Essential Maps for the Lost: Essay
I’ve always been drawn to maps. When I was a child, one of my favorites was set inside the center of The Pirate’s of the Caribbean, a souvenir book that we’d gotten on our trip to Disneyland. The map featured the watery pathway of the ride, with a big skull and crossbones splashed at its center. I’d trace my finger along the route, replaying my thrilling time there: the creepy, blue-tinged lagoon where we first got in; the sight of the first skeleton in the bed surrounded by gold; and the worst, most terrifying moment of all, when the ride got stuck and our boat was frozen under a barrel of dynamite by the pirate ship. I was convinced it was all over then – I was truly scared, and exhilarated, too. But more than anything I was immersed in the story, and the map allowed me to become immersed again.
A pirate’s life for me…
And then came maps in books: Winnie the Pooh, and The Wizard of Oz, which, in our edition, came with a pop-up Emerald City castle and a pair of green-tinted glasses to make the tale even more psychedelic. There was the map in The Phantom Tollbooth, too, with the Sea of Knowledge (yes, please), the Mountains of Ignorance (no, thank you), the oh-so-intriguing “Doldrums” (until you grow up and learn what they are), and the Foothills of Confusion (which you grow up and spend some time in).
The Phantom Tollbooth. Add love, a few tacos, car problems, some birthday cakes, and the occasional vacation,
and this looks pretty much like life.
There were the maps in my most favorite books of all: The Chronicles of Narnia. The scrolls and fonts on these maps declared ADVENTURE, and each came with an elaborate compass rose. Can we just pause for a moment and take in that beautiful and beguiling phrase, compass rose? Sigh… Those Narnia maps called out to the secret swashbuckler I had inside, the one who wanted to board a ship and ride the back of a lion and follow a white stag in the snow, with my dagger and my ivory horn at my hip. Most favorite was the map inside The Dawn Treader, as I was clearly partial to maps with ships. On it, you could find Cair Paravel, which sounded as delicious as a whipped dessert, and The Great Eastern Ocean, which needed a conquering and a crossing in my imagination. At the center of that map is a tiny voyaging sailboat, too, and the words About here they joined the ship. Seeing it now I feel the same eager urge to go, the same delight, and the same strange, welcome relief of disappearing into that other world.
The Dawn Treader. Just let me grab my life jacket and my ivory horn…
And then there was THAT map, the one that plays such an important role in my newest novel, Essential Maps for the Lost, the map in the center of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Like Billy Youngwolf Floyd, I hid inside that map which hid inside that book. As a young reader, I lost myself in all the hallways and rooms, Arms and Armor, European Paintings, Dutch and Flemish 17th Century. Like Mads, I could almost hear the tap of my own heels on the floor. The American Wing. Art of India. I felt the cool hush of history, the secret tales of jeweled swords and necklaces in the shape of tigers and oil paint so real that you’re sure a king’s eyes follow you.
Like Mads and Billy, I was filled with the longing to be there, in that museum. And here is the beauty of maps in books: a map can make you want things, and a book can open a door, and a map plus a book, a map within a book, is a double prize – a hiding place within a hiding place, a door within a door. Books offer the magic power of escape and the magic power of understanding, and so do maps. Together, you have two ways to explore new lands that might help you understand the baffling one you’re actually in, and two ways to escape from it for a while. With a book and a map, you can discover a clearer path… or a different road altogether.
Museum Map, from my own yellowed childhood copy of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.