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HER WORLD

In the Footsteps of 'Miss Rumphius,' an Inspiration to Solo Women Travelers

September 19, 1999|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

"Miss Rumphius," my favorite book about travel, was written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney in 1982. You seldom find it in the travel sections of libraries, though, because it is a children's book about a lady born in Brooklyn at the end of the last century who travels, by herself, all over the world.

Miss Rumphius, named after a 17th century Dutch naturalist, climbs mountains, crosses jungles and deserts and makes friends wherever she goes--Bapa Raja, for example, the ruler of a village on the Indonesian island of Ambon, who gives her a beautiful shell and tells her, "You will always remain in my heart."

I found the book as an adult, when I was just beginning my travels. It inspired me to try to venture out into the world with a calm mind and open heart, as Miss Rumphius did.

It also made me want to know the author, who used bits and pieces of her own life in writing and illustrating Miss Rumphius.

For example, Alice, the little girl who narrates the story, is Cooney's grandmother, and the St. Nicholas icon on the dedication page of the book is based on a tin medal that the author found during her travels in Greece. The landscapes where Miss Rumphius sows lupine seeds (to make the world a little more beautiful, as her grandfather mandates at the beginning of the book) are drawn from the area around the author's home near Damariscotta, Maine. And the soft gray blanket on Miss Rumphius' bed is one that Cooney bought in Kashmir.

I can picture that blanket lying at the end of Cooney's bed now. She suffered a stroke and kidney failure that hospitalized her for six weeks last fall, and turned 82 in August. The will to write and draw remains strong in Cooney, who has illustrated more than 100 children's books, won two Caldecott Medals (children's literature awards), and has told people that she plans to live to be 100. But ongoing health problems have made it hard for her to get back to work and give interviews. So I spoke to her son and daughter-in-law, Barnaby and Susan Porter, who live near Cooney in Maine. According to Barnaby, Miss Rumphius comes as close to an autobiography as Cooney is likely to write.

Like Miss Rumphius, Cooney was born in Brooklyn--Room 1127 of the Bossert Hotel in Brooklyn Heights, to be exact. The hotel was built by her grandfather, the owner of a lumber business, in 1909. Cooney grew up on Long Island, summered in her beloved Maine and was encouraged to pursue art by her mother, eventually studying at Smith College and the Art Students League in New York. Children's book publishers recognized her talent early on, commissioning her to illustrate "Ake and His World" (by the Swedish poet Bertil Malmberg) in 1940. A year later she wrote and illustrated her first book, "King of Wreck Island."

On the face of it, Cooney's life seems like an illustration from one of her books--bright, orderly and good. She married a country doctor and raised four children in a

17-room Federal-style house in Pepperell, Mass., bordered by a rose garden modeled on those in Colonial Williamsburg. "She was a wonderful gardener," son Barnaby said. But according to him, it was a woman named Hilda Hamlin, not Cooney, who planted lupines all over the Pemaquid Peninsula near Damariscotta, where the flowers bloom in masses of pink and lavender in early summer, as anyone who opens "Miss Rumphius" learns.

Miss Rumphius' travels, however, were inspired by Cooney's own wanderings to faraway places like China, India and Patagonia. The author often took trips with her daughters, and apparently did not travel light.

"She took tons of luggage full of clothes, snakebite kits--in fact, kits to cover every eventuality--and cameras," Barnaby said.

The cameras were a necessity, since most of Cooney's trips were undertaken to research a book. For instance, to illustrate a volume of hymns by Homer, the author went to Greece with her daughter-in-law, Susan. The trip generated some of Cooney's most hilarious, oft-repeated travel stories, Susan recalled, like the time the two of them were chased into the ocean by a crazed donkey. On another occasion, Cooney asked a waiter, not too proficient in English, about the weather. "Not good," he replied. "We have a lot of rain and snot."

"We mostly did a lot of laughing," Susan said.

Cooney's husband developed Alzheimer's disease several years ago, before her own health failed last fall. "Since she's been ill, we've gotten through by laughing," said Barnaby.

I did get to talk briefly to the author, who told me that she has plenty of lupines in her garden, that her favorite place in the world is Vinalhaven Island off the Maine coast, and that while traveling in Indonesia she really did meet a village chief just like Bapa Raja.

When I asked her why Miss Rumphius, portrayed as a tall, graceful woman with thick brown hair, never married, Cooney said, "She didn't feel the need to. It was simpler just to go knocking around by herself."

Didn't she ever meet anyone who interested her? I prodded. There was a long pause.

"Well," the author finally said with a little lilt in her voice, "she met Bapa Raja, but he was married."

After that, Cooney tired, so I went back to "Miss Rumphius" (Puffin Books, $5.99) to review the lesson of the book one more time. After you've traveled widely and found a home, Miss Rumphius tells her grandniece, Alice, at the story's end, "There is a third thing you must do."

"What is that?" the little girl asks.

"You must do something to make the world more beautiful."

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