Book Review – The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance by Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik LarsonI’ve been a fan of Erik Larson’s work since first reading The Devil in the White City years ago, so when his latest book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance was released, I promptly added my name to my library’s waitlist. I knew it would be a while but the stars aligned and my turn came up the same day I finished reading (and being disappointed by) Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. It’s taken me a while to get through The Splendid and the Vile, but that was only because it was so long and I was reading too many things at once (but I swear, I’m getting better at limiting myself to three or four books at a time). Reading this book has brought back so many memories of my trip to London two years ago and has given me more I want to see the next time I visit.

May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. One year and a day later (though they didn’t know until later), the worst of Hitler’s air raids on the UK (focusing largely on London) ended. It’s that one year and a day timeframe that Larson focuses on in The Splendid and the Vile. Closely following Churchill and his family as the war grew, overtaking Britain’s allies in France and further abroad, the UK was left with the threat of plausible invasion and the struggle to hold out against a disheartening barrage with only the faintest hope that further help would come from the United States. Larson compiles a thorough record of events from several prominent angles, including from within the Churchill family. Continue reading

Bath: Austen, the Herschells, and Roman Britain

the Royal Crescent, Bath, UK

“Oh! Who can be ever tired of Bath?” ~ Northanger Abbey

When it comes to Jane Austen novels, my favorite tends to be a tie between Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. So, when I had the opportunity to travel in England last summer and a family friend suggested I visit Bath if I had the chance, I didn’t take much convincing. The setting for much of Austen’s Northanger Abbey as well, Bath has a long a fascinating history to explore and I got to spend three days doing just that.

The Jane Austen connections were the ones I was most excited about while I was planning my trip. It was easy to locate the Jane Austen Centre and join a tour. They’re not located in any of the houses Jane Austen lived in during her years in Bath, but they do give a wonderfully thorough accounting of Jane Austen’s personal biography, emphasizing her years as a resident of the city and how it influenced her work (most notably how much the city and its reputation had changed from her youth to her adulthood and the ways that can be seen in how it’s portrayed in Northanger Abbey compared to Persuasion).

Assembly Rooms, Bath, UK

The Great Octagon connects the Ball Room and the Tea Room at the Assembly Rooms.

Once the presentation introducing the museum ends and we were released into the exhibit itself, it was more than a bit underwhelming (especially for the cost of admission). It proved to be less museum and more recreation. There was a lot of emphasis on the different film adaptations of Austen’s works that were filmed in Bath, which is interesting but not what I was expecting. The centre is aimed more at a specific type of Austen fan—those who enjoy submersing themselves in period costumes and recreating the atmosphere. They boast a Regency tea room (which is separate from the exhibition/museum) and as with the tour hosts, all the staff are in period costume. That particular fan experience is not my cup of tea (I think I’d enjoy myself more at the Jane Austen House Museum in Hampshire so that’s on my list for future visits to the UK).

I enjoyed the actual places mentioned in Austen’s Bath-set novels much more. The Assembly Rooms are impressive and grand to stroll through, but they have more than just the ball rooms. Having skipped the tea room at the Jane Austen Centre earlier in my visit, I indulged myself with a piece of delicious chocolate cake courtesy of the on-site café. The Fashion Museum of Bath is housed in the lower levels of the Assembly Rooms and takes visitors on a self-guided, chronological tour through several hundred years of fashion (I was able to see the special Royal Women exhibit as well, but that won’t be there much longer).

Roman Baths, Bath, UK

I recommend opting for the self-guided tour of the Roman Baths if you get the chance.

I might not have even realized the Fashion Museum was there were it not for its being included as part of the online saver combo that I purchased when looking to book a tour of the Roman Baths. While the baths themselves don’t feature in Austen’s work, the therapeutic associations of the city and how those came to be, are referenced… Plus I’m a history nerd so of course I was going to tour the baths. Having recently read The Silver Pigs, it made me even more appreciative of having seen the baths in person (even if there was only a brief reference to Bath in that novel). I didn’t have much Roman history in school, and what little I did have didn’t cover the Roman Empire in Britain beyond, “they went there.” Between the Roman Baths and the exhibit at the Museum of London, I had a much better frame of reference for enjoying The Silver Pigs.

Herschel Astronomy Museum, Bath, UK

A statue of William and Caroline Herschel sits in the garden where they spent their nights mapping the stars.

One last place I visited in Bath that had literary ties for me was one of my favorites: the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. The actual home of William and Caroline Herschel, this small museum was worth every penny. History and science and the history of science fill every nook and cranny of the house and spill into the small garden where the siblings observed and noted the movements of the stars—and where the discovery of Uranus occurred. A few years ago, I read and enjoyed The Stargazer’s Sister, a novelization of the life of Caroline Herschel, much of which took place at that very house.


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Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, MA – Birthplace of Theodore Geisel

Dr Seuss Museum Springfield MA

“If you keep your eyes open enough, oh, the stuff you will learn. Oh, the most wonderful stuff.” – from Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss.

It’s been a while now since I’ve written about my literary travels but I’ve had quite a few so I’m going to work on catching up. First off, it’s been almost two years now since I took my niece to the Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts—where Theodore Geisel was born—but we both still remember it fondly and are eager to go back.

The Lorax Dr Seuss Museum

There are many figures and corners for taking photos.

Walking into the museum itself is like walking straight into one of Dr. Seuss’ books. The walls and rooms are decorated according to his most famous children’s books with the illustrations coming to life in the form of games and activities for children of all ages. There are placards and displays at a more traditionally adult eye level that take you through Geisel’s inspiration for different stories and illustrations.

Occupying three levels, the main level and basement level are thoroughly for the kids and full of fun places to stop and grab pictures with life-sized models of your favorite characters. It would be easy to spend all day on those bottom two levels if you had especially small children.

Dr Seuss desk

Theodore Geisel’s desk and other personal artifacts in the museum upstairs.

For the nerds like me, the second floor had the main attraction—Geisel’s artist’s desk as well as two rooms with a more complete history of his life and his extended family including dozens of letters and postcards on display. Seeing some of his original sketches as well as the letters he wrote in response to the fan mail he received was more than just lovely.

The fun and wonder extend beyond the museum itself and into the gardens and the quad. A number of statues decorate the lawns outside and the Dr. Seuss Museum isn’t the only attraction in the immediate area for Seuss fans and families to enjoy. It happens to be one of several museums sharing space and facilities. Each admission to the Dr. Seuss Museum includes admission to the other Springfield Museums. After finishing at the Dr. Seuss Museum and having some lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring two art museums and the natural history museum that share a common lawn with the Dr. Seuss Museum, and there are several other nearby attractions included as well, making this area of Springfield a wonderful destination with a little something for everyone.

Dr Seuss statue

A statue of Theodore Geisel with the Cat in the Hat on the museum grounds.

Theodore Geisel is not an uncomplicated figure. There has been some overdue discussion in recent years over those of his works that are problematic, including a number of racist cartoons, particularly from his work in the 1940s. Where so much of his work and legacy is directed toward young children, the complexities of such incongruities can be difficult to reconcile and include.

But I think it’s better to try to emulate the positive and hopeful elements of his work, while acknowledging the existence of his flaws. I cannot help myself loving many of his books and their messages, especially favorites like The Lorax, The Butter-Battle Book, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As we use the good from his work to teach children, I think we can and should use the problematic as teaching opportunities too.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe House and Visitor Center

“The obstinacy of cleverness and reason is nothing to the obstinacy of folly and inanity.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

uncle tom's cabin - book coverHarriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is brought up in almost every American History classroom when it comes time to discuss slavery, the abolitionist movement, and the Civil War. Raised in a religious—and yet surprisingly progressive—household, Stowe championed women’s rights and abolition throughout her career with the encouragement of her family and later, her husband—though Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains the defining work of her writing career.

It was as her career was winding down that Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Through her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, Samuel Clemens became acquainted with the family and—holding similar political beliefs—he decided he liked the family enough to want to be neighbors. Though the two writers were at different points in their careers and ran in very different circles, they seem to have enjoyed being neighbors. For bookworms of today, this is especially fortunate. When my friend and I arrived to tour the Mark Twain House and Museum, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to tour Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house as well (and at a discounted rate).

View of Harriet Beecher Stowe's house from the Clemens' yard (their carriage house is the red-brick building in the foreground).

View of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house from the Clemens’ yard (their carriage house is the red-brick building in the foreground).

Just as the properties’ occupants ran in different circles, the tours of the two homes are markedly different as well. The Harriet Beecher Stowe house is far more interactive in its exhibits within the house, geared more towards school children and groups actively looking to examine the political issues closest to Stowe and draw parallels to the issues of today. With about eighty percent of the furnishings in the house having belonged to Stowe and her family—including a number of gorgeous floral paintings done by Harriet herself—the smaller scale of the Stowe house does not mean the tour is any shorter than you might find over at her neighbor’s.

In the main entertaining parlor, samples of documents related to slavery and the abolitionist movement are available for visitors to read through and discuss. In an upstairs bedroom are artifacts related to Uncle Tom’s Cabin—because the book was published before copyright laws were revised protecting Stowe’s rights as author, the merchandise on display helps to demonstrate the evolution of the “Uncle Tom” figure from her depiction in the novel through the unauthorized and purposefully altered adaptations that were used in minstrel shows and vaudevilles, twisting her vision to convey a contradictory figure to her original. There are also samples of the more pleasant gifts she received from some of her readers.

The Visitor Center is located between the Clemens' carriage house and Stowe's house.

The Visitor Center is located between the Clemens’ carriage house and Stowe’s house.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Visitor Center has books and materials available beyond Stowe’s works. Biographies of her contemporaries in the women’s rights and abolitionist movements can be purchased alongside the titles they wrote themselves and books on current political issues. The organization that runs the house offers a variety of tour options for groups—in addition to school trips, if seasonal and weather conditions cooperate there are also tours of Stowe’s gardens. Information for events and programs along with how and where donations should be made can all be found on the organization’s website. Admission for the tour is $10 for adults, $7 if you show your ticket from the Mark Twain House tour.

Mark Twain House and Museum – Family Home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” – Mark Twain

Clemens house from down the hillWhen I was in fourth grade we were given a biography assignment. We had to read a biography on some famous person from history and then give a presentation to the class while dressed up as that person. That was when I first learned that Mark Twain was just the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens—Sam as known to his family and friends. It is the way they continue to refer to one of the most famous—and beloved—writers in American history at his family home in Hartford, Connecticut.

main entrance Clemens houseThe tour guides of the Mark Twain House and Museum are very adamant in distinguishing between the man and the pseudonym, emphasizing that it was the Clemens’ home, not just where the man who called himself Mark Twain lived. Surprisingly lavish in style and size, the house was built and decorated using money his wife, Olivia “Livy” Langdon Clemens, inherited. They moved into the property a few years into their marriage and shortly after the death of their only son and firstborn child, Langdon, at a year and a half old. The guides also emphasize the distinction between the Hartford house and the family’s summer home in Elmira, New York home—Mark Twain wrote and published seven novels while the family lived in the Hartford house; while the majority of the writing was done in Elmira, they’re confident that the majority of the ideas and planning for the books—which include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Prince and the Pauper—was done at the home in Hartford.

sign for the centerThe grandeur of the house is surprising for many—or at least it was for me. Despite the little bits about his life that I retained from that fourth grade presentation and absorbed in a few college classes where we studied Twain’s works, I didn’t quite understand just how wealthy the family was—or that most all of it came from his wife and her family. The family was unfortunately forced to leave—believing they would return in time—following money issues. Tragedy struck when one of the Clemens’ three daughters, Susy, returned to the home to prepare for reinhabiting it, only to fall ill and die in the home. The rest of the family couldn’t bring themselves to live there again and sold the home.

Yes, that is Mark Twain built from Legos in the lobby of the museum.

Yes, that is Mark Twain built from Legos in the lobby of the museum.

The house and accompanying museum celebrate the life and legacy of Twain while working simultaneously to preserve and restore it. They’re currently collecting donations in an effort to complete restoration on the “Mahogany Room.” The interior furnishings of the house are a combination of pieces from the Clemenses and recreations based on photographs of the family at their home—including the gorgeous bookcases in the library. Some of these efforts are supported through the fees to take the tour or to explore the galleries in the museum. It is nearly $20 for the tour of the house, $6 for entrance to the galleries. There is a café in the museum but the food is on the expensive side. Given the house’s proximity to the Hartford home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the two houses do have a deal by which you can gain admission to the Stowe house at a reduced rate of $7. There is no photography (or touching) allowed within the house or the museum’s galleries (so I don’t have many photos from this particular trip).

Cavendish Cemetery, Avonlea Village, and Cavendish Beach

“Nothing is ever really lost to us so long as we remember it.” – L.M. Montgomery The Story Girl

LM Montgomery's graveThere is a small cemetery along the path that connects Green Gables house to the MacNeill house site. Despite the fact that L. M. Montgomery left Prince Edward Island after marrying and never lived there again, when she died in 1942 she was buried in Cavendish on the island she loved so thoroughly – all but one of her books was set on Prince Edward Island. An elegant arch over the entrance displays, not the name of the cemetery, but rather that it is the resting place of L. M. Montgomery. A few rows from the graves of her grandparents at the end of a slightly overgrown stone path, the plot Montgomery shares with her minister husband, Ewen MacDonald is carefully marked and maintained. Within the cemetery – which still has a great deal of space – it’s possible to see several generations of the same families from Cavendish.

Avonlea village buildingsWe did not make it to New London to see the house where Montgomery was born but we did take a ride over to see the Avonlea village where several period structures have been surrounded with recreations from the period to form an interactive homage to the fictional village. Unfortunately, we were just far enough ahead of the season for only a few of the buildings (mostly food shops and restaurants) to be open. We were unable to do more than peek into the windows at the church (built in 1872) and chocolate shop to see the various employees preparing for the official opening of the season a week later. The main gift shop and Red Island Goodness Baked Potato restaurant were open and I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed a better baked potato than the one I enjoyed that afternoon.

sandstone on the coastSince our main plans for the afternoon were cut short, we wandered a ways up the road to the Cavendish beach to walk along the dunes that are mentioned in several of Montgomery’s novels and stories. It’s impossible to grasp the vivid colors of Prince Edward Island without seeing them in person; they refuse to be captured accurately on film – the red sandstone along the coast and the red clay of the fields; the lush green of the grass and trees; the surprising carpets of dandelions; the complementary blues of sea and sky bleeding into one another as they approach the horizon. It’s easy to understand Montgomery’s devotion to the island and how she was able to write about the landscape at such length.

Green Gables House

MacNeill House and Bookstore

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MacNeill House and Bookstore: Site of the Childhood Home of L.M. Montgomery

“I am simply a ‘book drunkard.’ Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.” – L.M. Montgomery

wood carving of the MacNeill farmhouse

While L.M. Montgomery did not live in the house that inspired Green Gables, visiting would have been quite easy given how close it was to the farm where she grew up in the care of her maternal grandparents. Visitors who purchase the bundle at the Visitor Center can drive or walk along the Haunted Wood Trail to the site of the MacNeill house and farmland (trail walkers also pass the overgrown and less-than-impressive site of the school she attended).

MacNeill farm siteThe property is still in the MacNeill family. Passing into the possession of Montgomery’s uncle after the deaths of her grandparents, the old farmhouse fell into disrepair and proved an unexpected attraction for fans of Montgomery’s. To prevent further “souvenir” taking (and probably the legal issues should uninvited guests injure themselves) the old farmhouse was demolished many decades ago. Montgomery’s uncle’s grandson and his wife (John and Jennie MacNeill) have since gone to great lengths to restore the site and make it available to those who are interested. The publication of L.M. Montgomery’s journals in the 1980s made public her thoughts and reflections during the years she lived and wrote at her grandparents’ home (she wrote four of her novels while living there before her marriage and removal to Toronto; Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, The Story Girl, and Kilmeny of the Orchard).

MacNeill foundationThe foundation for the old farmhouse has been cleared and plaques dot the path past the original well and on towards an on-site bookstore where members of the MacNeill family tend to make appearances and speak to the property’s history and Montgomery’s life while there. With a few family artifacts on display (including postal items from when the MacNeill’s kitchen served as the post office for the area), the bookstore is charmingly intimate and serves as a welcome, homey contrast to the main gift shop at the Green Gables house. The bookstore on the MacNeill property is almost exclusively books, including almost all of Montgomery’s published works, from her journals and memoirs through her novels and collections of short stories (just not the three that are missing from my personal collection). The gift shop at the Green Gables house has a few of the books – mostly those in the Anne series – but they also have a lot more of the commercialized Anne of Green Gables souvenirs (many of which are available at gift shops and stores throughout not only Prince Edward Island, but much of Canada).
book store at the MacNeill siteDuring our visit to the site, we were able to meet Jennie MacNeill who was only too happy to share stories about the house, family histories, and Montgomery herself, including what she meant to the people of the island. Though Montgomery did not live on Prince Edward Island after her marriage, she and her husband are both buried there… but more on that in my last post about the trip.

Cavendish Cemetery, Avonlea Village, Cavendish Beach

Green Gables House

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Green Gables House: Inspiration and Setting for L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables

“Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it… Yet.” — L. M. Montgomery Anne of Green Gables
Statue of Anne Gateway CenterWhen I was in the fifth grade, I was struggling through the first few chapters of The Hobbit. It wasn’t holding my interest and I had a gift card to Walden Books. I picked up several books, including Anne of Green Gables, which I ditched The Hobbit for and never looked back. It quickly became my favorite book (I now have copies of almost every work of fiction L.M. Montgomery ever published). I’ve read it several times since then and have wanted to go to Prince Edward Island to see the Green Gables house for at least fifteen years now. I had friends who went and would bring me home souvenirs when they did, but this trip was the first time I had the opportunity to set foot on Montgomery’s beloved island (and it is easy to see why she loved it and was able to draw so much inspiration from it).

Green Gables house view from the barnThe house and property that served as the inspiration for Green Gables actually belonged to cousins through Lucy Maud Montgomery’s maternal grandparents (who raised her after the early death of her mother; her father left PEI and took up in a distant part of Canada when she was just a child). The farmhouse has been preserved and the property is host to the Green Gables Heritage Place and Visitor Center. The barn contains displays and information about the history of farming in the area. It is also home to a small café (with absolutely delicious pastries) and a small theater. We visited as the tourist season was just getting underway so some things (like the theater) hadn’t started their regular performances but we also managed to avoid any large crowds (which I tend to prefer when I’m visiting sites where I’m so highly invested already). There are restrooms available in the Visitor Center and by the house itself as well as a number of picnic tables in the barnyard area.

Interior - gable roomThere were several tour guides stationed throughout the rooms of the house itself who could answer our questions about the items that were in the house (keeping geraniums in the windows to cut down on bugs and a really interesting and utilitarian stove design in the kitchen were among my favorite facts). It is a self-guided tour and flash photography is allowed inside the house (both of which made me extremely happy). The garden in the front yard is well tended and the lilacs were in full bloom when we were there, adding to the atmosphere. The house looks out on a trail through the woods that was Montgomery’s inspiration for the Haunted Wood in the Anne books with the trail that inspired Lover’s Lane leading through the woods at the back of the house. Both trails are open for walking, but you’ll have to keep an eye out for golf balls as the Green Gables Golf Course borders the property on both sides.

Lover's Lane trailWhen purchasing admission to the Green Gables house, there is a bundle option that includes visits to the house where she was born and the site of her grandparents’ farm where she grew up. In fact, the Haunted Wood Trail leads to the site of her grandparents’ farm and passes by the site where she attended school. The details of the site of her grandparents’ farm will follow in a later post, so stay tuned.

Cavendish Cemetery, Avonlea Village, Cavendish Beach

MacNeill House and Bookstore

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Boston Public Gardens: Make Way for Ducklings Statues

“When they came to the corner of Beacon Street […] The policemen held back the traffic so Mrs. Mallard and the ducklings could march across the street, right on into the Public Gardens.” – Robert McCloskey Make Way for Ducklings

One of my first times visiting Boston was with my second grade class. We mostly stuck to the Boston Public Gardens and the focal point for our seven-year-old minds was to look for the Make Way for Ducklings statues. Our teacher had read the book to us in the days before our trip to prepare us. It doesn’t take much to see most of the sites featured in Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book.

9780140564341_p0_v3_s260x420When family came into town to visit over the Easter holidays, we decided it would be a good time to visit the city and I suggested that my five-year-old niece might find a visit to the statues interesting. We took the red line into the city and went over the Longfellow Bridge, which unfortunately for tourists is under construction and isn’t as visually appealing as it can be; personally, my fondest memories of that bridge are those spent leaning against the railing and watching the fireworks over the Charles River on the Fourth of July, the music from the accompanying concert on the esplanade playing on the radio.

While I pointed out the golden dome of the Capitol Building gleaming in the distance to my niece, she was less interested and impressed than with the statues themselves (she has a special fondness for animal statues that goes back a while). The Swan Boats will have to wait for another trip, as it was too early in the season for them to run (along with a DuckBoat tour; so many fun touristy things to do, even after spending so much time in the city over the years).

After spending a few minutes with the statues, we crossed the Common once more and headed for my favorite bookstore in the city, Brattle Book Shop (not to be confused with the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge). Specializing in used and hard to find books, I don’t think I’ve ever left that store empty handed. It’s one of the most reliable places I’ve come across for adding to my collection of children’s books. When the weather’s dry, the open lot next door to the store proper is lined with almost as many books as the floors of shelves inside. We didn’t have time this trip (because my wonderful brother managed to get horribly lost on his way into the city and put us woefully behind schedule), but only a few blocks up Boylston Street from the Common and Public Gardens is the Boston Public Library, another must see site for Boston-bound booklovers. Additional photos.

Orchard House Documentary Kickstarter Campaign

“I think documentaries are the greatest way to educate an entire generation that doesn’t often look back to learn anything about the history that provided a safe haven for so many of us today.” — Steven Spielberg

I just received word that Orchard House has started a Kickstarter Campaign to help fund a documentary about the house and its history. Take a look at their Kickstarter video for a taste of the documentary’s potential and make your pledges to help them reach their goal of $150,000 by October 22, 2014.

Orchard House – Home of Little Women: A Documentary Kickstarter Page

Orchard House Website

Louisa May Alcott Orchard House Kickstarter Press Release

Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Bastion of Solitude

“I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” – Henry David Thoreau

Walden Pond 5While I’ve never been a huge fan of Thoreau’s Walden (I’ve always preferred Civil Disobedience), I am a fan of Walden Pond in Concord, MA. I was too young to really understand or appreciate its significance the first two times I went. As part of a program promoting reading in school, the end of the program included a field trip to the famous pond. Near the end of the school year when the weather was just beginning to get hot, it was an opportunity to go swimming with my friends during time that was supposed to be spent in the classroom. The second year, it was cooler and the weather wasn’t as nice for swimming so my friends and I embarked on a hike around the pond.

Walden Pond 2

It is that hike that reveals the Walden Pond Thoreau wrote about. It’s only after you’ve left the sounds of the public beach behind and have walked far enough along the path to be beyond those who have found more secluded stretches of beach where those with young children won’t venture that you can actually find the solitude Thoreau valued so highly. And it is beautiful. Even having gone and hiked it on one of the hottest days of the summer, the shaded paths remained cool and there was a wonderful breeze.

It’s a little bittersweet to think of how busy the pond can be. Aside from the attraction to literary and history nerds like myself or nature nerds, it has a beach open to the public and the washrooms, changing rooms, ice cream trucks, and sandwich trucks that go along with the multitudes spending a day at the beach. But on those overcast or dreary days, the sunbathers and swimmers disappear and only those who, like Thoreau, can truly appreciate all the pond has to offer remain. There are several paths to choose from circling the pond, totaling almost two miles of hiking trails.

Walden 10I don’t remember many of the specifics of Walden, but I do remember his lamentation regarding the freight train that would rumble by the pond. I don’t know if the tracks are the same, but today there is a commuter rail line that passes through the woods along one side of the pond; you can hear the commotion and see the tracks through the trees as you walk the paths. Whenever it passes, it’s like a very eerie and specific echo from the pages of Walden.

Walden Pond 6The site of Thoreau’s original cabin is marked and there is a recreation of the cabin as well; they’re just not in the same place. The original site requires a bit of a hike; the recreation is pretty much in one of the parking lots across the street from the beach. When I heard of the recreation cabin, I first thought it must have been erected sometime since I’d been there in elementary school because I’d hiked all around the pond and had seen the original site but couldn’t remember any model cabin. So this last time, I went looking for it with my friend, wandering around the original site, checking to see if it was just beyond the crest of the next path. Finding nothing, we eventually continued with our hike. It was only after we were headed back to our car and impulsively decided we needed ice cream that we stumbled onto the recreation because it was so far from not just the original site but from the pond itself. Additional photos.

Orchard House: Setting of Little Women and Louisa May Alcott’s Home

“Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life will become a beautiful success.” – Louisa May Alcott

Orchard House 1My all-time favorite episode of FRIENDS is from season three when Rachel reads The Shining and Joey reads Little Women. I happen to own two copies of Little Women myself, one a copy of the complete text and the other a children’s edition with gorgeous watercolor illustrations. It’s a book that I think every girl I knew growing up has read at least once and I don’t know anyone who didn’t love it. The Winona Ryder film adaptation makes me cry every time I watch it, and I watch it every Christmas.

Orchard House 3The March family home in Little Women is based on Louisa May Alcott’s home of twenty years, Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Though it is the house the March girls grow up in, Louisa was already in her twenties by the time her family moved into and began modifying the house. More than just the house where she set Little Women, it is the house where she wrote it. As the tour guides will tell you, Louisa May Alcott spent as many as fourteen hours a day writing in her room, finishing the first part of Little Women in just six weeks (even with a word processor, I couldn’t make myself write for a full fourteen hours a day; four, maybe but I need to spend at least as much time reading each day as I do writing). Best known for Little Women and her other works for children, including Little Men and Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott wrote a great many works for adults (so my To Read list just got a bit longer).

Orchard House 4What I found most captivating about the house and the tour was all of the sketches and artwork of Louisa’s younger sister May, whom Amy was based upon. All of the Alcotts were remarkably progressive in their philosophies and practices, but Louisa and May are the focus of the house’s tour, having spent more time living there with their parents than their oldest sister, Anna (Meg). It’s more than just the paintings and pieces hanging on the walls; May sketched and painted directly on the walls of her room and her sister’s, using any and every available surface, as if she just couldn’t contain herself.

Orchard House 10The amount of work that went into preserving the house is remarkable. The house is fortunate in having been given many of the Alcotts’ original furniture and artwork from the remaining descendants of Anna and May. While some old houses that have been converted into museums and restored for such tours can feel distant or fragile, Orchard House is remarkably lively and vibrant; it feels lived in but by people who worked hard and enjoyed life. Additional photos

Update: Orchard House has started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a documentary about the house and its history. Check out their Kickstarter video and pledge before October 22,2014.

Concord, Massachusetts: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Every man should keep a fair-sized cemetery in which to bury the faults of his friends. – Henry Ward Beecher

Sleepy Hollow CemeteryI happen to be lucky enough to live not that far from one of the literary capitals of the nineteenth century: Concord, Massachusetts. The center of the transcendentalist movement, Concord saw more than its fair share of literary big wigs. Close friends in life, many of them are going to be staying close in perpetuity. The graves of Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Amos Bronson Alcott are not merely in the same cemetery, they are all along the same ridge.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery 2Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord can be tricky to maneuver around in while in a vehicle but there are some small areas where you can park a car and get out to walk around. Situated in and amongst the trees, it doesn’t have the creepy aura that many old cemeteries possess. The large family plots with elaborate monuments are spread out rather than strictly regimented and with so much growing in and around the graves, it’s hard not to find everything inspiring rather than somber.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery LMA 1While the history nerd in me already finds very old cemeteries fascinating, it is the multitude of famous and influential writers, philosophers, and poets that bring many visitors to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery every year. What surprised me most was seeing all the pens laid before the gravestones of those writers; it also made tremendous sense, despite the startling juxtaposition of a bright Bic pen beside the weather worn marble of Louisa May Alcott’s stone. Hers was my favorite because of all the letters and notes written by children and held in place beneath rocks at the base of her individual marker. While the others were primarily writing for adults, she managed to convey many of those same ideals but in a way that children could understand and that continues to excite and inspire.

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The Mount: Edith Wharton’s Summer Home

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – Saint Augustine


I like traveling and I’m a huge nerd. As much fun as I had when I spent a week in Bermuda, I had just as much fun (if not more) when I spent three days at Gettysburg last summer. Many of the places on my traveling bucket list are literary related. Either they’re where famous writers lived and/or wrote or they are places where my favorite literary scenes took place. I will never stop checking wardrobes to see if I can find my way to Narnia or hoping that a random looking glass will let me through to Wonderland.

IMG_0422Luckily, there are plenty of places that I can get to through more traditional means of transportation. Growing up in Massachusetts, I’ve been spoiled to have so many sites, bothliterary and historic, right in my backyard. I’m now setting out to visit and document as many of them as I can, and not just those in Massachusetts (though those will probably get done first and feature most prominently since my backyard is so conveniently located on the other side of the door).

IMG_0477First up, The Mount in Lenox MA, better known as Edith Wharton’s summer home of ten years. Designed and decorated largely by Wharton herself, her good friend Henry James was one of The Mount’s frequent guests. Falling into disrepair during the twentieth century, by the late 1990s interest in restoring the estate led to massive fundraising and by 2002 most of the large house and its extensive grounds had been repaired and renovated,bringing them back to the glory of a hundred years earlier.

IMG_0418The house and gardens are now open from May through October with a number of events and shows in the evenings during the summer. The Mount can be booked for weddings and other events as well. Some of the rooms, like Edith Wharton’s bedroom and library, have been refurbished with period furniture while others, many of the guest rooms upstairs included, contain exhibits about her life (especially the time she spent in France and her contributions to supporting the troops during the first world war). The wooded walk from the stables to the main house, aside from just being gorgeous, is also spotted with modern art sculptures. I could have spent the whole day wandering through the forest trails with their myrtle carpets and the sun streaming through the leaves.

IMG_0488 Additional photos