had my way, every rock band would have lived all together in a yellow submarine or at least in a funky house like in Help! or the Monkees. Chaos, confusion, and intermittent hot water would be nothing if we were all together now.