Here is where I return to Barbara Cooney’s seminal Miss Rumphius, so for those of you already tired of my evangelizing, you’re dismissed, though for anyone still hesitating a little over the cover illustration of what looks to be a middle-age lady strolling pensively beside the ocean, well, you have probably earned your callous insensitivity. Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? There are a lot of us, I suspect.
Oh, it’s a picture book for heaven’s sake – how far can you actually travel in twenty-eight pages? How melancholy, how disillusioning can it get?
The answers: Far. Not melancholy. And what’s the opposite of disillusioning? In an era when you can hardly watch fifteen minutes of television without worrying over your serotonin levels, hardly open your mailbox or magazine, or collect your electronic correspondences, or check out at the grocery store without becoming alerted to some previously uncharted path to eternal contentment, the picture book format suddenly feels like a sneaky little shortcut between the hedges. Here is a mission, after all, directed toward our children, which I will anyway take the liberty to reveal in its barest of outlines:
1. Go to faraway places.
2. Live beside the sea.
3. Do something to make the world more beautiful.
Right, good luck with that last one. Young Alice Rumphius is just as bewildered – and maybe just as challenged – as the reader.
“In the meantime Alice got up and washed her face and ate porridge for breakfast. She went to school and came home and did her homework.
“And pretty soon she was grown up.” (It is one of the mercies of this book that we are spared her adolescence.)
Then, true to her buttoned-up nature, Miss Rumphius becomes a librarian – though it’s also true to her idealism of course, and not incidental to the romance of books. She does get away eventually to some of the exotic places she has read about – to a tropical island, to snow-covered mountains, through jungles and deserts, then lastly somewhere called the Land of the Lotus Eaters – and while there are obviously thrills in her wandering, there is also a whiff of melancholy underlining everything here – is it loneliness? Striving? – which does not end with her smashing anything to pieces, or going out on a bender, or meeting that fatuous Special Someone. Indeed she acknowledges she is “almost perfectly happy” toward the end, though not always well – a back injury from her travels keeps her temporarily bedridden in her cottage by the sea – still what responsibilities remain for an older, now worldly, single woman feel less like a consolation than a calling. And a rally cry which she is thrillingly equipped to deliver.