Books Afoot puts a face to the place

The Books Afoot group ready for an adventure to Chappaquiddick. — Photo by Jack Shea

Books inform and entertain us, but a special magic happens when readers actually walk with favorite authors in the place where those favored writers live and work.

Books Afoot, or Reading on the Road, is a travel group based in St. Paul, Minn., that enables readers to travel to writers’ home turfs and to experience the environment in which books they’ve read are set.

Last week, 15 women from Oregon to Massachusetts walked the hidden ways of the Island and met with five female Island authors. They report that reality exceeded their imaginations.

“This is my second time on the Vineyard, but it feels like I’m really experiencing it for the first time,” Mary Bodie from Portland, Ore., said in the reading parlor of the Edgartown Inn last Thursday morning. Ms. Bodie and her sister travelers were preparing to travel to exotic Chappaquiddick to meet with Lily Walter, daughter of Island publisher Jan Pogue. Ms. Walter manages Slip Away Farm.

“This is a much richer experience. Of course, I was taking care of children on my first visit,” she said and smiled, noting that her focus last week allowed her “to see the entire tapestry of history here that Geraldine Brooks brought to life in ‘Caleb’s Crossing.'”

Ms. Bodie’s take is precisely the point of Books Afoot, founder Mollie Hoben said a few minutes earlier over coffee and croissants in the inn’s dining room. “[Books Afoot] is part of a philosophy that grew out of reading the books; that meeting the women who wrote them in the places about which they were written enhances the experience,” she said.

For more than 25 years, Ms. Hoben has been about enhancing women’s experiences and promoting the women’s voices, words, and ideas in American culture. She developed Books Afoot more than a decade ago as an offshoot of Minnesota Women’s Press and Book Women, two magazines founded by Ms. Hoben and her business partner, Glenda Martin.

Minnesota Women’s Press came first in 1985 after the two founders had a chance conversation as strangers. Both were concerned that the women’s movement was gaining traction but societal change was occurring slowly. Too slowly. “We were concerned about the lack of women’s voices and ideas in the news, for example,” she said. “We are seeing more positive change today. More women are in places of power and influence,” she said.

The women created the magazine as a forum and a community for women to express their ideas. Inevitably, it seems, the model extended itself to include books and reading and writing, and action.

Book Women came next, and then Books Afoot, which has visited more than 30 destinations in the U.S. and foreign countries, like New Zealand and, arguably, Martha’s Vineyard. For example, several women were amazed and happy to learn that not only does Geraldine Brooks leave her keys in the car, so does everybody else here.

“I had this picture in my mind that this was a place for the rich and famous, but it’s so much more,” said Minnesotan Sharon Kjellberg. “You can feel the community here.”

The group concluded that their experience was deepened by Books Afoot fellow traveler Sue Carroll of Edgartown who guided them into the Island’s hidden nooks and crannies and to meetings with Island authors. Turns out the Island trip was a particular fan favorite. “The response was overwhelming. This is the third trip, each with 15 women, we’ve made to the Island in the past six weeks,” Ms. Hoben said, with a grateful nod to the staff of the Edgartown Inn, which hosted the groups.

Books Afoot trips have a syllabus. The group selects books written by residents of the locale they are to visit and they read and discuss them before their visit. The authors for the Island tours included Dorothy West (“The Wedding”), Geraldine Brooks (“Caleb’s Crossing”), Laura Wainwright (“Home Bird”), Susanna Sturgis (“The Mud of the Place”), and Cynthia Riggs (the Victoria Trumbull mystery series). The group met with Ms. Pogue of Vineyard Stories, a publishing company, and each of the living authors and “met” Dorothy West courtesy of interviews taped by Linsey Lee. Author Tom Dresser’s “Women of Martha’s Vineyard” served as their guidebook to women’s history on the Island.

What were their favorite books? “That’s like asking me which kid I like best,” laughed Nancy Myers from St. Paul. She and her sister Carol McBroom of Charleston, S.C., read about 40 books a year (not including books on tape) and are savvy readers.

“Each book represented something different. I liked them for different reasons,” Ms. McBroom said. Ms. Myers said, “I guess “Home Bird” was the biggest surprise. I don’t normally read essays, but Laura’s words just pulled me in and I began recalling my own experiences through her essays.”

As Ms. Hoben described her women’s publishing and Books Afoot work, her efforts show up as the spiritual equivalent of literary home cookin’. “I think many women experience a sort of literary homelessness,” she said. “They are searching for places where they can stretch themselves in their reading, their jobs and their lives.”

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