This happens to me fairly regularly. With Jane Austen, with Kurt Vonnegut, with Carol Shields, with F. Scott Fitzgerald, with Robertson Davies... to name just a few.
When I read like this -- with a bit of random authorial biographical research thrown in for good measure -- I find myself having new revelations about the writer, their life, and what they seem to be trying to do with their work. No duh, huh? They don't call me Captain Obvious for nothing.
Little House (Box Set) by Laura Ingalls Wilder (#29-37)
For the past few months, re-reading the complete novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder has comprised the backdrop for all my other summer reading. And I've learned a few things, the first of which is that these are not mere children's stories.
I've always loved the Little House series, but I can't say that, when I pulled them down from my shelves to read this time, I was interested in them as serious literature. I'll be frank: I was attracted to the large typeface in the first three books. They made perfect one-handed nightlight reading for late-night nursing sessions with Master Sam, back when he was waking up every two hours to eat and I needed reading material that wouldn't fry my already frazzled brain.
The first four books -- Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, By the Banks of Plum Creek, and Little House on the Prairie -- are lighter fare, for sure. Three of the four chronicle Ingalls's early childhood in rural Wisconsin and her family's initial migration west. Farmer Boy is a bit of an odd duck in the collection, since it's not about the Ingallses at all, but instead is all about the young boyhood of Almanzo Wilder, whom Ingalls would eventually meet and marry. These books are filled with adventures involving bears, blizzards, and floods, as well as with wonderfully detailed descriptions of pioneer tools and gadgets (I finally understand where the term "horsepower" comes from!) and traditions such as holding sugaring-off parties, bargaining with tin peddlers, and going to harvest fairs.
The fifth book -- By the Shores of Silver Lake -- marks an abrupt turning point in the series. The book opens on a dark note: the entire family has been ravaged by scarlet fever, their crops have been lost for two years in a row due to bad weather (and, literally, swarms of locusts), their house has still not been paid for, and most tragically, Laura's older sister Mary is now blind. Oh, and as a kicker, their faithful old dog Jack dies of old age.
Soon, though, the family is relieved to receive an offer to buy out their farm and debt, freeing them to take a job opportunity with the railroad company, at one of the workers' camps. Ever-resilient, the family packs up and moves still further west.
In the previous Little House books, Ingalls never hid from her readers the dangers of frontier life, but these dangers were always presented through the naive eyes of a young child. It is in By the Shores of Silver Lake, however, that the subtlety of her narrative gifts become apparent. In this book, and in the remainder of the series, Ingalls depicts pioneer struggles for two types of reader: for younger readers, the dangers are presented in the deceptively clear and simple style that is Ingalls's hallmark, but for older readers, who can read between the lines, a darker subtext is apparent.
Take the following passage, for example, in which Laura and her sister Carrie are warned away from the railroad workers' camp:
Pa laughed at her. "Fifty teams and seventy-five or eighty men are only a small camp. You ought to see Stebbins' camp west of here; two hundred men and teams according."I've read these books many times, but I'd never grasped this scene before. This time it actually gave me a chill. I can finally appreciate the terror of being a mother of young daughters living near a large, all-male work crew that has been long deprived of "female companionship" in the lawless west.
"Charles," Ma said.
Usually everyone knew what Ma went when she said in her gentle way, "Charles." But this time Laura and Carrie and Pa all looked at her wondering. Ma shook her head just the least bit at Pa.
Then Pa looked straight at Laura and said, "You girls keep away from the camp. When you go walking, don't go near where the men are working, and you be sure you're back here before they come in for the night... Now remember, Laura. And you, too, Carrie." Pa's face was very serious.
Oy. I've got the chills again just thinking about it.
The Long Winter is another book I read with fresh eyes. In it, the Ingallses -- along with the rest of the town -- are besieged by a harsh, early, long winter. As the season progresses, frequent snowstorms shut down the trains. With its only source of supplies cut off, the town slowly begins to starve. Again, it was only in my most recent reading that I understood the true horror of this situation.
Perhaps it was this winter that sparked Ingalls's descriptive powers when it comes to food. If she were alive today, she'd have an amazing career as a food writer. Check out this passage describing a typical meal, from Farmer Boy:
Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waistcoast. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.Dang. Typing all that out when I haven't eaten dinner yet was a bad idea. My stomach just made the weirdest hungry gurgle.
But really, Ingalls's descriptive abilities aren't confined to edibles. She has a (again, deceptively simple) gift for observation, a gift for making the landscape and rural scenes come to life, a gift that is probably attributable to the fact that, after Mary became blind, Laura was charged with the job of being her eyes.
Despite the many travails of Laura and her family (I haven't touched on the loss of their house and a year of back-breaking work when they were kicked off land deemed part of Indian Territory, nor have I mentioned the horrible loss of Laura's second child due to stillbirth), they are almost relentlessly upbeat, with a tough streak of rugged optimism that absolutely blows my mind. It also makes me realize that family closeness wasn't just something that made life more pleasant, it was a necessity for survival.
With all that said, Ingalls isn't a perfect social role model. While obviously a strong, resilient woman (her father lovingly compares her to a Shetland pony, noted for its small size but tough work ethic), her attitudes toward Native peoples and suffrage are not exactly what you'd call progressive.
Still, Laura Ingalls's strength -- like Jane Austen's -- is that she sticks to writing what she knows, and she does it beautifully, with care, with deceptive simplicity, and with love. Her affectionate recollections of her childhood are more than just stories; they are invaluable social history texts that bring North America's pioneer days to life for me as few other books can. The Little House series should be required reading on every public school curriculum in North America.