Beverly Cleary’s Portland

Cleary’s books made Portland feel like a place where one could happily lead an ordinary life—and she made it available to everyone, everywhere.

Beverly Cleary's readers sometimes wrote to tell her they liked her books because "they don't have any description." While Cleary is inextricably linked with Portland—her most famous books are set on Northeast Klickitat Street, blocks from where she grew up—it's true that her work contains few references to the setting. There is, of course, the constant rain: As a kindergartner, Ramona Quimby delights in stomping through puddles on her walk home from school, and by second grade she's already tired of adults joking that the winter rains are merely "good old Oregon sunshine." One book even notes that the sky on Ramona's first day of school is hazy due to wildfire smoke. But Portland's landscape is mostly a place Cleary's characters move through.

Still, the specificity stood out to me as a kid, when a lot of what I read took place in nebulous suburban Anytowns. A lot of the books seemed deliberately written as if they could take place just about anywhere—anywhere it got hot enough in summer that kids wanted to set up lemonade stands, or where it snowed in winter and everybody celebrated Christmas.

Cleary always said she wanted to write books about ordinary children. In her memoir, A Girl From Yamhill, she writes that as a kid, she wanted to read books that reminded her of the Our Gang movies, which in turn reminded her of the children in her neighborhood. (The neighborhood, of course, was the Sullivan's Gulch-Grant Park area, and she notes that she saw those movies at the "new" Hollywood Theatre, which opened when she was 10.) But the more forgettable writers of my childhood were playing at the universal, and I don't think Cleary was interested in that. Instead, she was interested in the ordinary.

I downloaded A Girl From Yamhill on the library's app Friday after I learned Cleary had died at her home in Carmel, Calif., at age 104. I tore through it as quickly and hungrily as I tore through her books as a child. The memoir is, of course, written for Cleary's older fans. While describing her first-grade year, she notes that she sang about "the dawnzer lee light" while singing the national anthem. This is a wink at readers who will remember Ramona's mangling of the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner," but the author respects us enough not to explain the joke.

Cleary's writing about being a teenager during the Depression foregrounds some of the more poignant conflicts in her books, including her anxieties about her family's finances and her parents' marriage. Ramona's father loses his job and takes part-time work at a supermarket. Her parents fight, albeit rarely, and quickly reassure their children they are staying together. A whole chapter is devoted to the death of the family's beloved tabby.

But these are not dreary books. They're often very funny. The victories are just small. Beezus, ever envious of her sister's imagination, is delighted when she gets the idea to paint a cotton candy-breathing dragon in art class. Ramona is relieved to hear her mother say she doesn't know what she'd do without her. These kids aren't anointed, they're not here to save the world—they're just trying to get through the day. In Cleary's world, winning means simply growing up, and that's hard enough.

Of course, Cleary's writing contains nearly no characters of color—offhand, I remember only a Chinese neighbor in the semi-autobiographical Emily's Runaway Imagination. I don't think it's sufficient to shrug and say, "Well, that's Oregon." But if you know the state's history, the whiteness of her work isn't surprising. Cleary writes that her ancestors came to Oregon to claim land granted by the Donation Land Act, which explicitly prohibited nonwhite people from making land claims. The people who lived on the land before her family arrived are not mentioned, nor is the Klickitat tribe for which Ramona's street is named. Cleary's most famous books take place at the height of redlining, at the edge of a redlined neighborhood.

That Cleary meant to tell ordinary stories, not universal ones, is what makes most of the books hold up. She's arguably not sufficiently curious about what made some aspects of her ordinary life possible, but in that respect she differs little from lots of other white Oregonians—including me, for much of the time I've lived here. I can't excuse my own prior lack of curiosity. I care too much about the idea of Portland as a welcoming place for everyone.

That's also why it matters that Cleary wrote about Portland, Ore.—not about Anytown, USA—and about experiences that are ordinary, but not necessarily representative. I suspect I'm one of thousands of transplants whose first meaningful exposure to Portland was through Cleary's books. It felt like a place where one could happily lead an ordinary life, with ordinary joys and ordinary difficulties. And she made it available to everyone, everywhere.