When we were newlyweds, my husband and I liked to visit antique shops and buy old, beautifully bound books. We imagined they’d someday grace bookshelves flanking a cozy fireplace, perched there in inviting repose, waiting to be enjoyed by fresh eyes. I had only one slightly snobbish rule as we shopped: Any book we considered had to be something I might read. No matter how gorgeously gilded or skillfully stamped, no matter how many leaves of glassine paper protected the color-plate illustrations, a book couldn’t be merely for show. Whether the subject was beekeeping or Women of The Bible (a huge book by Harriet Beecher Stowe), I had to be able to see myself actually opening it. One of the ones I most clearly remembering buying was a red leather-bound copy of a book with an evocative title, EVANGELINE. It was the work of poet William Wadsworth Longfellow. I never cracked it open.
Years passed. We moved and we moved and we moved and the books came along with us. I’m sorry to say they live in boxes still and never found their cozy shelves. Not yet, anyway.
Recently, we took a vacation to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. After we passed over the Canso Causeway, I began to notice roadside signs advertising that we were traveling on The Evangeline Trail. I did a quick search and was delighted to find that the little red book in a basement box was the tragic tale of a Acadian girl and her lost love. I bought a paperback copy at the next bookshop.
The details in Longfellow’s story of the land and the people made our drive very pleasant. We traveled through Evangeline’s green and lovely village of Grand-Pré, now home to quite a posh winery. We saw the Minas Basin and the grand height of Blomidon off in the distance. The lush fields were protected by earthen dykes, just as in the story. I could imagine Evangeline’s plight as she and her neighbors were driven off by British soldiers as their pastoral homes burned.
I won’t spoil the rest of the story. You should read it for yourself.
When we arrived in the far north of Cape Breton, not far from the Highlands National Park, I bought another local favorite, Joyce Barkhouse’s 1990 middle grade novel, PIT PONY. The book was seamed with coal-mining drama and wrapped in the warmth of a tight-knit Cape Breton community. The story of Ben, an 11 year-old boy forced to become his family’s breadwinner after an accident disables both father and brother, is reminiscent of the classic book-turned-movie HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. The pony of the tale is Gem, a horse brought from Sable Island to work in the pits. Ben and Gem develop a loving relationship and come to depend on one another for their very lives.
Once again, no spoilers here.
What I’d like to say is this: When you travel, be a loca-lex. Like a locavore, devour the native literary produce. Seek out books born of the place and treat yourself to a deeper, richer travel experience. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and more are paths to understanding and appreciating the human experience of life in a certain environment and time. Both EVANGELINE and PIT PONY gave me a perspective on of Cape Breton’s history and culture that a travel guide could never match.
I think I’ll go find that little red copy of Evangeline and bring her upstairs, where she belongs.
Enjoy the day.