As a child, Terri Peterson Smith would stock up on library books before leaving on family vacations.
When her family went on a colonial tour of Boston, she read “Johnny Tremain” by Esther Forbes. The novel’s protagonist is a boy who is an apprentice to a silversmith just as the Revolutionary War is taking hold. For Smith, who was then 10, “It brought the trip alive. It would’ve been dull without the images in my mind.”
That stuck with her, and she tried to instill those types of experiences in her children. Also, in more recent years, Smith’s book club has journeyed to Wisconsin, Chicago and elsewhere to see places from their readings.
Several years ago, Smith, an Edina resident and longtime science writer, began working on a book that would help others to follow suit. “Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways” was published by Chicago Review Press last year.
Since then, she’s spoken to various groups about literary travel. “When you can taste the food, smell the ocean, and feel the humidity, it connects you more with the story,” Smith said. Likewise, “It connects you with a destination you might not be familiar with.”
So often, when one is traveling, the highways, restaurants, shops and other places look the same. Having literary imagery makes a trip more meaningful, Smith said.
She picked 15 U.S. destinations to include in the book. She tried to find places with literary merit that would appeal to groups and places that were easy to navigate, with public transit.
“Off the Beaten Page” offers practical tips for making the most of one’s trip. Smith recommends coming up with a plan, creating an itinerary and making reservations. At the same time, it’s important to leave room for serendipity, she said.
Traveling with a book club makes for lasting memories, she said. Drawing from her own trips, Smith gives advice for how to “avoid a temperamental journey.”
A useful guide
Lisa Reardon, Smith’s editor at Chicago Review Press, said the book proposal appealed to her right away on a personal level. Reardon’s book club occasionally has gone on lit-related outings, though “not really in any kind of systematic way,” she said.
Reardon thought a guide to the best literary trips for book clubs or small groups of women would be useful.
Recent travel-industry statistics reveal that cultural tourism, particularly by women, is on the rise. Also, Reardon hasn’t seen any competing titles. “There are lots of books on literary destinations and sites, adventure travel, cultural or educational travel, but nothing directed specifically to book club travel,” she said.
Smith’s manuscript was rich with information pertaining to each locale. It also had interesting essays, itineraries, relevant reading lists and profiles of local authors. “It was a book I would want,” Reardon said. She also liked Smith’s point that “you don’t have to go on a big expensive trip to enrich your club — she encourages you to also look in your own back yard for lit excursions.”
Reardon, who lives in Oak Park, Ill., the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, said Smith’s writing inspired her and a fellow book club member to visit a local museum dedicated to the author. They read Paula McLain’s novel “The Paris Wife” around the same time.
Reardon then reread Hemingway’s short story “Up in Michigan,” and picked up “A Moveable Feast.” She became immersed in Hemingway’s earlier years for a while, which was “a lot more rewarding than just reading an assigned book-club book and quickly moving on to the next,” she said.
Deborah Lantz, a leader of the Morningside Woman’s Club of Edina, enjoyed Smith’s talk to the 150-member group last spring. “I hope to use her book as a reference in the future when I visit different states,” she said.
Smith especially enjoys tales that “transport me to somewhere else.” Learning about a place in advance builds anticipation, she said.
In her book, she considers both well-known and more obscure destinations. New York is one of her favorite literary spots. “It’s always been a hub for literature and American history. Just about every famous writer lived there,” Smith said.
As just one of many examples, David McCullough’s work “The Great Bridge” is an enlightening read about the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction. “It’s a riot to read that and walk across the bridge and understand what went into building it,” and it affords beautiful views of the city.
Newport, R.I., is characterized by beautiful homes where the ultra-wealthy of the last century once lived. Author Edith Wharton was part of that set. Her novel “The Buccaneers” is about wealthy women who couldn’t break into the upper echelon of society. However, across the pond, the British aristocracy was happy to have them. They needed money to keep up their castles. “It’s the exact story of ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” Smith said.
And she was interested in Memphis, Tenn., in part because of Mark Twain’s ties to the river town. She encourages people to paddleboat on the Mississippi River, to “feel the power of the river.”
Less thought about in a literary context is Santa Monica, Calif. The city was a backdrop for novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler, who helped to develop hard-boiled noir crime fiction.
Smith noticed how different the country’s regions are and the “unique writing that comes out from each area.” She penned essays about that for each destination. She’d go to the independent bookstores, inquiring about local writers. She included profiles of local authors in each city.
Smith also gives ideas for literary excursions closer to home. Many places don’t require “going super far or having to make a huge investment,” she said. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories and his old neighborhood in St. Paul can be sought out in a single afternoon.
Literary travel gets people out of their routines and, as with reading, helps them collect new perspectives. “When you can go there, it’s doubly eye-opening,” she said. “It helps you to understand your fellow human beings a bit more. It creates empathy.”
Next, she hopes to produce a similar volume geared for children.
Smith loves to hear about what literary travel has done for readers. One woman told her about how her father-in-law was aloof until they read a book about baseball. They bonded over that, and then they went to a Twins game together. That’s another example of how literary travel “contributes to your understanding of the book and whatever the activity is,” she said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.