Book Review: Walking With Romana

Walking With Ramona:  Exploring Beverly Cleary’s Portland, by Laura O. Foster

My feelings about this book are highly ambivalent.  Like many children, I read a fair amount of Beverly Cleary’s novels when I was a child, even if I didn’t realize at all that these novels were based in Portland or drawn in many cases from the life and observations of the author herself.  I happen to be a resident of the Portland area at present, and my relationship to the culture of this place is certainly very ambivalent as well, given my political distance from the general worldview of the place and my general hostility to the sort of moral corruption this book appears to endorse, albeit subtly so.  I even find myself ambivalent to the author’s fondness for public transportation–this is a walking tour and walking is far from a straightforward pleasure for me [1].  In short, I found much in this book to celebrate, but also a great deal that I was not very fond of, and the feeling that the author and I were not of the same worldview at all despite our shared appreciation for good children’s literature like that of Cleary.

This mercifully short book of just over 100 pages is divided into five chapters and three appendices as well as a subject index.  The author begins with a discussion of the characters of Beverly Cleary’s novels and how it is that they form part of a shared universe as the characters grow (1).  The author then takes a look at the sights of the Portland where Cleary grew up in the 1920’s and 1930’s (2) before showing an example of a project in coffee can stilts that kids can do today to mimic the creativity and resourcefulness of depression era children.  After that there is a chapter that gives a detailed walking (or biking) tour of the Hollywood and Grant Park areas where Cleary spent so many years of her childhood (3).  After this comes a look at the checklist of places that Cleary and her characters were familiar with, which includes some rather pointed and occasionally inappropriate comments from the author (4) and some suggestions of various hipster places where the reader can eat, drink, and shop in the way that the author clearly enjoys doing (5).  The appendices of the book look at the Portland-based books of Cleary’s career, how to get to the tour by bus, bike, foot, or MAX, and some selected reference works on Portland.

Ultimately, this was a book I wanted to like more than I did, and a great part of that comes from the assumptions of the author.  A driving tour of Cleary’s Portland would be quite alright, but the author rather pointedly does not appear to like vehicles.  Mentioning the gay subculture of the downtown YMCA as if it was a bad thing for homosexuality to be illegal was not something I appreciated reading about either, and few of the stores or restaurants and their vegan influenced diet were particularly interesting to me as well.  There was certainly the material in here where someone could have made a compelling book about Cleary, but even where the author is not talking about immoral matters or things that simply are not of personal interest, her feminist perspective makes a lot of this book–including discussions of a man who tried to court Cleary during her teens–far more creepy and cringy than any book about good literature ought to be.  This is a case where the biases of the author make a book far less pleasant to read than it would be if it focused more on its subject and gave less room for the author’s unpleasant political and moral worldviews.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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