Sunday, July 05, 2009

I'm too fragile for this

I recently decided to re-read the Little House on the Prairie series in its entirety. I can't say why. Perhaps its because the books are so vivid in my memory, with that sensuous and tactile prose... for whatever reason, I gave into the urge, and they're much darker than I remember them being (except for the Long Winter, which is exactly as dark as I remember it being, though much more complex).

I started with the innocuous Farmer Boy, a plodding, dullish read enlivened mainly by mouth-watering descriptions of what Almanzo Wilder ate. Almanzo, of course, is Laura's future husband, who won't come into the series again until book five, and Farmer Boy is a one-off about his life as a child.

The Wilders are upright, upstanding citizens who live on a prosperous farm in upstate New York. In Farmer Boy, children seem to work from sunup to sundown, not pausing to rest til Sunday. The long stretches of manual labor are broken only by immense quantities of the aforementioned food, served up hot and fresh daily by mother, who seems never to stop cooking. The children only play when their parents leave on a ten-day vacation, during which time they promptly eat up almost all the sugar. A staid little book, but nonetheless a romantic notion (imagining your husband's childhood is very sweet, isn't it?). Also, it sets the stage for their later meeting, showing Almanzo and Laura to be equally obsessed with horses. It's a meeting of the minds, see?

The Ingalls family, by comparison, is a riot. In Little House in the Big Woods, the girls actually play and Ma even helps them cut out paper dolls! I couldn't believe it -- imagine, playing! The Wilders never had that kind of leisure time. And at night, Pa would even play with them! He'd play Mad Dog, cornering them by the woodstove, his hair all on end. And then he would play the fiddle, something the bloodless Mr. Wilder would never do.

And the leniency, by jinks! Pa forgives Laura for being naughty on Sunday and even forgives her for slapping Mary! In the tenderest of scenes, he comforts the child, distracted by jealousy over Mary's golden curls: when the little brunette asks him which he prefers, brown hair or golden, he replies, "Well, Laura, my hair is brown."

Lizzie Skurnick 's somewhat breathless account of this scene, and of the whole book, really, hits all its highest points: pig slaughter, sugaring off dances, and Pa's mysterious yet undeniable attractiveness. Another point I'd like to bring up here is the faintly zen quality to the book's last paragraph:

She thought to herself, this is now. She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

Pa, you see, is singing Auld Land Syne, and four-year-old Laura is coming to terms with the very concept of time itself. How can it pass and be forgotten, when she is there, ever present in the moment, and writing it all down just for us?

So, moving from Farmer Boy to Little House, it seemed to me that the Wilders were about as much fun as a Pilgrim crossed with an Amish and Ma and Pa, by contrast, come off like a bunch of frivolous hippies. At least, in the beginning they do.

But then things get serious.

Life takes an interesting turn when the Ingallses trade their cosy, merry ways for the wild life on the road and in Indian Territory. Little House on the Prairie is by far the most adventurous and incredible of the books, the wildest and least domestic, even though a large portion of the narrative is devoted to the building of the house.

The book begins with a tinge of sadness, something I notice becomes more pronounced as the series goes on (subsequent books open with sadness, or foreboding, or both). It starts with them leaving the little house in the big woods: "They left it lonely and empty ... and they never saw that little house again."

They make a late winter crossing of the Mississippi and the very next night they hear the ice cracking: they crossed in the nick of time. It's the first of many scrapes and near-death experiences. The creek rises in the middle of a crossing and Pa must get out and swim with the horses while Ma takes the reins; they nearly lose Jack the Bulldog; Ma's foot is almost crushed during the building of the house; rings of wolves surround the house and howl at night; later, tribes of Indians on the warpath howl for days and only the intervention of a friendly Indian saves all the settlers from getting scalped; Pa and Mr. Scott are almost killed building the well; a prairie fire ravages the earth; and the whole family nearly dies of malaria. Finally, finally, through all of this, the family prevails, and begins to plant a garden in the first days of spring. Not long after the first green shoots appear, soldiers comes from out East to inform Pa that he's built his house three miles too far over the line into Indian Territory and the whole family must get out and move.

I'll give you a moment to let the devastation kick in.*

The house. The well. The cow. The barn. They must leave it all behind -- a year of hard work and sacrifice and waiting -- and go. Just when they're finally getting settled. It never occurred to me as a child to be utterly devastated by this, but now as an adult I read it and feel sick. "A whole year's gone," says Ma. But Pa cannot be defeated: "We've got all the time in the world, Caroline."

Of course, the series is nothing if not a tribute to Pa's indomitable spirit. He and Laura are kindred spirits, perfectly matched, both of whom long to run wild all over the west (if Caroline had let him, I'm sure Pa would've gone out to Oregon eventually). Their mutual love of wild country finds its outlet in a passage here wherein Laura's emotional reaction to the papoose is strong and mysterious and visceral:

Laura looked straight into the bright eyes of the little baby nearer her. Only its small head showed above the basket's rim. Its hair was as black as a crow and its eyes were as black as a night when no stars shine. Those black eyes looked deep into Laura's eyes and she looked deep down into the blackness of that little baby's eyes, and she wanted that one little baby.

Laura screams and cries for the baby, much to Ma's astonishment: "Why on earth do you want an Indian baby, of all things?"

"Its eyes are so black," Laura sobbed. She could not say what she meant.

I defy you to read that and not know exactly what she meant.

The family hauls picket pike and leaves, heading out once again and making camp on the prairie. Laura turns into Hemingway all of a sudden, describing the "good supper" ("They ate the good supper hot from the fire. Pet and Patty munched the good grass."). From time to time Laura's descriptive prose will be enlivened by pretty lyricism, like this passage about the singing stars:

Softly Pa's fiddle sang in the starlight. Sometimes he sang a little and sometimes the fiddle sang alone. Sweet and thin and far away, the fiddle went on singing. 'None knew thee but to love thee, the dear one of my heart.' The large, bright stars hung down from the sky. Lower and lower they came, quivering with the music. Laura gasped and Ma came quickly. "What is it, Laura?" she asked, and Laura whispered, "The stars were singing..."

That night was full of music, and Laura was sure that part of it came from the great, bright stars swinging so low above the prairie.

Pa and Laura share an appreciation of these beautiful things, a sense of the poetry of their hard life on the prairie, a love of motion and open space. When the family moves out of Indian Territory, they are chastened, and quiet, and yet Laura, "Felt all excited inside. You never know what will happen next, nor where you'll be tomorrow, when you are traveling in a covered wagon."

If only the rest of their tale lived up to the promise of adventure. But the next book, I'm afraid, will be very sad indeed.

To be continued.... (You can read the second half of this post here!)

* Apparently Laura played fast and loose with the facts here, and it may not have happened exactly that way... in fact, it probably didn't. There's also a good chance the family was living on that land illegally. There's an interesting article on the Osage point of view here.

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