Monday, September 19, 2005

BOOKS: Little House on the Brain

Do you ever suddenly feel the compulsion to read every book you can get your hands on by a particular author? In a row?

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."

"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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

I also reread these books recently, and what I hadn't noticed as a child is that they were absolutely starving to death in The Long Winter.

As for Ingalls's attitude towards Native Americans, I always thought she was pointing out how wrong she was, and how her mother was wrong but was wrapped up in fear. And there's other bits, especially the many passages where Laura complains about her corsets, that I think Ingalls was really writing that from a modern standpoint, like, "Thank god I'm done with that."

There's some annoying politics in Little Town on the Prairie, though.

timbrat said...

I, too, have enjoyed re-reading these books as an adult, and they really are amazing pieces of literature. Her vivid, detailed descriptions are also in play in West From Home when she travelled to San Francisco in 1915 to visit her daughter during the World's Fair. If you read it, it's exactly like you were there, enjoying the sights and sounds of big city life. Also, I was amazed at all the changes she saw in her lifetime... from covered wagons to World's Fairs. What a life.

Shirky said...

oh man. once upon a time, when I was in the fourth grade, the teacher read Farmer Boy aloud to us, one chapter at a time. It had these fabulous descriptive passages and the teacher encouraged us to draw what was being described.
Then she had a drawing contest--the passage chosen was a description of a peddler's wagon. I worked so hard on my drawing! And this one girl beat me. hers was just a little more perfect. And that was the beginning of decades of her outdoing me by this much in Every. Aspect. Of. My Life.
True story. That's what I think of when I think of Farmer Boy.

katiedid said...

Have you ever read anything about her daughter, Rose? There's a convincing argument to be made that much of the credit for those books goes to her. Some
early drafts of Laura's text show a very rudimentary, choppy, and inelegant writing style. Rose served as her editor, and theoretically, her ghost writing partner (subject of a wee bit of controversy.)

Anyhow, I *think* this was the book I read about it.

Melissa said...

I have read these books hundreds of times. In fact, I'm kind of obsessed with them, to the point where I, um, own a leather-bound set, like to watch TV adaptations and criticize the ways in which they differ from the books, and plan to someday drag my child (and potential future children) on a cross-country road trip to see the actual sites.

I may have said too much here.

Anyway, I always noticed that The Long Winter was really harsh, and I still cry EVERY SINGLE TIME I read about Jack dying. But I guess I thought Pa was warning the girls to stay away from the camp because of the rough language they would hear. I never thought of them being in danger, which is pretty naive. What always got to me was how vulnerable they seemed in Little House on the Prairie. If Pa got killed by a panther, or shot by an Indian, they were pretty much hosed.

Anonymous said...

That was just great! I haven't read those books for years, and now I think I'm going to get started on them again. I'm also a big fan of Anne of Green Gables!

KT said...

I just recently was reminded of the Little House books. I must have read them at least ten times when I was growing up. First, I saw a travel show about Canada and there was a lady who had a stand who had maple syrup candy on snow, like they made in "The Big Woods." Then a friend sent me a link to a flapjack mix that reminded me of the flapjacks Almanzo makes.

The food descriptions are definitely very vivid because I remember them the most. The only other scene that stands out in my mind as vividly as some of the "food" scenes is the one where she is staying at this weird couple's house to teach at their school and she wakes up in the middle of the night with the wife standing over her with a knife. Yikes!

Tammy said...

"What always got to me was how vulnerable they seemed in Little House on the Prairie. If Pa got killed by a panther, or shot by an Indian, they were pretty much hosed."

Exactly! I'd never really realized this before, and this time it was absolutely horrifying. Even though I knew things always turned out okay when Pa disappeared in the blizzard for days (etcetera), I was able to put myself in Ma's shoes more thoroughly and realize how abjectly terrified she must have been.

Nomie, I used to have that cookbook! I never made the ginger beer, either, but believe it or not, fried apples 'n' onions is delicious.

I grew up on a farm, and my parents were both eleventeenth-generation farmers, so the meals described in Farmer Boy were a lot like the meals I grew up with. The epic amounts of baking done at Christmas really struck a chord with me. My mom would bake a dozen or so pies, hundreds of cookies, dozens and dozens of doughnuts, fudge... you name it. It was magnificent. We also had a maple sugar bush on our farm, so we'd make our own syrup, as well as making the snow taffy described in Little House in the Big Woods.

I think what I like most about the Little House books, particularly Farmer Boy, is that in some ways they remind me of my own childhood, and of a type of farming that doesn't exist in very many places any more. I was probably part of the last generation of kids raised on somewhat traditional family farms, before factory farming took over.

Alice said...

Well, now I'm going to have to buy the Little House books. I've never read them, and that's clearly a tragedy.

And meghan's reminded me that it's about time I read the Anne of Green Gables books again.

There goes next month's book allowance!

Her Ladyship said...

I'm so glad someone else has and loves the LIW box set. I think I wore mine out when I was growing up. And I *distinctly* remember that passage about the logging camps.

One thing that struck me, in addition to what you pointed out, was her being 16 years old and having to teach the school. I guess it's no revelation that kids grew up that much quicker back then, but damn, that seemed like a lot of responsibility. And I must admit that I was rooting for her and Mannie to stop farming and move to the city - that life just seemed so hard.

Anonymous said...

I have the Little House books in hardcover, plus a bunch of biographies about Laura. (have the boxed set, too, that I got as a 9th grade Christmas present)

It's been a while since I read them, but I've always suspected that Cousin Lena was fooling around with some of the railroad men.

I've heard the stories, too, that Rose "wrote" the books. However, read Laura's other writings and the voice is the same. Rose's voice, however, is evident in that first chapter of Little Town on the Prairie, which is different than any other book. It is very similar to Rose's books. Did Rose edit the books? Likely. But editing isn't writing, something a couple of researchers ignore.

Veronica said...

I've never read the Little House books as an adult...I was, maybe, 13 the last time I read then, but this makes me want to head on over to my parents' place and dig into them again. I loved them when I was younger, but I'm sure there was much there that I didn't understand.

Veronica said...

I re-read these this summer for the first time since I was ten, and the descriptions of the gadgets struck home for me in a way that didn't happen when I was a kid. Pa was certainly a man that had a love of "modern" technology.

As for Rose Lane, I don't think she ghost wrote the books, but I do know she got caught up in Ayn Rand's little clique and edited out as much of the government help as she possibly could. Historically, the settling of the plains was the most heavily fedeally subsidized undertaking of the 19th century.

Em said...

Well damn. Now I have to go home and find the entire set, lost somewhere in the mists of my basement crawlspace. And Anne of Green Gables/Emily of New Moon I found to have the prosey edge I was missing in some of the Prairie books. Also having been in and around the PEI area for a portion of my life brought the landscape descriptions into sharp focus.

Anonymous said...

I loved your comments about the Little House books. I'm a Little House fan also.

You mention the loss of Laura's second child due to stillbirth. Actually, Laura's child was born alive but died within days of his birth.

Linda said...

I feel the same way about (my guilty pleasure) Georgette Heyer Regency romances. I do have my standards though and only love the ones published before the 70's. However often I've read them, I still get the urge every 2 years or so to devour them again. I will allow that it is ridiculous but I don't care....I will never stop laughing at her elegant and hilarious dialogue.

And L.M. Montgomery...Jane of Lantern Hill, my most favourite of all favourites.The first Canadian book that I ever read and loved.