How the Story of “That Crazy Old Lady” Changed My Life

Miss Rumphius was the protagonist who inspired the solo woman traveler revolution.

Third grade is a magical time of endless possibilities for a young girl. Not yet embarking on the mysteries of puberty, yet young enough to believe she can conquer the world of math, as well as any male counterpart.

It was at the tender age of eight that I first encountered “Miss Rumphius”, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. The story relates the journey of Alice Rumphius, “the Lupine Lady”, as narrated by her great niece, who traverses Alice’s Victorian childhood up until her old age. Living in a coastal town and helping her artist grandfather, Alice listens to stories of his adventures. Spurred by their conversations, Alice decides to visit these faraway places, and when she grows old, to live beside the sea. Grandfather admonishes her idealistic views and challenges her to add a third goal to her list. “You must do something to make the world more beautiful” he urges.

With detailed brushstrokes, Cooney portrays Great-aunt Alice through her adult adventures – working independently in a library, visiting faraway places, and meeting the king of a fishing village. As the story continues to impart geographic knowledge and promote global citizenship, an older and wiser Miss Rumphius eventually finds her place by the sea. There she discovers her something to make the world more beautiful and begins to plant blue and purple and rose-colored lupines along the coast.

As an educator who has always enjoyed traveling solo to faraway places, I believe Miss Rumphius was an inspiration to me and many fellow women travelers. Each year I delight in introducing her to my students, as I have enjoyed reading her story to both of my daughters at a young age. We need strong female protagonists in literature and Alice Rumphius continues to challenge us to discover how to make the world more beautiful.

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