From Little Houses to Little Women Book Spotlight & Author Guest Post

This morning, we are featuring a travel memoir in our book spotlight with a guest post from the author.  Check out From Little Houses to Little Women, learn about the author & enjoy her thoughts on the biographies of famous Americans so many of us read as children.

Creative Non-Ficion / Memoir / Travel
Date Published: Paperback out this March / eBook November 2014
Publisher: University of Missouri Press

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Nancy McCabe, who grew up in Kansas just a few hours from the Ingalls family’s home in Little House on the Prairie, always felt a deep connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series. McCabe read Little House on the Prairie during her childhood and visited Wilder sites around the Midwest with her aunt when she was thirteen. But then she didn’t read the series again until she decided to revisit in adulthood the books that had so influenced her childhood. It was this decision that ultimately sparked her desire to visit the places that inspired many of her childhood favorites, taking her on a journey that included stops in the Missouri of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Minnesota of Maud Hart Lovelace, the Massachusetts of Louisa May Alcott, and even the Canada of Lucy Maud Montgomery.

From Little Houses to Little Women reveals McCabe’s powerful connection to the characters and authors who inspired many generations of readers. Traveling with McCabe as she rediscovers the books that shaped her and ultimately helped her to forge her own path, readers will enjoy revisiting their own childhood favorites as well.

Simplifying a Disorderly World: Reading the Childhoods of Famous Americans Biography Series
by Nancy McCabe

As detailed in my book From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, I was a voracious child reader, carrying wobbling stacks of books to the library checkout counter every two weeks. Those stacks usually contained at least one biography, usually orange-spined volumes from the Childhoods of Famous Americans series. 

The earliest versions from this series, published by Bobbs Merrill, were accompanied by silhouette drawings, then later, collages of duotone illustrations. More recently, many of these have been kept in print, updated, revised, or replaced by completely new authors and texts by Simon and Schuster, with blue covers and red and white banners across the top.

This series was my first exposure to many accomplished figures. Without it, I might never have heard of Jim Thorpe: Indian Athlete (a reissued version has the new subtitle Olympic Champion); George Carver: Boy Scientist; Babe Didrikson: Girl Athlete; Sacajawea: Bird Girl (now Young Pathfinder); Amelia Earhart: Kansas Girl (changed to Young Aviator); or Helen Keller: Handicapped Girl (now, instead, From Tragedy to Triumph).

Once promoted as biographies despite the fact that they had made-up dialogue, scenes, even whole episodes, these newer editions contain notes specifying that while based on real events, the stories are fictionalized. To this day, I’m not sure how much I think I know about various noteworthy people is actually historically accurate.

Many of these biographies follow a standard formula. The most essential ingredient of that is the portrayal of how the seeds of each subject’s future profession were planted at remarkably young ages. Most of these books open when their subjects are between three and five years old. Maria Mitchell: Girl Astronomer is, at five, fascinated with the night sky, spends her childhood making scientific observations about the notches of leaves and the way water spreads on the floor, and carves math problems in sand at the beach. Young Amelia Earhart dreams of being a pioneer and builds a track from the shed roof so she can pretend that she’s flying.

The older editions, at least of the biographies of girls, also contain stock scenes reassuring us that despite their adult accomplishments, as children these figures were nevertheless maternal and nurturing, even when sometimes domestically challenged. We see little Maria Mitchell caring for her baby brother. Young Pocahontas: Brave Girl (now Young Peacemaker) begs to be the one to serve plates of food to her older brother. Small Harriet Beecher Stowe: Connecticut Girl tells stories to her younger brother. However, these girls also have a tendency to briefly abandon their duties due to their outsized curiosity and imaginations, like when Pocahontas forgets all about a young cousin and has to perform a heroic rescue when he strays out into the middle of a creek.

Looking back, I sometimes think that the Childhoods series was scraping the bottom of the barrel to find famous women to feature, even creating a category called “Noted Wives and Mothers” since there were no women in the Businessmen, Soldiers, or Founders of Our Nation categories. As an adult, I do appreciate the effort to include women and the way the series took for granted that its subjects, regardless of gender or ethnicity, could be ambitious, smart, imaginative, curious, and successful.

One of my prevalent impressions of these books and other “biographies” written for children was that their subjects were not only clearly talented from birth, destined for greatness and meant to be whatever they eventually became, but also far more focused and certain, calmer and kinder than I was. The books told unambiguous stories about well-known people, avoiding any mention of turmoil, violent impulses, knotted-up stomachs or cruel thoughts. Their stories were, as a result, simultaneously inspiring and discouraging.

But gradually, the biographies that had been staples of my childhood also ceased to engage me. They all had the same plots, I thought. Their characters were born, then created, discovered, or accomplished something, then died.

It was shocking when, at 13, I happened upon an adult biography of Helen Keller, Joseph Lash’s Helen and Teacher. The plot might have been similar, but the famous people who’d been sanitized in children’s biographies came across as complicated and unpredictable, egocentric even while they were self-sacrificing, often choosing desire over duty. I didn’t want to prefer this vision of humankind, but it seemed more true to me, more honest. As troubling as it was, it was also comforting to read something that reflected more accurately the world that I knew. It reassured me that I wasn’t crazy, wasn’t just paranoid or deluded about the real and complicated ways that people thought and behaved.

And gradually, moving from the Childhoods to Famous Americans to adult biographies, the reasons that I read began to shift. I no longer sought to simplify a disorderly world. I started reading instead to confirm that people were as complicated and weird as I’d always suspected, and to try to figure out why.

About the Author

Nancy McCabe is the author of four memoirs about travel, books, parenting, and adoption as well as the novel Following Disasters. 

Her work has appeared in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Prairie Schooner, Fourth Genre, and many other magazines and anthologies, including In Fact Books’ Oh Baby! True Stories about Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love and McPherson and Company’s Every Father’s Daughter: Twenty-Four Women Writers Remember their Fathers. Her work has received a Pushcart and been recognized on Notable lists in Best American anthologies six times.

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