After getting settled and unpacking the first day, my SoCal native self wasted no time rushing to the beach and diving headfirst into Kate Chopin’s The Awakening on my second day on Grand Isle.
Growing up just 25 minutes from the beach, I was not unfamiliar with the activity of lounging on the shore, book in hand. However, I had never read a novel that was explicitly chosen because of its connection with the surrounding locale.
I noticed the difference immediately.
I began to compare every description of scenery in The Awakening not only to my own past experiences but to what I was experiencing in the exact moment that I was reading the text. Sitting there on the sand, sun overhead and salt in the air, I began to lose myself in Kate Chopin’s world. I imagined that I was feeling the exact same breeze that the children in the novel felt as they played on the beach.
Edna, the protagonist, went for a stroll on the beach, and so did I. Robert attempted to teach Edna how to swim and I showed Eric, a fellow bookpacker, how to do heads-up freestyle. Mr. Pontellier complained about his work as a cotton factor, and I complained about my grades on Blackboard. I was completely captured by the similarities between the scenes described in the novel and the one I was viewing through my very own eyes, right in front of me.
As Edna retired for the day in the Lebruns’ house, she described the heavy heat that seemed to cling to the walls. With that passage I suddenly became aware of the low hum of the AC in the background, blasting cool air into Gulf Retreat (our aptly named cottage by the sea). I noticed the worn out recliner I was sitting in, the iPhone I was listening to music on, and as I looked up I saw my reflection in the screen of the powered-off tv - a black mirror.
I couldn’t stop seeing all the differences between Edna’s life and mine. Her wealthy, privileged place in society, her leisurely lifestyle, her duties as a mother and a wife. And more broadly I began to see how, while resistant to change, even Grand Isle itself was changing with the times. Once a vacation destination for the very well off, it has now become a getaway spot for middle class Americans. Boasting of $39/night motels and small food joints like JoBob’s (which offers both gas and grill), it felt like a different Grand Isle than the one Kate Chopin wrote about.
The fluorescent t-shirts sporting slogans like “nutin but good” and the looping JoBob’s promotional video now seemed kitschy rather than cute. I felt utterly disconnected with Kate Chopin’s world.
As we were driving back from JoBob’s, our small dinner party pulled off to the side of the road to take a look at the sunset. The view I saw before me was breathtaking. The sun was a bright red ball hanging low in the sky. The sea played with the colors of the sunset, twisting and reflecting them into something that was somehow warmer and gentler. I could see the silhouette of crooked pillars of wood, remainders of a structure long gone, protruding out of the water in the distance. In that moment I realized that I was experiencing the same view, the same Grand Isle, that Edna had in the novel.
I began to come to terms with the fact that the Grand Isle I was experiencing now was different than that of Edna’s, but those differences didn’t take away from me experiencing her world. I suddenly remembered something Andrew had told us in seminar. He told us that when Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening in 1899, Grand Isle had just been ravaged by a hurricane that destroyed much of its infrastructure. Andrew explained that she wrote the novel as a way to remember and connect to the Grand Isle of the past, rather than a direct reflection of its broken reality.
I have to remember that while the world is always changing, stories like Chopin's can allow me to travel back in time. Through backpacking I can connect these worlds, past and present, through moments like these: a group of people on the side of the road staring off into the sunset.
The simplicity of this fact, the fact that the act of standing in silence while looking up at the sky can conjure up a whole different world for me, a world that existed decades ago, is the true magic of bookpacking.
I can’t wait to see what other worlds I will be able to experience by bookpacking the Big Easy.