A Beverly Cleary Pilgrimage, From Yamhill to Klickitat Street

"Oregon, bah! La pluie, la pluie, la pluie!"

These lines, written by Beverly Cleary in 1934 for a junior college French class assignment, frequently echoed in my head during my first rainy weeks in Eugene, Oregon, where my husband and I moved last fall. Indeed, almost everything I previously knew about Oregon came from Beverly Cleary's writing--first from her beloved children's books, many of which are set in northeast Portland, and later from her two memoirs, A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet.

A Girl From Yamhill describes her idyllic early years of farm life and anxious adolescence in Portland, while My Own Two Feet follows Cleary to college at Berkeley and the University of Washington through the acceptance of her first manuscript. Taken together, the books offer an absorbing account of growing up on the West Coast during the Great Depression, and the cautious optimism of young Americans in the years that followed it.

Cleary has retained memories from her childhood with what Benjamin Schwarz called "photographic and psychological exactitude," and her fiction is filled with autobiographical incidents. Both memoirs are rich in Oregonian minutiae--from the wildflowers that grew on her father's farm (bachelor's buttons, fox gloves, Johnny jump-ups) to the cookies sold by the Portland department store Meier & Frank's ("pink marshmallow cushions strewn with coconut"), she captures not only the sensory details of Oregon in the early 20th century, but its character as well. Children are taught to "remember your pioneer ancestors," and young Beverly dismisses her father's job as a bank guard because "in those days, Oregonians were much too well-behaved to hold up banks."

Last month, to satisfy my own curiosity and better acquaint myself with the Oregon I had read about, I took a literary pilgrimage to Cleary's former homes.

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I had another reason for retracing Cleary's steps--upon rereading the memoirs, I recognized something that I had missed as a child. Cleary's youth in Portland and struggles to attend college despite financial hardships closely mirrored the experiences of my Japanese American grandparents, Robert Hosokawa and Yoshi Yoshizawa, who grew up in Portland and Seattle before earning scholarships to Whitman College and Willamette University. Although their circumstances differed in many ways (for example, my grandparents were interned during World War II, while Cleary served as a librarian on an Army base), they lived in similar places at similar times in their lives.

When I called the Yamhill County Historical Society to ask for directions to Cleary's childhood farm, it took the woman who answered a moment to realize who I was talking about. "Oh, you mean the old Bunn place!" she finally exclaimed, before telling me to just drive toward town and take a left. Despite Cleary's fame, it is her father's family members who are notable in Yamhill, where they were among the first settlers. Cleary proudly wrote that her home, built in 1860, was "the first fine house in Yamhill, with the second bathtub in Yamhill County."

Yamhill lies in the center of Oregon wine country, and is surrounded by the green fields of the Willamette Valley. The directions worked, even though my only reference point was a black-and-white photograph of a weathered farmhouse with a tin roof. Today, the barn and much of the land have been sold, and the house, which is privately owned, has been carefully painted and restored. I looked for the apple tree where Cleary describes spending happy afternoons sniffing sun-warmed apples, taking one bite, and throwing the rest away. "The first bite of an apple tastes best, and our tree was bountiful," she writes. "Juice flowed down my chin. No one cared."

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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and Smithsonian.com, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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