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Oh, the Places You’ll Go (In a Good Book)

Savannah Dorsett
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Savannah Dorsett

Savannah Dorsett from Houston Public Library takes us on a (literary) "world tour" through books. 

Book Buzz is a blog produced in collaboration with neighborhood librarians from Houston Public Library, Harris County Public Library and the Bellaire Library.

Stressed out? Already regretting your New Year's resolution? Needing to just escape? Have I got the solution for you! Literature abounds with fictional places - fully realized locations that only exist in the imagination of the author.

Disclaimer: You will find no Narnias or Middle Earths here. While fantasy fiction has its own long list of imaginary worlds, that seemed too easy. These fictional places don’t have dragons or elves. They’re peopled by ordinary citizens who live ordinary lives - and in the case of St. Mary Mead die with rather alarming regularity. You may not be able to stay there, but in the pages of a good book you can visit for a while.

Avonlea: A fictional place on the real (and lovely) Prince Edward Island, Canada, Avonlea is the setting for L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables as well as its sequels. Montgomery lovingly describes a tight knit town of roughly 300 citizens, mostly farmers and fishermen. It’s a place of neighbors always willing to lend a hand or give you advice (whether it’s wanted or not.) Of course, it’s not perfect. There are jealousies and misunderstandings and, as you’d expect in any small community, everyone knows everyone else’s business. But this is also a town that takes Anne Shirley into their home and hearts and gives her the family she craved - despite her sometimes-odd ways. And in return, Anne gives them a bit of much-needed imagination and color. Her love of the place and its natural beauty is clear in the names she creates for various landmarks such as the Lake of Shining Waters and the White Way of Delight. It may not be possible to visit Avonlea, but if you want to commune with other “kindred spirits,” there is always the town of Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. The location of the real Green Gables farmhouse that first inspired Montgomery is a historical site and one of the world’s most famous literary landmarks.

St. Mary Mead: St. Mary Mead had its literary debut in the 1930 Agatha Christie novel Murder at the Vicarage. The home of Miss Jane Marple, spinster detective extraordinaire, St. Mary Mead has all the hallmarks of a cozy English village: a pub, charming cottages, small shops and a suspiciously high body count. Many a baffling mystery is solved by Miss Marple when she makes a connection back to some happening in St. Mary Mead. Like dear sweet Mrs. Green, who buried five children - all who had large insurance policies taken out on them. You know, typical small-town shenanigans. As tallied by Ann Hart in The Life and Times of Miss Jane Marple over a period of some forty years, there occurred in this allegedly peaceful community a total of sixteen murders and four attempted murders with poison being the preferred weapon of choice. In short, if you could visit St. Mary Mead, I would advise bringing a food taster. Or a tougher-than-she-looks old lady to protect you.

Macondo: Located near the north coast of Colombia, Macondo is the closest we get to fantasy fiction on our literary world tour (still no dragons or elves, though.) It is the setting of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magnum opus One Hundred Years of Solitude, which details the story of seven generations of the Buendia family and is considered one of the most significant examples of Latin American fiction and the genre of magical realism. Macondo is described as a city of mirrors reflecting the world in and around it - which makes it difficult to determine reality from illusion. The novel can be viewed as a metaphorical interpretation of the history of Colombia with important national events such as the arrival of the railroad and political upheaval unfolding within the microcosm of the once utopian city. These real-word events are contrasted with frequent references to ghosts and other surreal occurrences. In Macondo, time is fluid and fate is inescapable. As one critical analysis states “the world of One Hundred Years of Solitude is a place where beliefs and metaphors become forms of fact, and where more ordinary facts become uncertain.”

Winnemac: The creation of author Sinclair Lewis, the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Winnemac is a fictional U.S state that appears in several of Lewis’s works including Elmer Gantry, Babbit and the Pulitzer Prize winning Arrowsmith. Through his interrelated novels, Lewis describes an average Midwestern state, “more typical than any other state in the union” with fields of corn and wheat, a glass domed baseball field that is the pride of all, and a university where students can study practical careers ranging from sanitary engineering to rutabaga farming. It is also a home of petty gossips, blatant hypocrisy and hushed up scandals all bubbling beneath the wholesome facade, a state where anything not “typical” is suspect. Over his career, Lewis would create detailed maps and family histories of its residents going back generations. It was “astonishingly clear” in his mind and he knew its people as if they were his neighbors or relatives. For better or worse, perhaps we know them too. With his biting wit and keen eye for the absurdities of human nature, Lewis’s Winnemac is an amusing place to read about but I’m not sure I’d want to live there.

Canada, England, Colombia and the United States and our literary world tour barely scratches the surface! If you need help planning your own fictional travel itinerary, ask your friendly librarian!

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