When I was sick in bed as a child, I was treated to nearly an hour of my mother's undivided attention before it was time for me to go to sleep each night. The choice of entertainment was always mine. Usually I would ask my mother, Natalie Savage Carlson, to "tell me about when you were a little girl, Mama." She often reminisced about life at "Shady Grove" and her Visitation Convent boarding school days. It was almost worth being sick to hear about stunt riding on circus horses, and I even felt as if I were the one who rescued her pet doves.
Many years of publishing successful juvenile books about foreign places like Paris and sometimes fantastic characters like the bear Alphonse went by before my mother decided to draw on her own childhood for The Half Sisters (New York: Harper, 1970). It closes with the heroine Luvvy leaving the home nest to go to boarding school with her older half sisters. The inconclusive ending almost demanded its sequel, Luvvy and the Girls (New York: Harper, 1971). This is how my mother explains what finally inspired her to draw on her own background instead of seeking out new places and plots for her stories:
Years ago when my editor at Harpers suggested that I write a book based on my childhood, I was completely uninterested. It was much more interesting to visit a colorful, out-of-the-way place and to write about the children I found there. Then, on a trip south, I made a detour to see what Time had done to "Shady Grove," my childhood home in Maryland. The large farmhouse showed a half-century of neglect. Black tar-paper covered the two wings, the green shutters were gone and so were many of the old trees whose shade had given the farm its name. The nearby village of Weverton was being scooped out for a freeway. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was only a weed-grown ditch with one of the wooden locks rotting into the ground. The railroad tracks that followed the canal were rusted. There was no trace of the blockhouses which had sheltered poor squatters. No one I contacted in Brunswick, the nearest "big town," knew that horse tournaments had once been held there. I was filled with nostalgia. If only I could bring back that beautiful, rugged region of western Maryland as it had been in the old days! I could and I did. I [End Page 157] wrote The Half Sisters and Luvvy and the Girls so a way of life gone forever wouldn't be forgotten.
While the books provide an authentic picture of childhood in the colorful locale of Weverton, Maryland, during the early twenties, certain departures from strict factual reporting have necessarily taken place. For example, when my mother supplied the illustrator with snapshots of "Shady Grove" and Frederick Visitation Academy, he drew accurate backgrounds. But since she had no family pictures of that period to give him, Thomas di Grazia created a curly-haired family with a very Italian-looking Papa. My mother observes: "I have noticed that artists prefer to give their own pictorial interpretation to the characters I create." Although members of the Savage family may chuckle over their unaccustomed curls, readers, in any case, like artists, probably imagine the physical appearance of characters for themselves, no matter what they may look like in the mind of an author. Some changes from autobiographical fact, however, my mother introduced with a definite purpose in view.
Luvvy's struggle in The Half Sisters is the aspiration of an eleven-year-old girl going on twelve to be grown up. Although she is the oldest of Papa's brood of children by his second wife, she does not wish to be associated with them. Rather, she desperately desires to be accepted by her older half sisters and to join them at boarding school. Actually, by constantly nagging her parents, my mother gained permission to go away to boarding school at the tender age of five. Her acceptance by...