As avid readers know, books can take you anywhere.
Travel is broadening, so another axiom goes, but watching tourists amble down Edgartown sidewalks or wander around the Field Gallery’s statues, I wonder how well they’re getting to know Martha’s Vineyard.
The BookWomen Center for Feminist Reading, a program of the Minnesota Women’s Press, puts reading and travel together in an ingenious and powerful way. They call it Books Afoot. Before they visit a place, participants read books by women who live there and know it well. When they arrive, their itinerary includes meeting with at least some of those writers.
Books Afoot groups have ventured all over the United States as well as to England, Scotland, Iceland and even as far away as New Zealand. Last winter they visited Oaxaca, Mexico. This fall they came to Martha’s Vineyard. Interest in our Island was so great that three groups were scheduled. Each comprised about 18 women, led by Mollie Hoben, a cofounder of the BookWomen Center.
Each Monday morning began at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, where oral historian Linsey Lee talked about her work and about the roles and contributions of Vineyard women over the decades.
The emphasis on books made a visit to Jan Pogue of Vineyard Stories Press a natural. She spoke about publishing in general and publishing books about the Vineyard in particular. One of her titles, Laura Wainwright’s Home Bird, was on the advance reading list for all the travelers. They were able to visit with Ms. Wainwright before they left the Island.
The group also visited June Manning and learned about Wampanoag history and the issues the tribe is grappling with today. Before they arrived, everyone had read Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, a novel that imagines the life of the first Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard College and evokes the 17th century Vineyard where he grew up.
On a visit to Shearer Cottage in the Oak Bluffs Highlands, innkeeper Lee Van Allen spoke about the long, intertwined histories of the Shearer family, their inn, and the African American summer community. The Books Afoot women had already been introduced to the Vineyard’s African American connection by Dorothy West’s novel The Wedding.
After calling on mystery writer Cynthia Riggs at her historic West Tisbury home, one visitor came away “convinced that at least the women on Martha’s Vineyard live forever.”
My novel, The Mud of the Place, was one of the four books that all the participants read. When Mollie Hoben contacted me last spring to tell me about the program and invite me to meet with any or all of the three groups, I jumped at the chance.
The first two weeks, we gathered around several pushed-together tables at Behind the Bookstore, the outdoor café behind Edgartown Books. The third week we did the same at Espresso Love. It rained several times that day, but not while we were meeting.
Writers write in solitude. I love giving readings because they let me see my audience and feel their responses to my work, but at readings the audience hears much more from me than I do from them. Imagine then what it was like to sit in a circle with 17 or 18 attentive readers, each of whom had something different to say about my novel.
Each Monday as I headed home after an exhilarating discussion, I wished I could drop work and other obligations and follow the Books Afoot women on their adventures. What if a similar program were available for people who are already here, summer visitors and year-round residents alike? I can’t imagine a better way to get to know the Vineyard, even for those of us who already know it pretty well.
As Maggie S., a veteran traveler who divides her time between Lincoln, Neb., and Green Valley, Ariz., wrote: “I probably enjoyed that time more than any other trip I’ve taken. And it is due to all of you who let us into your homes and your lives for a brief time to share what your little piece of the planet has meant to you.”
We who live here have plenty to offer not only to visitors but to each other.
Susanna J. Sturgis writes a blog about her year-round Vineyard life called From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. She lives in West Tisbury.