BookMark: "Little Houses to Little Women" by Nancy McCabe

Jan 29, 2015

Reviewer Sarah May Clarkson and the cover of "Little Houses to Little Women" by Nancy McCabe.
Credit Erin Cassidy Hendrick / WPSU

I’m a fan of memoirs and a hopeless bibliophile, so I looked forward to Nancy McCabe’s Little Houses to Little Women. The book combines memory and memoir, some fairly incredible travel, and a good dose of literary scholarship.

McCabe is a professor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. For this book, she thought back to her bookish childhood (and the women who populated her childhood) with great fondness. I imagine that other folks of a certain – ahem – middle age have that in common with McCabe: our younger years were spent with friends and siblings, with books and with activities that did not require electricity or instructions.

So McCabe began a project she calls “rereading childhood.” But rereading was not enough. Having grown up in Kansas, the daughter of a woman and a niece to aunts who “felt a strong kinship” to Laura Ingalls Wilder, she began planning a trip to not just retrace her own roots and childhood, but also the formative books of those years.

In thirteen chapters, Nancy McCabe visits the literal geography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island and Anne of Green Gables territory, and then on to Massachusetts, home of Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson. Her book is part travelogue; part journal and diary; part review and examination of the texts and writers; and part discussion of how the books have withstood the test of time and the scrutiny of readers and scholars.

I greatly admire McCabe her seriousness of purpose in rereading – or reading anew – the books of her childhood, and her commitment to visit the locations that were critical to the authors and the stories. It’s impressive. She is constantly amazed by how she remembers these favorite books, which is to say her impression of them as an adult is, of course, much different.

She has brought to her book the tools of a writer and a professor. Each chapter has notes, and there is an 11-page bibliography. A contemporary reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder reveals that she carried a shocking and disappointing amount of racism and entitlement privilege toward Native Americans (as did her characters).

Who knew that the Anne in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books was not necessarily a character with a clear and distinct voice, but a “silencer of others?” Or that the March girls of Concord, Massachusetts, were vain, self-martyring, humorless, and only marginally brave? I’m not at all surprised that the authors of these much-loved books were flawed and their lives complicated, but now I have the sense that rereading my childhood would be bursting a bubble. Jeesh.

Still, books take me to places, introduce me to people, and enable me to experience things that might not otherwise happen in my life. Nancy McCabe has taken me on an epic road trip defined by cherished books. There is a certain gaggle of us who will appreciate that ride – you know who you are.

"Little Houses to Little Women"is written by Nancy McCabe and published by the University of Missouri Press. 

Reviewer Sarah May Clarkson is an avid reader and frequent contributor to BookMark.