Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 9, 2007

Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder

Somehow I missed the Little House books when I was kid, lover of history that I was. Maybe they weren’t in my library, I don’t know, and it wasn’t a place where we were much guided, for good or for ill. (one life-changing moment was checking out Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique when I was sixteen, thinking it would offer make-up tips or something. Instead, I found myself reading about my mom and became some kind of feminist on the spot.)

Anyway, my daughter was smitten enough to start the Laura Ingalls Wilder fan club, even if it was just her and Geneva. They dressed up in long cast-off skirts and straw hats and put up posters in E’s room: “Laura Rocks.” When I took these two readers to hear Jon Scieszka read some of his fractured fairy tales, he made the mistake of seeming to thumb his nose at their idol. Eyes flashed, and the girls wrote a letter. I give Scieszka credit for writing them back and saying he didn’t REALLY mean to put her down, just that some guys, not to name names, find the books boring.

I read a few books with E. and decided now, for a project, to read the nine books in the series. Laura comes across as a wonderful heroine, I think, brave but flawed as she compares herself to her older sister, Mary, who’s more diligently good. She loves animals and her taste for adventure is tempered by common sense and family loyalty. The text moves a little slowly, which personally I don’t mind, and it speaks of the long days and nights and silences of the prairie or woods, of snow or long hot summers. The language is elegantly simple.

I’ve heard the books dismissed by some for poorly portraying Native Americans, and while there’s some language that makes one cringe, both Laura and her Pa find much to admire in some Indians they encounter, and the narrative gives some level of context for attitudes. Laura likes the Indians’ valor and love of freedom, and admires and envies their good sense in dress – on summer days she swelters wearing long sleeves, long skirts, and tight collars, while they sensibly are nearly naked. It’s only Laura’s mother, a woman who left a much more settled life for the prairie, away from all she’s ever known, who is truly derogatory, and even her attitude seems understandable to me. If someone came into my kitchen wearing nothing but skunk hides and demanded I make corn bread, I wouldn’t be happy either.

Anyway, the threat from Native Americans is far less than damage done by grasshoppers who arrive in a cloud and eat the wheat and oat fields, cyclones, three-day-blizzard after three-day-blizzard,
and the sad, sad, death of the good dog Jack, who faithfully trotted under their covered wagon, mile after mile after mile, who swam after them in the river, got swept away, and found his way home. Then one night turned his three circles and went to sleep. After these disasters, Ma comments at most, “Oh, Charles,” or with some wisdom: Where there’s a will there’s a way, All’s well that ends well, or We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

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Responses

  1. I LOVE these books — and i only started reading them in my 20s. My favorites are Farmer Boy, The Long Winter, Little Town on the P and, in parts, These Happy Golden Years. You are in for SUCH a treat. They are super comforting without ever being borings. Enjoy. PS I really like your blog. And your daughter sounds hilarious.

  2. Yeah, I was trying to figure out what made them feel so chicken-soupish (not in the soul variety, but just plain old comfort). I do love Ma with all her cliches, and I know my daughter liked her, too — there was that period I got called Ma, which was, of course, high praise, if a bit weird. And they always do seem to know just what to do, even when things are terrible. Yes, it is a treat, and maybe just as well I waited for them.
    Thanks for your compliment on my blog, and yes, my daughter is good for laughs, as are her friends, which I guess is part of what binds them.


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