"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."
Driving through downtown Yamhill, which takes approximately one minute, I also spotted the former Yamhill Bank, in whose clubrooms Cleary's mother established the county's first lending library, an event that Cleary fictionalized in Emily's Runaway Imagination.
In Portland, it is easier to follow in Beverly Cleary's footsteps--quite literally, if one wants. The city has long celebrated its role in her books, and there are numerous walking tours through the Hollywood neighborhood, the site of many fictional landmarks. The Beverly Cleary sculpture garden in Grant Park, behind her former high school, features life-size depictions of her most famous characters. Cleary's elementary school, which was later renamed for her, is nearby.
I got a thrill walking down leafy Klickitat Street (although I wondered if its residents tired of tourists snapping pictures of their street signs). Kids were playing on the corners, and it was not difficult to mentally replace their basketballs and sidewalk chalk with the scenes Cleary remembers:
We made stilts out of two-pound coffee cans and twine and clanked around the block yelling "Pieface!" at children on the next street and bloodying our knees when the twine broke ... We hunted for old bricks among the hazelnut bushes and pounded them to dust in a game we called Brick Factory. With scabs on my knees and brick dust in my hair, I was happy. I had children to play with who could be summoned by standing in front of their houses and yelling their names. Telephones were for grownups.
I especially wanted to see Cleary's high school home on 37th Avenue, the setting for the second half of A Girl From Yamhill. I introduced myself to the woman gardening in the front yard, who told me that she was an Atlantic subscriber, and no, she doesn't mind the occasional sightseers who peer at her house. She said that Beverly Cleary once called her on the telephone and was "really lovely" and that before discovering the identity of the home's prior owners, she and her husband threw away several antique photo albums that they had found in the basement. They've regretted it ever since.
Before leaving Portland, I found the bank building where Cleary's father spent long hours as a vault guard, as well as the former site of St. Helen's Hall, the junior college my grandmother attended. Her education was cut short by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and she left school to marry my grandfather so that they could be interned together. In My Own Two Feet, Cleary describes watching her Japanese American neighbors depart for the camps.
Beverly Cleary had always harbored the ambition to be an author, but it was not until after the war ended and she was living in sunny, carefree California that she first began to write. Yet she reached back to her old home for material, which seemed to flow effortlessly. While her books are not overly descriptive, they are adept in conveying sense of place. She was simply "rearranging life," the former librarian recalls. "If I needed a character or an incident, all I had to do was pull it out of my memory or imagination without searching a card catalogue ... What freedom!"