I’ve had the privilege of academically diving into the idea of recognizing the violence in so many of our most beloved childhood stories at Bryn Mawr College. In some of my English classes, we’ve analyzed the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lucy Maud Montgomery, all three Brontë sisters. Now outside of my usual academic setting, I’ve stumbled back into the work of Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius. It happened accidentally really, my landlord drove me past a little cottage she stayed at during a difficult time in her life. Up the road diagonal from town, overlooking the vastness of blue water and fields of these grand flowers. What blossoms are these I wonder?
my little old lady friend says. And then it hits me.
I text my mom right away. “I’m living with the lupine lady”
I go to Google right away and pull out words, sentences, phrases, and vivid pictures that feel like my own distant memories- not just words from a book that used to be read to me. I feel like I am looking through an old book of photos from my childhood. I feel like I am listening to recordings of my squeals on my fourth birthday. But this story is not mine and it is not written by my own being. And when I dive deep into the words and pictures, not only am I confronted by this intense feeling of familiarity but by the shocking realization of something much scarier: there is violence in these pages.
What are you supposed to do when you realize the white-colored blankets that hugged you during childhood were created by the forced exploitation of others? What are you supposed to do when you re-read Laura Ingalls Wilder and realize the intense racism of the narrative? What are you supposed to do when you find out Lucy Maud Montgomery was an anti-suffragette? What are you supposed to do when you realize Jane Eyre didn’t just prosper because of her inspiring character but because of the privilege of white inheritance? What are you supposed to do when a little flower brings you back to some of the fondest words and pictures that ever caressed your childhood, only to see words and images you now know have undertones rooted in violent imperialization?
You don’t ignore it. You can’t ignore it. You confront it head-on. Don’t get me wrong, Miss Rumphius is a great work of children’s literature. As are all the other books I mentioned before. But we are not children anymore and we can not choose to also revert back to inherent childlike innocence. We need to talk about the violence in these books. We need to analyze them with the same effort we put into understanding the other themes and symbols. We need to never read these stories to future generations without the disclosure of the full story: one of systemic brutality.
Now you might be asking yourself, what can be so wrong in a book about an old lady and lupines? This book is a perfect example of the whitewashing of the “American Dream”, the legacy of white saviorism in “travel” which most oftentimes masks for pure imperialization, and the mythology of safeness in a land where people of color, specifically indigenous folks, could not have the same outcome as Miss Rumphius. Her grandfather makes money carving “Indians out of wood to put in front of cigar stores” (not only the appropriating of the picture of an indigenous figure but of the capitalist whitewashing of Europeanized consumption and industry of tobacco). He also painted pictures of sailing ships and even though as we know I love boats and sailboats specifically, during this period, we know that they were vehicles to further global imperialization. And one of the three things he tells Alice to do is to travel which as I’ve written about in my past blog posts has deeper routes in how capitalist economies brutalize the global south. In the illustrations which are visually stunning and as I mentioned before, so nostalgic I almost feel like I’m peering into photographs of my own childhood, we can see moments that document the immorality of imperialization under the disguise of “travel.” While I appreciate in one of the pictures it is Bapa Raja giving her the shell instead of the white figure “giving” something to Bapa Raja, the picture is still a classic example of the global divide created by neoliberalism and white supremacy.
And while the ending of this novel is so satisfying I cannot help but know that this resolution would be impossible for anyone else but a white lady whose family benefited off of colonization. Yet it is also wrong to deny the connection I had to this story and still have today. I think that if we recognize these immoral moments and the systems that created them in the past and further them today, our reading of texts like this actually becomes more whole and satisfying. While it might seem sad to reflect on the badness of our favorite childhood tales it shows our maturity through life. It shows that now we can fully understand the true impact of stories.
As I drove past the little cottage with a field of lupines over the sea I was taken aback by the same image we see in the story. As I looked out, a cat crossed the street as we see in the book and I couldn’t help but feel an insanely strong connection. My whole time here in Maine has felt like something out of a story: and for good reason. I’ve buried my head in books by the famous author, Ruth Moore, who writes the actual stories of the people from this island. So much so that I oftentimes get confused when my bosses try to example stories of the real history from this island. I find myself wondering, is that something which happened or something out of a Moore novel instead? So I guess it makes sense that I was also thrown into a book full of the most wonderful pictures like the frames of real-life wonder that surround me daily. Cooney’s story, the story that my mom read to me, the story that I have now analyzed more thoroughly, is a story that I can see right in front of me. I imagine current me telling little me: You’ll never believe it, I found where Miss Rumphius really lives! But as I’m taken back to reality I realize that it is not only little Ella that I wish to tell, but my own current self. In a field of purple lupines, I see my whole life in front of me. I see this small cottage by the blue sea, and I see a sea in front of me because of the life I’ve created. In my journal, I write: “I am so proud of who I am.”
I drive away from the lupine field. Not because I want to do anything but hug those little, frail, colorful flowers- but because I am running late for my next activity. I will be back though, very soon. I will be back to this little cottage on a hill overlooking blue waves and a grand sea, surrounded by lupines I can only imagine were planted by a Miss Rumphius who lived a long time ago and, who’s future was and will be taken care of by those like me, who will never forget her story.
Pdf link to text