Lessons from Miss Rumphius

Regular readers know one of my favorite activities to do alone or with my kids is reading. I’ve decided to start sharing some reflections on favorite books around here – the ones that we read over and over again. First up is: Miss Rumphius, an all-time favorite of mine and one the kids love as well. You never stop learning from Miss Rumphius. I actually wrote the below review several years ago for a magazine. Enjoy!

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Our beloved GG (great-grandmother Jean) loves many things – cooking, books, dogs, playing in the dirt, and Maine. We’re very fortunate that she’s eager to share all the loves of her life with our family. We treasure our summer visits to Maine where we can eat Fiddleheads (handpicked by GG) dipped in melted butter and sink our teeth into her famous Snickerdoodles while watching a loon dip under the glassy surface of a pristine lake surrounded by Hemlocks.

Yet, even when we’re far from GG and back Down South, we have her books and her love for a good story within our reach.

GG is a self-proclaimed bibliophile and book club devotee. Not surprisingly, she keeps our children’s bookshelves well-stocked. She frequently drops a book in the mail for the girls. The books are often autographed by their author and/or illustrator and always inscribed with the date and a personal note from GG. Best of all, she doesn’t send run-of-the-mill children’s books – the ones you read and think, “I could write that” or unoriginal tales that fail to capture your child’s attention. No, GG passes along classics like Blueberries for Sal and Harry the Dirty Dog, books that end up with creased bindings and careworn pages.

One of our all-time favorites from GG is Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. The National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature (1983) covers the span of Miss Alice Rumphius’s life and showcases Cooney’s lovely prose and her beautiful illustrations of distant places and lupine-covered landscapes.

The story opens with little Alice who helps “put in the skies” on her grandfather’s paintings in his shop by the sea.

As a child, Miss Rumphius listens to stories of her adventurous grandfather who once traveled all over the world. Her seafaring relative inspires her to do several things with her own life.

“When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea,” Alice tells him while sitting on his knee and listening to his accounts of faraway places.

“That is all very well, little Alice,” her grandfather tells her, “but there is a third thing you must do…You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

But Alice doesn’t know “what that might be.”

As she journeys down her life’s path, Alice, who is known as Miss Rumphius once she grows older, travels to many exotic destinations. First she only reads about them while working in a library. Then she sets out to see them. She meets the Bapa Raja, a king of a fishing village on a tropical isle “where people kept cockatoos and monkeys as pets.” She scales towering mountains. She wanders through jungles and deserts. Finally, she arrives at the Land of the Lotus-Eaters where she hurts her back during a clumsy dismount off of a camel.

Her injury leads her to check off the second item on her life’s “to-do” list. She settles down by the sea. Here, “Miss Rumphius is almost perfectly happy.”

But not quite. For she hasn’t yet made the world a more beautiful place.

This proves to be the most difficult task of all. Gazing out at the ocean from her home, Miss Rumphius thinks, “The world already is pretty nice.”

During a difficult spring where she remains in bed suffering with back pain, she notices the lupines, her favorite flowers blooming “in spite of the stony ground.” She longs to plant more of the “blue and purple and rose-colored lupines” in the coming summer, but her injury keeps her bedridden.

Nevertheless, after another hard winter, when she is able to walk the hills again, Miss Rumphius discovers an exquisite cluster of lupines and realizes that the wind and birds must have scattered the seeds. This provides our heroine the genesis for her last and most important mission. Miss Rumphius transforms into “That Crazy Old Lady” and then the “Lupine Lady” as she “wanders over fields and headlands, sowing lupines.”

When the next spring arrives, Miss Rumphius’s corner of the world is now blanketed with colorful lupine spires for all of her neighbors to see.

The story ends with the very old (and wise) Miss Rumphius patting the head of her niece, who is also named Alice and has served as the narrator of the story. She reminds her niece that traveling to faraway places and coming home to live by the sea is all very well, but that she must also follow in her great-aunt’s footsteps and do something to make the world more beautiful.

“All right,” little Alice says. Then adds, “But I do not know yet what that can be.”

Neither does Madeline, my 4-year-old [wow! I wrote this a long time ago, and we still read this book all the time!]. But like Miss Rumphius and her niece, she’s thinking about it.

After a recent reading of Miss Rumphius, I asked her, “So what do you think you’re going to do to make the world more beautiful?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But sumpting.”

I can’t wait to see what that sumpting is.

While Miss Rumphius certainly touches upon many important themes – the importance of friendships, how the roads we travel shape our lives – it is this: Searching for something that is beyond ourselves and our own personal desires, perhaps an act, a gesture, a sharing of gifts that will help make the world better and more beautiful that makes this story unforgettable and one worthy of many reads.

Too often when faced with one of life’s biggest questions: “Why am I here?” society tells us, “To get what you want.”

The character Miss Rumphius, like our faith, tells us something different. She wasn’t completely happy until she was doing something for others. It’s worth considering that she really started thinking about her grandfather’s sage advice when she was suffering from back pain.

Maybe this is why we love to read this story over and over. Of course, children love the adventures, the pictures of snowy-capped mountains and sandy beaches, and the idea that people keep monkeys as pets. However, the book also provides fodder for a lively discussion on how all of us can do little things (or bigger things) to make the world more beautiful.

In the Gospel of Mark, we are told to reproduce what we’ve been taught for others. “Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:20)

Miss Rumphius does this for her niece; I try to do it for my children. I try to teach my children to hear our Father’s Word and to embrace it as well as to use their God-given talents to spread the Good News and to brighten the world. I remind them that we, too, can scatter lupine seeds wherever we walk.

Madeline, for instance, is a budding artist, so we encourage her to draw pictures for people who might need some cheering up like an older woman we know who lives alone and is often lonely.

Madeline is also noticing that how we make the world more beautiful may vary from person to person. She once commented out of the blue how mommies make the world “nicer” by having babies. I couldn’t help but think of Mother Teresa’s quote: “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.”

There can never be too many flowers or too many children – or, I must add, too many timeless books like Miss Rumphius.

Our family has never been to the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, but we do visit GG in Maine. We stay in a rustic, unassuming cabin (referred to as a camp by Mainers) nestled in the woods overlooking a lake. The camp has been in my husband’s family since the turn of the century and what it lacks in modern amenities, it makes up for in souvenirs of the past. There’s a family log with entries dating back to the 1940s that sits on the cabin’s bookshelf. My husband’s infant foot is traced in it and now so are both of our daughters’ tiny feet.

The smells of summers past – smoldering embers, Coppertone, tattered army blankets gathering dust, toasted marshmallows and fresh-picked flowers – linger, as do all the memories made here. Now that I’ve become a part of my husband’s family tradition, I’ve discovered there’s something comforting about a place to which our children and their children can always return to and know that, long after the summer has passed, the memories live on.

Good children’s literature, GG seems to understand, is no different. Even after the story is read, the plot is understood, you’re left with memories and oftentimes eternal lessons that whittle their way into your conscience. I think of the words painted in a mother-of-pearl shell, a gift Miss Rumphius receives from the Bapa Raja, “You will always remain in my heart.”

So, too, will this storybook remain in ours.

Enter the Conversation...

2 Responses to “Lessons from Miss Rumphius”
  1. Nell says:

    Always looking for a good read for my kids. Miss Rumphius sounds great.
    Love reading your blog & was so excited to see you’re writing a novel! How great!
    Good luck & God bless!!

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