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HER WORLD

From Heidi's Alps to Green Gables, Literary Trips Span the Generations

November 05, 2000|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

My mother read "Little Women" to me when I was 6. She had to explain some things, such as what caused the Civil War, which, in the book, keeps Father March separated from his wife, Marmee, and their children, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Still, I wept when angelic Beth died and wanted bumptious Jo to marry Laurie, the boy next door. And like so many other little girls, I grew up believing that the March sisters were real.

Several years later, my family visited Orchard House in Concord, Mass., the setting for the book and the home of its author, Louisa May Alcott, from 1858 until her death in 1888. That trip brought "Little Women" to life for me, and I still think of the trip as a treasure given to me by my mother.

Pilgrimages to places that inspired books loved by little girls forge golden bonds between mothers and daughters. And for grown women, visiting such places helps remind us that every girl ought to have the chance to get to know the March sisters and other well-loved characters, including Heidi and Laura of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books.

I was lucky enough to return to Orchard House, about 25 miles northwest of Boston, in late summer this year, without my mother this time (though she was there in spirit). At this brown-shingled farmhouse shaded by leafy elms, visitors see the parlor used as a stage for family theatricals written by Louisa May, Lizzie's piano (Louisa May's younger sister and the prototype for Beth, she died of consumption in 1858) and paintings by baby sister Abigail May (the inspiration for artistic Amy in the novels). The showstopper is Louisa May's bedroom on the second floor, with the small desk where she wrote "Little Women," published in 1868.

For big and little women who cherish such books, here are some other literary pilgrimage places:

* You could fly to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame cathedral and Luxembourg Gardens, the familiar haunts of 12 little girls in two straight lines in Ludwig Bemelmans' "Madeline." You can see Bemelmans' work on the first floor of New York's Carlyle Hotel, where the author decorated the walls with dogs, monkeys, airplanes and balloon vendors.

* "I lived everything that happened in my books," Laura Ingalls Wilder once wrote to her publisher. Like her fictional namesake, Laura, the heroine of the "Little House" books, she was the daughter of a pioneer farmer who homesteaded in half a dozen places. Consequently, there are sites connected to Wilder's life and writings all over the Midwest, but the writer spent the last 60 years of her life in a sweet farmhouse called Rocky Ridge, near Springfield, Mo. I visited there five years ago. On display are Wilder's first sampler and the clock her husband, Almanzo, bought her for a load of hay (as in "The First Four Years," published posthumously).

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Room at the Pomona (Calif.) Public Library might interest "Little House" fans. It's the proud possessor of the original manuscript of "Little Town on the Prairie," published in 1941, as well as letters from Wilder to her friend Clara Webber, who was the children's librarian at Pomona.

* People visit Prince Edward Island, off the Atlantic coast of Canada, from as far away as Japan to see places from the pages of the "Anne of Green Gables" novels. Author Lucy Maud Montgomery taught school and lived with her grandmother in the island town of Cavendish, where she dreamed up the irrepressible freckle-faced orphan Anne Shirley. At the Green Gables House, set among beautiful rolling hills, I saw Montgomery's old typewriter and could imagine Anne, getting into mischief but always believing, as she says in the book, that "tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet."

* Maienfeld, a hamlet in the Alps of eastern Switzerland, is the setting for Johanna Spyri's childhood classic "Heidi," first published in two parts, in 1880 and 1881. There visitors can walk the "Heidi Route," which takes about an hour and a half, from the train station through the town square to the house where Heidi lived.

* Attending the June Pony Swim and Auction in the town of Chincoteague on Virginia's eastern shore is like stepping into "Misty of Chincoteague," by Marguerite Henry. During the event, members of the fire department cull the herd of wild ponies that, like Misty, roam nearby Assateague Island, then sell them at auction. The book, published in 1947, was written at Miss Molly's Inn in town, where there's a bronze statue of the famous colt and a pony center with Misty memorabilia. Henry also wrote one of my all-time children's favorites, "Brighty of the Grand Canyon," about a wild donkey who befriends an old miner. To see a statue of Brighty, stop at the Grand Canyon National Park visitors center on the North Rim, open in the summer only.

Orchard House, 399 Lexington Road, Concord, MA 01742; telephone (978) 369-4118, Internet http://www.louisamayalcott.org.

The Carlyle Hotel, 35 E. 76th St., New York, NY 10021; tel. (212) 744-1600. Rocky Ridge, Laura Ingalls Wilder-Rose Wilder Lane Museum and Home, 3068 Highway A, Mansfield, MO 65704; tel. (417) 924-3626 or (877) 924-7126, Internet http://www.bestoftheozarks.com/wilderhome.

Pomona Public Library, 625 S. Garey Ave., Pomona, CA 91766; tel. (909) 620-2017, Internet http://vvv.com/~jenslegg/pomona.htm.

"Anne of Green Gables," Tourism PEI, P.O. Box 940, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada C1A 7M5; tel. (888) 734-7529 (PEI-PLAY), Internet http://www.gov.pe.ca.

Heidi country information, Switzerland Tourism, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10020; tel. (877) 794-8037, Internet http://www.myswitzerland.com.

Misty sites, Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 258, Chincoteague, VA 23336; tel. (757) 336-6161, Internet http://www.chincoteaguechamber.com.

Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023; tel. (520) 638-7888, Internet http://www.nps.gov/grca.

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