Miss Rumphius

Strange how, as we grow older, nostalgia becomes more and more powerful? (I know, I know, says the 25-year-old). Today, a teacher asked me if we had 3 books: Miss Rumphius, Clementine, and Koa’s Beans. The only one in my library was Miss Rumphius, so I pulled it out and nearly cried. This is one of the oldest books I remember reading, way back in grade 2. Mrs Kennedy read it to us when the lupine flowers started blooming.

The book is the story of Alice Rumphius, as told by her unnamed great-niece. It covers her life: from a young child, sitting on her grandfather’s knee, to a very old woman.
When she is young, she tells her grandfather that she wants to do two things in life: see the world, and live in a house by the sea.
“But there is a third thing you must do,” he tells her. “Find a way to make the world more beautiful.”
Alice goes through her life in brief flashes: first as a librarian (Hey!), then as an adventurer overseas. When she hurts her back getting off a camel, she decides that it’s time for her to buy that house by the sea.
But what about her third promise: to make the world more beautiful?
While sick in bed, the answer comes to her in the form of her flowers, sprouting outside her window. She will sow lupines all over the land, and help make it more beautiful that way! And so she becomes known as the Lupine Lady.
If I were ever going to tell someone that a book was going to determine my life’s path, this might well be it – so far I’ve gone to great lengths to make Alice Rumphius’ life my own. And I didn’t even know it until I re-read this story for a teacher!
The artwork is done in acrylic, very rich and conveying a sense of decorum old-world discovery. I love looking at the pictures of her life: the Victorian clothes, the safari outfit, the way she interacts with island natives. Things that don’t hold the same wonder and charm now, with so much commercialism. Now I’m nostalgic for nostalgia!
I think what I love most about this story is that it does feel a lot like my own. I come from a coastal town with a large ship-building history; a lot of it is still evident. The hills leading up from the sea always made me transpose her American city on my Canadian one. The same way the hills full of lupines were the same ones I would see in my town. It doesn’t help that I’ve recently become an expatriated Canadian – until this moment I’d forgotten about that. But it makes it more real, and closer to home.
This is one of those oft-forgotten classics. If you’ve never read Miss Rumphius, go pick it up and give it a try!
Suggested ages: 6-9

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