Geography: Traveling the World Through the Pages of a Book

The tree is eventually struck by lightning and dies; it is then chopped down and made into a yoke by frontiersmen traveling the Santa Fe Trail. Now, the tree that had been rooted for so long is free to travel and discover the world of the wild, wild West.

In Minn of the Mississippi, a baby snapping turtle hatches out of its protective shell at Little Elk Lake, Minnesota­, one of the headwaters of the Ol’ Miss. It will eventually travel a long and winding journey to the Gulf of Mexico—more than 2,500 miles away. At just a tad over an inch long, the tiny snapper is vulnerable to hungry crows, mischievous boys, and ravenous pickerel fishing for a tasty snack. These dangers prove nearly fatal for the little turtle, and though she manages to survive, she does so minus one rear leg, shot off by a careless boy shooting at crows. Thus begins the intrepid adventures of Minn, who, in the course of her travels, will encounter raccoons, minks, otters, muskrats, beavers, and a host of other river creatures.

Minn will live in a river that has witnessed thousands of years of history, from the ancient Indian Mound Builders to numerous American Indian tribes to frontiersmen of French and American stripe to Civil War soldiers transported upon this watery highway.  Minn will encounter every conceivable mode of river transport and the various types of men and women who ply these waters.  Minn will learn that this river is ever changing its course—carving, cutting, and creating new paths for itself while wiping out and forever burying its past under layers and layers of mud.

In Seabird, a ship’s boy named Ezra is at watch on an eighteenth-century whaler when the sudden uplift of a seagull in flight alerts him to a dangerous iceberg dead ahead. The boy’s gratitude to the seabird for saving the ship from almost certain destruction inspires him to carve an ivory seabird as a mascot for the ship and crew. This seabird travels the Seven Seas with Ezra as the crew seeks out the lucrative whale, a source of oil, baleen, and spermaceti highly prized in that day.

For mates aboard a whaling ship, life is not only a traveling adventure; the pursuit of whales is also a deadly hair-raising challenge in itself. Ezra learns firsthand the heart-stopping fear of a Nantucket sleigh ride, the terror and power of being high in the rigging during a raging storm “South of the Line,” and the tedious boredom of life at sea for years on end. But Ezra also experiences the azure beauty of the islands of the South Seas, the exotic sights and sounds of Chinese ports, and the magnificence of the earth’s largest living mammal—the whale.

The story of Seabird traverses three generations of seamen­—Ezra, his son Nate, and his grandson Jim. In the course of their lives, the ships that ply the sea change from the seagoing whale ship to the swift and sleek merchant clipper ships to the coal-fired steamship. Seabird is handed down through these generations, a symbol of the courage of those “that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”2

Holling Clancy Holling, along with his wife Lucille, have created an enduring literary legacy for youthful adventurers who are still a bit young to take off on travels of their own. His works have inspired generations of children to study geography, history, and the natural world and quite likely, later on, to throw on a traveler’s backpack and see the world, proving the maxim of Emily Dickinson that

“There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away . . . .”3

 Endnotes:

1. An anthropomorphic character is an inanimate object, a plant or animal that has been given human characteristics and qualities. This literary technique is often used in children’s literature to enable young readers to identify with a particular creation or character invented by the author.

2. Psalm 107:23–24.

3. Dickinson, Emily. Complete Poems. Accessed 29 December, 2011, at www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182908.

 

Rea Berg has homeschooled for more than twenty-five years and loves organic gardening, travel to historic sites, nineteenth century literature, and dance. Rea has a B.A. in English from Simmons College and a graduate degree in children’s literature. She has written numerous guides for studying history through literature and has republished many classic children’s works. With her husband, she owns Beautiful Feet Books (www.bfbooks.com) and can be emailed at rea@bfbooks.com. She blogs about children’s literature at www.reaberg.com.

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