Miss Rumphius: a life

Written by Robert

So you have daughters. You want them to understand that they can be, and do, anything they wish without emptying that promise of value or content. Therefore, what value, and what content? 

Miss Rumphius, the 1982 National Book Award winner by Barbara Cooney, performs with grace and aplomb the ontological merging of feminist empowerment with a vision of a rich and measured spiritual life. Our protagonist lives such a life, a full one, over a sweep of decades, and within it she dedicates herself to a continual awakening through experience, knowledge, and aesthetics.

Alice Rumphius travels the world; she lives in close connection with the earth and sky and sea; and finally she gives back to the world with beauty that serves, heals, and empowers others. She does these things (here's the feminist part) on her own, and in blissful disregard for societal convention. 

All of this is good, of course, and worthy of emulation. But here's what I so love about the book, and what sets it apart among narratives that lay open the adult world for children: real things happen to her. She hurts her back, in a permanent way, and is haunted by pain for the rest of her days. We are told that she is very sick, and for a long time. The story weaves itself through these events in a way that renders them, not morbid or scary, but inexorably part of life.

There are no scenes of action here, no sudden reversals or triumphs. The story, accompanied by Cooney's vivid and utterly charming illustrations, conveys a sense both of vastness and stillness. We are left with a sense of completeness, of continuity, as her great-niece vows to carry on Miss Rumphius' journey, the journey she herself took on from her grandfather.

Life, then, in its seasons and human arcs and madly joyful bursts of lupine, is the star of this story. This is what I want my girls to know they can do: live a life. Live it fully. Live it well.