Sunday, June 22, 2014

World Travel in Books

When I was in high school my friend and I used to make plans to backpack through Europe when we graduated. I think pretty much everyone made these kind of plans. The closest we got to doing that was a few years after we were out of college we spent a week in Belgium and Holland, armed with only carry-on luggage.

My daughter is in high school now and she and her friends are making similar plans. They have the added bonus of a German exchange student/best friend who is heading home and who they want to visit.

It seems to be the perennial dream of young people to travel and to see the world.

And the dream is nothing new.

There are three books I've read in the past year or so that deal with teens/young adults traveling to Europe. The thing is that these books are all written or set in the late 1800s and the early 1900s.

The oldest one is What Katy did Next, it is the sequel to What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge (pen name for Sarah Chauncey Woolsey) it was written in 1886 and in the story our young heroine, Katy, gets taken on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe by some friends. (This cover appears to set the story in the wrong time period)

The next book is Aunt Jane's Nieces Abroad written and set in 1906. It is by Edith Van Dyne (pen name for Frank L. Baum). This is part of the Aunt Jane's Niece's series, a popular series for high school girls at the turn of the century, putting the lie to the idea that books written for teens is somehow a new phenomenon. In this book Aunt Jane's nieces, three girls between the ages of 15 and 17, are brought to Europe by a rich uncle who wants to give them great experiences. They have them, including witnessing the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The third book is Betsy and the Great World, part of the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. This book was written in 1952 and set in 1914. In this book, Betsy decides not to finish college but to travel around Europe in order to get the experience she needs to be a writer. She has to make a hasty trip home when, after several months, war is declared.

I love each of these books individually. Together they present an interesting look at travel before the age of airplanes. Although the three European trips take place over a period of about 30 years, they are all much more like each other than they would be to any modern trip to Europe.

First of all, they all travel by steamer. Of course. You did not fly to Europe, you took a boat. And the boat was a large part of the voyage. These were not today's cruise ships. Instead of lavish buffets and nightly shows we hear about deck chairs and porters and quiet evenings looking at the sky and immense sea. Getting to Europe was as much a part of the adventure as being there, when you traveled by ship.

The other huge difference was that in each of these cases the trips were expected to take a substantial amount of time. If it takes nearly a week to get someplace, you don't turn around and come home a week later. In What Katy Did Next, she expected to be gone close to a year, but came home sooner. The same was true for Betsy in Betsy and the Great World. Aunt Jane's nieces seemed to have a shorter trip planned, not meaning to be away for more than a couple of months.

I traveled overseas while in high school, spending a summer month with relatives in Germany. I did not travel far from my cousin's house near the alps, but still got to see some of Austria as well as several famous landmarks in Germany. It was a fantastic experience, even if it doesn't come close to nearly a year traveling between different countries. (The picture was taken in Austria by the Bodensee or Lake Constance)

My daughter's school is sponsoring a trip for next year's graduating seniors to go to Europe. It's well-planned and expensive. The trip lasts a nine days and the students will see the best of London, Paris and Rome. About two and a half days per city. They catch all the high lights I'm sure, but she's going to save up instead for the aforementioned trip to see her friend, and travel around Europe with her.

Three cities in nine days, is a pretty quick way to get a taste of Europe, and many people don't expect much more from that from a trip to Europe. The romance of a trip to Europe is lost that way though, the chance to really see a place, to soak in it's atmosphere, can't happen as you bustle from tourist site to tourist site. I don't imagine that the average person got to travel to Europe at the turn of the last century and spend most of a year there, even a hundred years ago most people couldn't afford either the money or the time.

But people could read about it, then and now. I love the insight into overseas travel these three books, especially when read together, give to the subject.

So, this is my writing blog. What does all this have to do with writing? Only that the experiences we have can always be fodder for stories, and that so much can be learned by reading, even reading hundred-year-old "children's" books.


  1. Mom and I always found travel to be a rewarding experience. Different geography and different cultures provide a sometimes eye opening perspective on the world. I know you found that when you went to Germany and spent a semester in London. I'm sure Katie Rose will find it rewarding as well.

  2. I agree, those trips were wonderful experiences. I know that when Katie gets a chance to travel she will love it.