Random Thoughts: Change, Primary Sources & Other Stuff

Revisiting A Child’s Garden of Verses through Historical Fiction

Posted on: February 10, 2015

Under_Wide_Starry_SkyUnder the Wide and Starry Sky is compelling historical fiction about the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny.  Based on extensive research of primary sources, the novel takes us around the world, chronicling a life of adventure, love and friendship. We meet an array of intriguing and accomplished people throughout Europe, North America and the South Pacific where Stevenson was buried on the island of Samoa. I was fascinated by much RLS wrote in his short life and the unique life Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson lived in the Victorian age. Also a writer, she published a book based on the diary she wrote during a voyage to the South Pacific. After Stevenson’s death she devoted her time to promoting his legacy.

Author Nancy Horan used eight published volumes of letters, Stevenson’s papers and Fanny’s unpublished letters as her chief source, but read and used countless others.  I always go to primary sources to do the real research, because I want to get it right and draw my own conclusions.   Excerpts from diaries and real letters are included. Horan followed the couple’s  “footsteps by visiting many of the places they lived in the U.S. and Europe. . . different landscapes and cultures exerted powerful influences on both of them, so it was useful to experience those places.”

I reconnected with a favorite childhood book, Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses through the novel. As I read I pictured the brown patterned cover, tattered pages, illustrations, and how I wrote my name in the front cover. I knew its exact location on my bookshelves. Revisiting the book was not disappointing. The second half of my book has fewer worn pages. Most likely I never completed many attempted “re-reads.” A short poem is a favorite.

Rain
The rain is raining is all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

The forward describes Stevenson’s childhood illness and dependence on his nurse Cummy, who also has a role in the novel.  Nancy Horan imagines the adult Stevenson defending his interest in writing for children to his friend Henley, a critic and writer.

When I suffer in mind, stories are my refuge; I take them like opium.. . . . Frankly, it isn’t Shakespeare we take to when we re in a hot corner, is it? It’s Dumas or the best of Walter Scott. Don’t children, especially children, deserve that kind of refuge? Even it’ poetry.

In a later chapter the fictional Stevenson recites The Land of Counterpane a  poem about the power of imagination.

Land_of_Counterpane

When I was sick and lay abed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day . . . .

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
Complete poem

A Child’s Garden of Verses was the first book of poems for children told through a child’s world. Multiple digital editions are available through the Library of Congress. My favorite is Scribner’s 1895 edition From the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. View poems and illustrations online or download a PDF.

Childs_Garden_Verses_songs
References
~ Horan, Nancy. Under the Wide and Starry Sky Ballantine, 2014
~ Stevenson, Robert Louis, A Child’s Garden of Verses, World Publishing 1946, illustrated by Alexander Dobkin.
~ Stevenson, Robert Louis, A Child’s Garden of Verses, Scribner, 1895.
~ Songs from A child’s Garden of Verses.  Poems   paired with music by Natalie Curtis.
Wa Wan Press, 1902
How can I Use Primary Sources with Elementary Students?
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1 Response to "Revisiting A Child’s Garden of Verses through Historical Fiction"

Great post! 🙂 Thought you might be interested in my short film “Death Is No Bad Friend” about Robert Louis Stevenson: http://www.hatchfund.org/project/death_is_no_bad_friend –G. E.

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